Uncertainty looms large over the world famous Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath of Puri as time passes.
The Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath at Puri, Odisha is a worldwide spectacle with millions of devotees flocking the beach town of Puri to witness the grandeur of the holy trinity and their magnificent chariots (Rath). However, this year it is not clear as of yet what the government plans to do with respect to the huge cultural and religious phenomena. The Srimandir Management Committee has a meeting recently to discuss the beginning of construction of the chariots.
The meeting of the management committee was held via video conference headed by the president Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb, the Gajapati of Puri. The committee has put the onus of construction of the chariots on the state government thus avoiding blame and putting the ball directly in the government’s court. The management is undecided on initiating the construction of the chariots while there is hardly a month’s time for preparation both in the hands of the management as well as the government. The lack of preparedness as well action has led to disappointment in the hearts of devotees, researchers as well as Jagannath followers.
The Snana Yatra of the gods falls on June 5 this year which is the official beginning of the Rath Yatra festivities. With Snana Jatra, the holy trinity of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra leave the Ratna Bedi and take a dip in the waters. Post the dip, the Gods appear in front of the devotees in an elephantine avatar. To see their beloved gods in this look, millions of devotees throng Puri every year. Traditionally, Snana Jatra (Yatra) marks the beginning of Rath Yatra.
We are barely a month away from the Snana Jatra as of today. The Devasnana Purnima or full moon falls on 5th June but unlike previous years, there is no word on the celebrations of such a mighty event. The coronavirus crisis this year has dampened many spirits with most people having to stay home. But there is no specific answer on the government’s part to whether Odisha will celebrate Rath Yatra in 2020 or not.
If the government does not want to organise the Rath Yatra then it should give clear answers to the devotees and Jagannath lovers without keeping them in the dark. If otherwise the government is inclined to organise the Rath Yatra, it should order the chariot construction work to begin already. The indecisiveness of the government is leading to lot of speculation and uncertainty.
The logs of wood for building the chariots from all over Odisha have already been piled up at the grand road in Puri. According to tradition, Akshay Tritiya is the date fixed for the construction work to begin. But the construction work is delayed due to the lockdown protocol in effect in all the districts of Odisha. Earlier, it was announced that the work cannot be started until May 3 due to the national lockdown. This was stated by the Gajapati Maharaja in a press conference where he asked to wait for subsequent instructions of the government.
Meanwhile, the fresh directions of the Central Government have extended the lockdown to May 17. It is worth noting that as per the Central and State government records, Puri has been classified as ‘Green Zone’ with regards to Coronavirus infection cases. It remains to be seen whether the state government gives permission for observing the Rath Yatra in Puri.
The chariot wood has been kept in the vicinity of the shrine as per custom. The Maharana sevayats who are in charge of the constructions are still waiting for a green signal from the government to begin constructing the chariots. As of today, the State government is seemingly undecided whether to celebrate Rath Yatra or not.
It takes more than a month to build the three chariots. Then the chariots have to be painted and the covers stitched to finish the construction work. It has been ten days since Akshay Tritiya, yet the construction of chariots has not been initiated. Questions are being raised if the government delays the construction anymore, whether the work would finish on time and how satisfactory would its quality be?
From Snana Jatra to Niladri Bije, more than 50 lakh devotees visit the holy city of Puri in Odisha to witness this mass cultural extravaganza. Lot of international Jagannath followers, devotees, ISKCON members too visit during the Rath Yatra, among others. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, a cloud of ambiguity surrounds the celebration of such a mass spectre.
Currently, the COVID infection levels are on the rise in India and hence the state government is unlikely to permit any devotees to visit Puri. Earlier, the international devotees who used to visit the Rath Yatra stayed at the various hotels and lodges in the town. This arrangement led to the hotel and lodge owners earn a few extra bucks while earning some revenue for the state itself. Even the local shopkeepers used to benefit with the influx of so many people. But as of now, all shops, hotels and guest houses are sealed shut due to the coronavirus effected lockdown in the country.
Similarly, the government has issued strict directives to follow social distancing. It is also not possible to organize Rath Yatra with limited number of people because the various rituals associated with the Lords need more than 50 odd Sevayats which is in direct violation of social distancing norms.
To maintain social distance, the Chandan Jatra ritual of the Lord has been decidedly organised inside the Srimandir premises this year. But how to maintain social distance while organising the Rath Yatra is the burning question which has caught the State Government and the Srimandir Administration in a quandary. This has further fuelled skeptics to question the intent of the state government over the Rath Yatra celebrations.
Since Akshaya Tritiya marks the beginning of chariot construction as per traditions, the wood for the same is kept on the grand road of Puri to begin working upon. But to respect the previously announced lockdown guidelines in effect by the state government, the organising committee has decided not to start any work relating to the Rath Jatra as yet. The Puri Shankaracharya was asked for his opinion on the development and upon his advice, the wood was shifted from outside to inside the Sri Mandir premises. What remains to be seen is how and when will the construction of chariots commence. All eyes are now stuck on the government and what it decides to do on the matter.
The Puri Temple Administration and the government have received a letter from the regarding possibilities of organising the Rath Yatra. The Daitapatis have requested the government not to stop the Rath Yatra celebrations. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen what the government actually decides and how soon it conveys the development to the public on possibly organising the Rath Yatra this year.