With Rath Yatra, the annual sojourn of Lord Jagannath at Puri, barely a fortnight away, a raging controversy over allowing devotees on chariots and touching the deities has begun to threaten to disrupt the nine-day festival attended by lakhs from across India and the world. The government’s decision to partially ban mounting of chariots, restricting entry only on three days, that of Rath Yatra, Bahuda (return car festival) and Suna Besha, has given rise to a bitter stand-off between the Puri Shankaracharya and the servitors’ body Daitapati Nijog; while the former has expressed annoyance over the partial ban against his recommendations for complete restriction of entry on chariots, the Daitapati Nijog has stood up in open defiance, accusing the Puri seer of imposing his slant of religious practice at the cost of centuries-old tradition.
The practice abetted and patronised by servitors for their gains has been a major cause of chaos during the holy festival. Even as assault of noted Odissi danseuse Illeana Citaristi atop the chariot fuelled huge outrage last year, the servitors had even indulged in a bloody clash with police on the very issue of climbing chariots in 2011. With rising voices for curbing the menace, the government had referred the issue to the Puri seer, who after going through religious texts and deliberating with various sections ruled climbing chariots and touching deities as “Maha paap” and recommended total ban on the practice. Wary of not displeasing any side, the government chose to take a middle path that seems to have boomeranged.
The issue has also assumed political colour with the BJP firmly pitching for implementation of the Shankaracharya’s recommendations in toto. Having opened a pandora’s box, the government now has to walk a tightrope to ensure that the festival is not tarnished by the tussle between the two vital religious arms. The issue has also to be settled fast as the Grand festival of Nabakalebara marking assumption of new bodies by Lord Balabhadra, Lord Jagannath and Devi Subhadra is due next year.