Puri Ratna Bhandar

Mystery of the missing keys, a duplicate key and more
The east-facing entrance is called the Singhadwara (lion gate). It comprises two stone sculptures of lions standing guard, South-facing entrance is called Aswadwara (horse gate), the West-facing one is named Vyaghradwara (tiger gate) and the entrance Facing north is called the Hastidwara (elephant gate)
The east-facing entrance is called the Singhadwara (lion gate). It comprises two stone sculptures of lions standing guard, South-facing entrance is called Aswadwara (horse gate), the West-facing one is named Vyaghradwara (tiger gate) and the entrance Facing north is called the Hastidwara (elephant gate)

BHUBANESWAR: Odisha played a crucial role in installing Modi 3.0 at the Centre. By giving 20 of the state’s 21 Lok Sabha seats to the BJP, which suffered serious reverses in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, Odisha made up the numbers for the saffron party. In the state assembly too, the BJP snapped up the 25-year-long Naveen Patnaik government and romped to power with a clear majority of 78 seats. Naveen’s Biju Janata Dal was reduced to 50-odd seats.

While the saffron party unleashed an aggressive campaign to exploit the simmering anti-incumbency factor against the BJD government by particularly targeting Naveen’s closest aide and bureaucrat-turned-politician V K Pandian, its spectacular victory has also been driven by religious issues in relation to Lord Jagannath, the most revered deity of the people of the state.

The BJP raked up two major issues — opening all the four entry gates of Jagannath temple and the missing keys of the Ratna Bhandar (treasury) of the temple — to counter the BJD’s grand show of the Srimandir Parikrama (temple corridor) project which was inaugurated in January this year. From Narendra Modi to Amit Shah, J P Nadda to all BJP leaders, including chief ministers of BJP-ruled states, who campaigned extensively in the state, everyone raised questions on the whereabouts of the missing keys of the Ratna Bhandar, which houses the precious jewels and gold and silver ornaments offered to Lord Jagannath and His Siblings Devi Subhadra and Lord Balabhadra by ancient rulers and benevolent devotees.

The 2024 polls brought the six-year-old controversy over the missing keys of the Ratna Bhandar to public focus again. Its inner chamber, in fact, has not been opened for the last 39 years. The jewels and jewellery along with other valuables within were officially counted 46 years back. How much of it exists and in what condition is a question that lingers.

What is Ratna Bhandar

Standing at a height of 11.78 metres and having a width of 8.79 metres x 6.74 metres, the Ratna Bhandar is located on the northern side of the Shri Jagannath temple’s Jagamohana. It has two chambers — Bahara Bhandar (outer chamber) and Bhitara Bhandar (inner chamber) — containing the jewels of the Trinity. The Ratna Bhandar’s northern wall is the point of conjunction between the treasury and the main temple. While the temple was built in the 12th century, the Ratna Bhandar was a later addition. So far, no date has been assigned to it.

According to Antaryami Mishra, an eminent researcher of Jagannath culture, the devotion for Lord Jagannath pulled rulers of many dynasties to the Shree Kshetra (Holy Land). Be it the kings of Keshari and Ganga dynasties or the monarchs of Suryavamshi and Bhoi dynasties and even the rulers of Nepal, all donated valuable treasures like gold, silver, diamonds, other precious gemstones and Shalagrams to Lord Jagannath.

The temple chronicle, Madala Panji, also speaks about the donations that enriched the treasury. An inscription at the Jaya-Vijaya gate of the temple mentions Gajapati King Kapilendra Dev donating the entire wealth and jewels that he brought with him on the back of 16 elephants after conquering southern states to the temple. Legend has it that the Suna Besha or golden attire of the Trinity began during the reign of Kapilendra Dev. “Such was the popularity of the Lord and His Ratna Bhandar that the temple faced 18 plunderous attacks by non-Hindu invaders, including Kala Pahad,” said Mishra.

It was during the British rule in Odisha that the first detailed official account of the Ratna Bhandar was made in a ‘Report on the Temple of Jagannath’, prepared by the then Collector of Puri, Charles Grome, and published on June 10, 1805. The report had counted 64 gold and silver ornaments — both studded with gems and pure gold and silver — besides, 128 gold coins, 24 different kinds of gold ‘mohar’, 1,297 silver coins, 106 copper coins and 1,333 kinds of clothes. Subsequently in 1926, a list of jewellery acknowledged by the king of Puri was kept in the record room of the Puri collectorate.

