Last month, the Odisha government led by Naveen Patnaik announced a slew of infrastructure projects to develop Puri into a world heritage city, amounting to 500 crore rupees and a result of that, a demolition drive is being carried out in Puri that has resulted in a massive controversy.
This includes restoring two rivers – Musa and Mangala – the creation of riverfront and a pilgrimage centre at Jagannatha Ballava. The NH 316 connecting Bhubaneswar-Puri will also get a cloverleaf exchange at Satapada bypass. There has also been a plan of a cable-stayed bridge at the same spot. Yesterday, the government took a massive beach cleaning exercise, involving 10,000 volunteers, touted as World’s largest beach cleaning exercise.
The state government seems to be on mission mode to renovate Puri and remodel the city into a world heritage city. As part of this, on 16th August, the state cabinet had approved a proposal to remove all the structures within the 75-metre radius of Shri Jagannatha temple to ensure safety and security of the 12th-century shrine.
The Demolition Drive at Puri, Odisha
Following the cabinet order, the demolition drive started on the 27th of August. So far 3 mathas, around 300 dwelling units and a few hundred commercial establishments have been demolished. Among the mathas that have been demolished is Languli matha, Emar matha, Bada Akhada matha. Next on the radar are both Mangu and Punjabi mathas which hold special significance among Sikhs. Punjab CM Capt Amrinder Singh has written a letter to Naveen Patnaik requesting to stay the demolition of these 2 mathas as tens of thousands of Sikhs who visit Shri Jagannatha Temple every year also visit these mathas.
After Capt Singh’s letter, the Odisha government has given assurance that these two mathas will not be harmed. As many as 14 other small and big mathas are still on the list to be demolished. Radha Ballabha, Balaramakotaand Uttara Parswa Mathaare some of the significant mathas among others.
The Odisha Government’s stand on the demolition drive
The rationale for this ongoing demolition drive that the government has provided, is the safety and security of the temple which stems its root from Justice BP Das Commission report which has not been made public for reasons best known to the government.
“Terrorism has arisen as a major danger for the whole world. Terrorism has no religion. They target the holy places of various religions. It is therefore very essential to implement the recommendations that have come to ensure Srimandir’s security,” said CM Naveen Patnaik while briefing the media on the ongoing demolition drive.
“There are homes, commercial establishments and mathas immediately surrounding the temple. We are helpless if someone throws hazardous materials inside the temple by standing outside the boundary wall” quips a senior police official.
“We want this area cleared of all buildings, many of which are illegal, to facilitate strict vigil and prevent a terror attack. Since there are many structures adjacent to the main temple, it would have been very easy for terrorists to launch an attack on the temple,” said Puri district collector Balwant Singh.
There are of course structures built right next to Meghanad Pracheri, the 24 feet boundary wall surrounding the temple, some of which actually are built with the support of the wall itself and of course pose a threat to the physical structure. Most of the houses and commercial establishments around this area are illegal too and have been built on the temple land. However, the terrorism threat seems a bit out of place. If at all, it’s unlikely that the mathas also pose a similar threat.
What the Honourable Supreme Court has said so far
Two PILs were filed in SC to put a stay on the demolition drive. Odisha state advocate general pleading for the government submitted that the unsafe structures were being demolished with the consent of stakeholders to create a heritage corridor around Meghanad Pracheribefore the upcoming Nagarjuna Besha in 2020, which is happening after 25 years and may attract upwards of 15 lakhs people.
After several Mathadheesh wrote to SC to stop the demolition of the Mathas, SC sent amicus curiae Ranjit Kumar to make a field visit and file a report. Ranjit Kumar along with SG Tushar Mehta, went to the temple to have darshan after arriving in the city. Thereafter, he held meetings with SJTA (Shri Jagannatha Temple Administration) chief administrator Krishan Kumar, collector Balwant Singh, DIG Ashish Singh, SP Umashankar Dash. He also had closed-door meetings with various mathadheesh, chief servitor of Puri temple, chairman of the temple body, king of Puri Gajapati Dibyasingh Deb and also with Puri Shankaracharya Swamy Nischalananda Saraswati in Gobardhan Peeth.
He physically verified the ongoing demolition and beautification work. The report he submitted to SC suggests that there is no forcible displacement and the drive conducted by government is needed to transform Puri into a heritage corridor as well as necessary for the safety of the shrine. Everything is done as per law and temple stakeholders are cooperating. Following Ranjit Kumar’s report, SC has given a go ahead with the demolition drive.
What the Mathadheeshs and Seers are saying
The mathadheesh of already demolished Emar Matha, Rajagopal Das puts it bluntly. “Only during the reigns of Islamic tyrants, Hindu religious institutions were destroyed in such manner”. Puri Shankaracharya Swamy Nischalananda Saraswati of the Gobardhan Peeth is equally scathing in his attack. He says, “The demolitions have a larger and more sinister motive and are a conspiracy against Sanatana Dharma”. He terms Justice BP Das commission report illegal as it has been prepared without consulting all stakeholders and presents one side of the view. Also, it has neither been made public nor tabled on the floor of the house.
