The keys to the treasure room inside the 12th century Shri Jagannath Temple in Puri, Odisha have been missing for years, and nobody knows how. In April 2018, the then district collector of Puri, who is the official administrator of the keys, stated that the keys are nowhere to be found. A political storm soon followed. But after 4 years, little has been accomplished to locate the keys or give any satisfactory answers to the devotees.
What is the Ratna Bhandar (treasure room)
Lord Jagannath owns a lot of gold, silver and precious jewels donated by devotees and granted by kings over the centuries. Most of the jewellery and adornments of the three deities of the Jagannath Temple are kept in the ‘Ratna Bhandar’ of the ancient temple. The Ratna Bhandar comprises of 2 chambers. The outer chamber has 3 rooms and it stores the jewels and ornaments that the three deities are adorned with. The outer chamber is regularly opened and ornaments are taken out by the priests on the occasion of festivals. The outer chamber has three keys.
CM ordered setting up of inquiry commission over lost keys of Ratna Bhandar (of Jagannath Temple in Puri) but I want ask to CM Naveen Babu does inquiry commission posses a magic wand? Commission is just to make a fool of Odia people: Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan (File Pic) pic.twitter.com/qvH7XlgCdr— ANI (@ANI) June 8, 2018
One key remains with the Puri king, the Gajapati Maharaj, one key remains with the temple administration officials (government), and one key is kept by the ‘Bhandar Mekap’ the temple priest who is the in charge of the treasury.
In 2018, there were concerns regarding the safety and durability of the inner chamber of the treasure room. The inner chamber has not been opened in decades. When cracks were noticed on the outer wall and repair work was needed, Puri district collected stated that the keys to the inner chamber were nowhere to be found.
The inner chamber reportedly needs a set of 3 keys to be opened. Mystery and myth surround the inner secret chamber. As per a report in the Times of India, the inner chamber was last opened in 1964. There are 3 doors that need 3 keys to open. The inner chamber reportedly has over 100 kg of gold jewellery, silver utensils and gold and silver coins.
As per reports, the inventory of the jewels of Lord Jagannath was last done in 1978.
Hissing sounds, doom and disaster
Reports say that in 1985, the Archaeological Survey of India had tried to open the inner chamber of the Jagannath Temple to carry out some repair work. However, only 2 of the three locked doors could be opened. there are some accounts claiming that strange hissing sounds were heard after the second door was opened and the attempt was abandoned.
The priests and servitors of the temple, whose positions are hereditary, going back several generations since the temple was first established, believe that opening the inner chamber will unleash doom and disaster. There are a lot of beliefs and myths surrounding the Ratna Bhandar.
Inquiry commission ordered by CM Naveen Patnaik
Months after the Ratna Bhandar keys were first reported missing by the district collector, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik had ordered an inquiry commission headed by justice Raghubir Das to probe into the matter and find persons accountable. The matter had reached the Supreme Court too amid the political mudslinging. On December 18, the Raghubir Das commission finally submitted a 324-page report to the government.
For some reason, the Odisha government has not made the report public.
On June 13, 2018, days after the Supreme Court issued a set of directions to the government of Odisha over allegations of mismanagement of temple funds, the district collector Arvind Agarwal had again stated that they have found a sealed envelope with “Duplicate keys of Ratna Bhandar’ marked on it, in a strongbox in the district records room. The district collector’s office had stated that there were several keys inside the sealed envelope and the envelope would be handed over to the temple administration.
‘No plan to take inventory or conduct an audit’, govt said
The SJTA had reportedly later told the media that they had ‘inspected’ the inner chamber from outside because they did not feel the need to enter it. The issue has been controversial in Odisha politics with several citizen groups alleging that the jewels of Lord Jagannath have been looted or sold off in collusion with top government officials and temple administration. The Odisha government has not given any clear answers on the issue.
In November 2019, state law minister Pratap Jena told the Odisha assembly that the government has no plans to either open or audit the temple jewels kept in the Ratna Bhandar. He even assured that no ornaments or jewels of the deities have been stolen and all the treasure is ‘safe’. He had also informed the assembly that as per the last inventory, the inner chamber had over 12,800 tolas of gold jewellery, and 236 pieces of silver ornaments with precious stones attached, apart from other articles weighting over 18,000 tolas (One tola of gold roughly equals to 11.66 grams).
The Jagannath Temple Act (1960) of the Odisha government states that the Ratna Bhandar should be audited every 3 years. But no assessment has been done, no inventory has been taken after 1978.
‘Keys missing since 1970’, says RTI reply
The government’s silence over the Ratna Bhandar issue got a murkier twist in 2021 when an RTI reply revealed that the keys to the inner chamber of the Ratna Bhandar have been missing since 1970. This immediately cast doubts over the authenticity of the 1978 audit and the claims of the chamber being opened in 1985.
As per reports, the reply to the RTI query filed by one Dilip Baral from Odisha had stated that when the district treasury office had informed the then collector Arvind Agarwal about the missing keys on April 4, 2018, they had stated that there were no records of the Ratna Bhandar keys being kept in the treasury since 1970. Agarwal had reportedly informed this to the temple management committee too.
This revelation meant that when the 17-member team said that they saw inside the inner chamber through the window and there was no need to open the chamber, the government and temple administration was already aware that the keys were not there. However, the Odisha government has not clarified further on the issue. The contents of the judicial probe report are yet to be made available to the public too.