During 1952, when the the Shri Jagannath Temple Administration Act and Shri Jagannath Temple Administration Rules were enacted to take over the administration of the temple, a Record of Rights (RoR) was prepared, which, among other things, contained a list of jewels and ornaments of the deities. The RoR mentioned 150 gold ornaments in the Bahara Bhandar and 180 kinds of jewellery (some weighing over 100 tolas each with each tola equivalent to 11.6638 grams) and 146 items of silver articles in the Bhitara Bhandar, said Surendranath Das, researcher and president of the Shri Jagannath Gabesana Pratisthan in Bhubaneswar.

File photo of the Trinity at the Snana Bedi of the Srimandir during the Snana Purnima
File photo of the Trinity at the Snana Bedi of the Srimandir during the Snana Purnima

Laws governing the jewels

The custody of the Ratna Bhandar rests with the Shree Jagannath Temple Managing Committee as per the Shri Jagannath Temple Rules, 1960, which were framed by the state government under Section 35 of Shri Jagannath Temple Act, 1954 (Orissa Act 11 of 1955). The articles in the treasury are segregated under three categories. Category 1 is the never used ornaments and jewels that are kept in the Bhitara Bhandar. In Category 2 are those that are only used during ceremonies or festive occasions. Category 3 comprises the jewellery of daily use by the Trinity.

The 1960 Rules state that Category 1 articles shall remain under double lock and the keys are to be deposited by the administration in the government treasury. The locks may be opened only under special orders of the state government. The second category shall also be kept under double lock; one key shall be with the temple administrator and the other with the Patjoshi Mahapatra (head of all servitors). The third category of articles shall remain within the Ratna Bhandar under lock and key, the key remaining with the Bhandar Mekap (caretaker of deities’ ornaments), who shall always remain accountable to the administrator.

Last inventory and entry into Bhitara Bhandar

Despite formation of a temple managing committee in 1960, a steady deterioration was witnessed in all aspects of the shrine, which prompted the state government to form a nine-member committee headed by the then governor of Odisha B D Sharma in April, 1978 to inquire and recommend measures for improvement of the temple administration and its properties. The committee also did an inventory of the Ratna Bhandar from May 13 to July 23 that year.

The inventory revealed the presence of a total 454 gold articles with a net weight of 12,838 Bharis (1 Bhari is equivalent to 10 grams) and 293 silver articles weighing 22,153 Bharis in both the chambers of the treasury. Category-wise, the Bhitara Bhandar has 367 gold items weighing 4,364 Bharis and 231 silver items weighing 14,878 Bharis. In the Bahara Bhandar, the Category 2 articles included 79 gold items of 8,175 Bharis and 39 silver items of 4,671 Bharis while the Category 3 articles comprised 8 gold items of 299 Bharis and 23 silver items of 2,693 Bharis.

No valuation

For valuation of the jewelleries and the precious stones which were studded into most of the ornaments, the then governor of Tamil Nadu on the request of Sharma, had arranged for four reputed jewellers from his state. “But, the valuation never happened because there is a rule that the Bhitara Bhandar jewels cannot be taken outside the precincts of the Ratna Bhandar. The treasury was a dark room which could be illuminated with lamps and fire sticks. The jewellers required sunlight to check the quality but since they could not be taken outside, the valuation wasn’t done,” said Das, who copies of the then temple records.

Although 1978 was the last inventory, it wasn’t the last time that the officials of the managing committee entered the Bhitara Bhandar. They did so twice in 1982 and 1985. According to the temple records, on December 26, 1982, 3,337 Bhari and 10 Anna (16 Anna is 1 Bhari) of silver was taken out of the Bhitara Bhandar for silver cladding of Kala Hata Dwara (main door of Garbha Gruha) of the temple. And on June 14, 1985, 1,113 Bhari and 7 Anna of gold were taken out of the inner chamber to repair the golden ‘Chita’ of Lord Balabhadra.