What the Cultural Experts and Archaeologists have to say
Apart from the safety and security of the 12th-century shrine, another argument the government is putting forward is, many of the building being demolished is very old and not safe anymore. However, experts argue that such structures should have been strengthened and not demolished right away. Many of the buildings, including the roof of Bada Emar Matha, have been used as the viewing gallery for the annual Ratha Jatra, by VVIPs including ministers, judges and senior bureaucrats. They would not climb upto an unsafe building to watch Ratha Jatra, argues conservationist Anil Dhir. Dhir goes a step ahead and equates the current demolition drive to the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha by the Taliban. Amiya Bhusan Tripathy, state convenor of INTACH says, “Demolishing mathas which are integral to the niti kanti (daily ritual) of the temple is sacrilegious. The government should have preserved the heritage”.
The mathas not only have a deep association with the niti kanti (a daily ritual) of the temple, some of them also play an important part during various festivals of the Lord including the annual Ratha Jatra. Some of the mathas have in fact been set up by Guru Nanak and Ramanujacharya Themselves.
The Emar matha prepares Chamara and Canopy seva, Chandrikamade of the flower are supplied daily. Uttara Parswa matha offers daily Mohan Bhoga. Trimali matha (Which remains in the list) offers bhoga (Prasad)during annual Chandana Jatra. Radha Ballabha matha does the Alata and Chamar seva so does the Mangu matha. A detailed list can be accessed here on the government of Odisha website.
The mathas have not only played a religious role but a social role as well as it sheltered and provided great support to many freedom fighters during the British rule. The mathas also opened their granaries to the general public during the great famine of 1866.
The mathas, as cultural centres, have also been imparting cultural and religious training. They used to run schools and feed the poor. They have also been helping with lodging for poor pilgrims.
Rehabilitation after the demolition drive
After the huge outcry, the government has announced a mega rehabilitation plan. Dwelling units those have been affected would get Rs. 50,000 relocation allowance and Rs. 10,000 assistance per month till they are handed over a residential unit or one-time assistance of Rs. 30 lakh. If the family opts for former, they will be allotted a residential unit having a size of 520 square feet built-up area within 1.5 KM of the temple. If the family agrees to move further, they will get a 1000 square feet resettlement plot.
Shops and commercial establishments such as lodges and hotels will be provided rental assistance as per their size till handing over shopping units to be built by the government. Lodges will also be paid income assistance of Rs 25 per square feet per month till acquisition of property which will be 2000 square feet. Besides, they will also be provided with construction assistance.
Mathas will get special package considering the heritage, cultural and social value associated with them. Apart from providing adequate land to these religious institutions, the deities and gaadis in the affected mathas will be preserved. The redevelopment plan of each matha will include various components, have adequate rooms, dwelling units, parking places. The construction of all such mathas will focus on heritage architecture and the plan will be prepared along with all the stakeholders.
Anybody who has been to Puri temple will agree that the place needed an uplift. Areas in and around the temple highly encroached, ultra-dense and not to mention the absolute filth the houses and commercial establishments created alongside the temple. If you go to Koili Baikuntha and look on the other side of Meghanad Pracheri, you would realise that the place needed to be cleaned up. People literally dumped their household trash near Temple boundary. Puri is a heritage city of utmost importance. Other temple towns of equal importance like Tirupati, Rameswaram, Dwarka have done well to preserve the sanctity. However, Puri has failed to do so. As we say, cleanliness is next to Godliness and that very fact was missing right in front of Singha Dwar (Lion’s Gate), the main entrance of the Temple.
Apart from the safety, security and general hygiene of the temple, it also created traffic nuisance. A customary look at the road from Bada Danda (Grand Road) to Swarga Dwara and beach via Bali Sahi will tell you the level of encroachment that had happened over years (And this is just a small sample).
This was supposed to be a major thoroughfare and the connection between the Temple and the Sea beach. Today, residents of these areas can’t even access basic ambulance service as ambulances can’t enter the bylanes which are heavily encroached. These needed to go. And those who have been to the temple and especially the Khaja Patiarea, the below photo will come as a fresh breath of air.
However, the government should have been more careful while dealing with religious institutions. These are not just Brick and Mortar structures. If Jagannatha Temple is the heart of Hindu culture, these are the arteries supplying life substance to the shrine. These are our heritage. Once they are gone, they are gone forever. You can’t recreate them. Even if one were to believe Justice BP Das commission report, should the government not tell us, what steps it took to preserve the heritage institutes failing which it decided to raze them to the ground. And, now the government is saying that the mathadheesh have been taken into account while drawing up the rehabilitation plan for the mathas. Why it was not done before ordering the demolition. That would not have created an unpleasant situation as it has now. Why not get rid of the houses and commercial establishments only and have the mathas and other religious institutions intact.
These could have been termed as the outer periphery of the temple as they are part of the temple itself, as per government’s own manuscripts. The area inside Meghanad Prachericould has been termed as inner periphery. Were there enough deliberations done before deciding on razing everything to the ground? This smacks of high handedness as the decision was taken unilaterally.
In the end, we hope the government’s rehabilitation plan is not just on papers but actually made to work on the ground. We hope the mathas are provided adequate land and the heritage structures are built with all its past glory which will enable the mathas to function in its full fervour discharging their religious, cultural and social responsibilities. Because, not only the Hindus but as we say in Odia, “Chaka aakhi sabu dekhuchi” – The One with round eyes is watching it all.