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In a first in Jagannath Rath Yatra, temple priests pull chariots in Puri as devotees stay home

Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar | ByDebabrata Mohanty
Jun 23, 2020 03:24 PM IST

Devotees who could not participate in the procession dues to restriction in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, chose to follow the Rath Yatra on television.

For the first time in its history, the famous Rath Yatra of Jagannath temple in Odisha’s Puri began this morning with a large number of priests pulling the three colourful chariots as lakhs of devotees stayed away from the festival following a Supreme Court order.

Chariots of Lord Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath ahead of the procession towards the Gundicha temple during the Rath Yatra festival in Puri.(PTI)
Chariots of Lord Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannath ahead of the procession towards the Gundicha temple during the Rath Yatra festival in Puri.(PTI)

Around 1,500 priests of the 12th century temple milled around the three colourfully-decorated wooden chariots before they started pulling the ropes of the chariots towards the Gundicha temple amid beating of cymbals and drums in praise of Lord Jagannath and his siblings- Lord Balabhadra and Goddess Subhadra.

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The priests who pulled the chariots, - Nandighosh, Taladwaja and Darpadalana – were tested for Covid-19 on Monday.

Gajapati Dibyasingha Deb, Puri’s titular king, who is also the first servitor of Lord Jagannath, carried out the Chhera Panhara, a ritual sweeping of the chariots before they are pulled. “It’s hard to imagine Rath Yatra without devotees on Badadanda(Grand Road). But Lord Jagannath stepped out of the temple for the whole universe,” said Deb.

Puri Govardhan Peeth Shankaracharya Nischalananda Saraswati paid obeisance to the trinity atop the chariots along with his disciples.

Till Monday afternoon, uncertainty clouded the Rath Yatra as a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by chief justice of India SA Bobde heard dozens of intervention petitions seeking recall of the court’s June 18 order that stayed the festival proceedings over fears of mass congregation in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic. For a few days it seemed the Rath Yatra would not be held for the first time in 285 years.

The judges on Monday afternoon reversed their decision after an appeal by the petitioners as well as affidavits by the state and Centre arguing that the event had been held continuously for centuries, and even in 1918, when the world was in the grip of the Spanish flu. The apex court agreed to allow the festival with several preconditions including absence of any devotees and pulling of the three chariots by not more than 1,500 priests.

In the morning, the district administration had disinfected the 2.5 km long road from the main temple to Gundicha temple. From Monday 9 pm, the police had enforced a curfew around the temple town restricting anyone’s entry or exit for the next 41 hours. “We have mobilised 50 platoons of forces in Puri with two primary objectives – smooth and incident-free movement/pulling of the chariots from origin to destination and restricting entry of unauthorised persons into the town,” said Director General of Police Abhay.

Before the break of dawn, there were a flurry of activities in the temple as rituals like Mangal Alati, Tadaplagi, Dwarpala Puja, Besha Sesha, Rath Prathishtha and Mangalarpana started one after another. It was followed by Pahandi rituals of the three deities and Lord Sudarshan where they were carried by the priests from the main temple to the chariots.

The devotees, who are an intrinsic part of the festival, remained glued to TV sets as Doordarshan telecast the live proceedings, but they were not unhappy over missing out seeing the deities in person. “It’s all the wish of Lord Jagannath. I am happy with the decision of the Supreme Court. I will see my Lord after the lockdown is over,” said Binapani Mallik, a housewife in Bhubaneswar.

Another senior citizen said he was happy to see the Lord come out of the temple. “After the SC order last week, I had given up hope. But I knew that the Lord of Universe would do a miracle to come out on the road and show his face to his millions of devotees,” said Prabodh Mishra, a septuagenarian.

On Monday, 1,143 servitors of the temple were tested for Covid-19 of which one tested positive. The servitor who tested positive has been shifted to a Covid hospital before the beginning of the Rath Yatra rituals.

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