“Bhitara Bhandar is to be opened only when there is a need for gold or silver for repair of ornaments or making new ones or similar works for the Trinity. But that does not mean that regular inventory should not be done to ensure if the valuables are safe or not,” said Mishra.

The mystery of the missing keys

Amidst concerns over structural safety of the Ratna Bhandar, the Orissa High Court on March 22, 2018, directed the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) to allow the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to inspect and assess whether or not the treasury requires maintenance and repair work.

Accordingly, a 17-member committee inspected the Ratna Bhandar on March 26. The ASI had then stated that since there was no permission to enter the inner chamber by SJTA, the committee could only examine it from the outside through an iron grill. For his part, the then SJTA chief administrator Pradip Jena had informed the media that although keys were taken inside the Ratna Bhandar, there was no requirement of opening it as all the sides of the inner chamber were visible through the grill.

The twist came soon after the inspection, as the then district magistrate Aravind Agarwal reported that the keys to the inner chamber were missing. When the High Court ordered the inspection, the temple administration directed the government treasury — where the keys should have been housed as per 1960 Rules — to give the keys. But the latter said the keys were not there. Two months later, Agarwal reported that a duplicate key of the Ratna Bhandar was found in the district record room. It was in a sealed envelope carrying a tag of a ‘duplicate keys of Bhitara Bhandar’, with a seal of the temple administrator of 1985. “But the 1960 Rules do not have any provision for any duplicate keys to either the Bhitara or Bahara chambers. How and why a duplicate key was made is a question that still remains unanswered,” said Mishra.

The status thereafter

Following an uproar, the then chief minister Naveen Patnaik ordered a judicial inquiry into the disappearance of the keys and appointed Justice Raghubir Das, retired judge of the Orissa High Court, to head the one-man probe panel on June 8, 2018. On November 29 the same year, Justice Das submitted a voluminous report, but the Naveen government did not table it in the assembly.

In February this year, Naveen formed another committee headed by former Supreme Court Justice Arijit Pasayat, to supervise a fresh inventory of valuables in the Ratna Bhandar. The committee has decided to do the job during the Rath Yatra in July this year.

The BJP poll campaign, promised a thorough probe into the matter. Amit Shah had announced that the BJP government would complete it within 100 days of coming to power. The new government has already opened all four gates of the temple; only the main gate was open since the pandemic and became an election issue. Whether or not the 2018 report on the Ratna Bhandar keys would be made public in the interest of probity and transparency, and the mystery of the missing keys cracked, remains to be seen.

Why were the gates shut

When the temple that was shut during the pandemic reopened, entry was allowed only through the main Singhadwara despite public pressure to allow access through all the four doors. Pilgrims suffered as the queues got longer. It created resentment as local vendors were affected. It thus became a poll issue

TIMELINE OF INVENTORIES

1805

The then Collector of Puri Charles Grome published a report on the Ratna Bhandar having 64 gold and silver ornaments besides, a large number of gold, silver and copper coins

1926

A list of jewellery in the Bhandar was acknowledged by Puri king and kept in the record room of the Puri collectorate

1952

Srimandir Record of Rights was prepared, which mentioned 150 gold ornaments in the Bahara Bhandar and 180 pieces of jewellery and 146 items of silver articles in the Bhitara Bhandar

1962

Ratna Bhandar verification was initiated by the then administrator LN Mishra from March 1962 to August 1964. 602 articles in the treasury were checked. However, temple managing committee called for another verification

1967

In May, another round of checking was taken up as per the temple committee directive but only 433 items were checked. No verfication was done

1978

The then governor of Odisha B D Sharma did an inventory of the Ratna Bhandar from May 13 to July 23. He counted 454 gold articles and 293 silver articles in both chambers of the treasury

2018

In March, the ASI, on the instructions of Orissa High Court, did a structural inspection of the Ratna Bhandar, but could not enter the inner chamber. The Puri collector had then stated that the keys were missing. Interestingly, two months later, the collector said that a duplicate key of Ratna Bhandar was found in the district record room. The key was in a sealed envelope carrying a tag of a ‘duplicate keys of Bhitara Bhandar’

2024

In February, the then chief minister Naveen Patnaik formed a commission headed by retired SC judge Arijit Pasayat to make a fresh inventory of the Ratna Bhandar after verifying the 1978 inventory

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