It was a historic day for Odisha, the land of Mahaprabhu Jagannath when it hosted the world-famous Rath Yatra at Puri sans the participation of devotees in the wake of Corona virus pandemic. For the first time in history, the sea of humanity was missing during this Rath Yatra on Bada Danda (Grand Road) in Puri.
Every year during Rath Yatra, Shri Jagannath, Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra come down from Ratna Simghasan to board the chariots for the annual sojourn. More than 10 lakh devotees congregate on this special occasion every year, but this time three chariots rolled out with limited devotees.
COVID Guidelines strictly followed
In the wake of Corona pandemic, the Supreme Court had enforced some strict restriction for organising this Yatra. Supreme Court allowed the conduct of the Rath Yatra, the chariots - Nandighosa, Taladhwaja and Darpadalana - were pulled by servitors with a strong police cordon encircling them.
As per the Supreme Court’s directive, only 500 servitors were engaged to pull one chariot weighing eight tonne. Only ten servitors including the charioteer, were allowed on each chariot. All the servitors had been tested for COVID-19 and allowed to take part only on being found negative. Wearing masks was mandatory for those who pulled chariots.
Curfew was imposed in Puri district, and roads leading to Puri town were sealed off by the administration to ensure the Yatra without the participation of devotees. Even residents of Puri town preferred to stay at home and watch Rath Yatra on television.
Suspicious role of State Government
In the wake of Corona pandemic, devotees of Shri Jagannath were in doubt whether Rath Yatra would be organised or not. Construction of the Chariots did not begin in time. But after getting the green signal during the lockdown period, construction work of Chariots started and Vishwakarma Maharanas completed the construction of Chariots within the scheduled time.
In the wake of Corona, Temple managing committee headed by Gajapati Maharaj Divya Singh Dev recommended to the State Government to conduct a devotee-less festival by sealing off Puri town from all sides. It also recommended that people can witness the festival on television.
An NGO filed a PIL demanding cancellation of Rath Yatra in the wake of Corona pandemic. The PIL was filed on June 15 by Bhubaneswar-based NGO’ Odisha Vikas Parishad’. The NGO has a suspicious background, stating argued that holding the annual chariot festival, which attracts almost 10 lakh people from across the country and abroad would be an open invitation to infect lakhs of devotees given the spiralling number of Corona patients in India, including Odisha.
During the first hearing in the Supreme Court on June 18, when the court ordered a stay on the Rath Yatra, Government of Odisha’s lawyer did not present the facts properly before the apex court. He did not inform the Temple administration’s proposal and preparation for holding the Rath Yatra without public participation. So after hearing the arguments apex court said, Puri Rath Yatra cannot be allowed.
The decision had shattered the hopes of all devotees, servitors, and people cutting across several sections of the society. After that 17 modification petitions were moved in the SC to get the nod to let the centuries-old Rath Yatra of Lord Puri Jagannath carry on.
Gajapati Maharaj’s Letter to CM
Puri King, who is known as the first sevak of Prabhu Jagannath, Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb wrote a letter to CM Naveen Patnaik on June 20. In his letter to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, he said categorically that holding of Shri Jagannath’s annual Rath Yatra in Puri is “sanctioned and mandated”. Gajapati Maharaja said this quoting the sacred scriptures such as Skanda Purana, Brahma Purana, Neeladri Mahodaya and Bamadeba Samhita.
“These scriptures clearly state that Shree Shree Jagannatha Mahaprabhu (also referred to in the scriptures as Shree Purushottama) is the Supreme Lord. He is not an Avatara, but the Avatari and the Shree Jagannath Dham is His Eternal Abode on this planet earth,” he added.
The Gajapati also made it clear that the Rath Yatra is not simply a tradition but a ritual being followed for centuries and cannot be stopped in any situation, including one created due to the pandemic. He said the scale of the celebration can be reduced, but the ritual should continue.
He requested Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to approach the Supreme Court with a request for partial modification of its order and to allow the Rath Yatra only at Puri.
Only 500 servitors were engaged to pull one chariot weighing eight tonne. Only ten servitors, including the charioteer, were allowed on each chariot. All the servitors had been tested for COVID-19 and allowed to take part only on being found negative. Wearing masks was mandatory for those who pulled chariots
PM Modi’s Timely Intervention
On June 21, as per the instructions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah spoke to revered Swami Nischalanand Saraswati, Shankaracharya of Govardhan Peeth, Puri and Divya Singh Dev,
Gajapati Maharaj of Puri (The King of Puri) and sought their views on the Rath Yatra. On the morning 22, Amit Shah on PM’s instructions also spoke to the Solicitor General.
Odisha Government Relents
As pressure mounted from different quarters, the State Government on June 21 said it would try to convince the Supreme Court to reconsider its June 18 order, stalling Rath Yatra in view of COVID-19 pandemic.
A PIL demanding cancellation of Rath Yatra in the wake of Corona pandemic was filed on June 15 by Bhubaneswar-based NGO ‘Odisha Vikas Parishad’, which has a suspicious background. It argued that holding the annual chariot festival would be an open invitation to infect lakhs of devotees given the spiralling number of Corona patients in India, including Odisha
Before hearing in Supreme Court on June 22, an affidavit was submitted by Principal Resident Commissioner of the Odisha Government SK Mishra in the court. In this affidavit, the State Government said that the Government is ready to conduct the Ratha Yatra at Puri without any public congregation by adhering to all the COVID-19 guidelines.
The stand of the Central Government was clear from the beginning in favour of Rath Yatra. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, mentioning the matter before the three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde, had said that the entire festival can be telecast on TV. If Lord Jagannath does not come out during this Rath Yatra, he cannot come out for 12 years as per traditions.
After hearing the arguments three-judge bench of the Supreme Court allowed the Rath Yatra on the Grand Road of Puri with some strict restriction.
“Indeed, if it is possible to ensure that there is no public attendance, we see no reason why the Rath Yatra cannot be conducted safely along its usual route from temple to temple” SC bench said.
Sigh of Relief
Millions of devotees breathed a sigh of relief after the Supreme Court allowed the Rath Yatra at Puri with strict restriction.
“It makes me, as well as crores of devotees across Bharat happy that PM Narendra Modi not only understood the sentiment of the devotees but also initiated consultations which ensured that the great traditions of our land are observed,” tweeted Union Home Minister Amit Shah after the court allowed Rath yatra with restriction.
Though the devotees expressed a little disappointment for not being able to get a glimpse of Lord Jagannath on this special day from Bada Danda, they were content that there was no deviation in the Rath Yatra tradition as the Supreme Court on June 18 had ordered the cancellation of the annual festival in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is hard to imagine Rath Yatra without devotees, but the Holy Trinity embarked on a solitary sojourn as the festival was celebrated with restrictions as per the Supreme Court’s directive in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. All the three deities reached the Gundicha Temple ahead of schedule today. The Pahandi at Mausi Maa Temple held on the morning, a day after Rath Yatra.
Apart from servitors, security personnel and other officials of the State government and the Shri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA), no other person was allowed on the Bada Danda which used to get packed to the brim during the Rath Yatra. However, millions of devotees were glued on to their television sets to watch the mega nine-day festival. The residents of Puri once again followed the lockdown restrictions and did not congregate on Bada Danda.
The Rath Yatra is not merely a tradition but a ritual being followed for centuries and cannot be stopped in any situation, including one created due to the pandemic. The scale of the celebration can be reduced, but the ritual should continue
Puri Gajapati Maharaj Dibyasingha Deb, who performs Chhera Panhara ritual on the three chariots, also said, “It is hard to imagine Rath Yatra in Puri without devotees. Lord Jagannath must also be searching for his devotees on Bada Danda. But as Jagannath is the Lord of the universe, he stepped out of Srimandir to give darshan to everybody,” said Gajapati Maharaj.
All the rituals, including Pahandi in which the deities were taken out of the Srimandir in a ceremonial procession to the three gigantic chariots and the subsequent pulling of chariots, concluded on schedule. As per tradition, the chariot of Balabhadra was pulled first, followed by Goddess Subhadra and Lord Jagannath’s chariots.
After deprived of getting a glimpse of Lord Jagannath on Chariot, millions watched the historic Rath Yatra on television and other social media platforms. “Jagannath devotees all over the world watched it live and the digital viewership for Rath Yatra this year was much higher compared to the previous years,” a senior Information and Public relation department official said. Doordarshan and YouTube channel alone garnered more than 1 million views during the 9.56-hour-long live streaming.