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Puri temple row brings relief to Naveen but redemption lies in restoration

With Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan taking up the matter with Mahesh Sharma, his counterpart in the Culture Ministry, the spate of events has taken a new turn.

Published: 23rd May 2016 04:23 AM  |   Last Updated: 23rd May 2016 04:23 AM   |  A+A-

Providence seems to be with Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Under fire over the alleged link of a BJD Minister to the multi-hundred crore chit fund scam and the complete breakdown of business in the State Assembly, which led to premature sine die closure of the House, his Government has suddenly found a God-sent relief in Puri’s Sri Jagannath Temple. After the entire Opposition joined forces against the ruling party in the Assembly and outside, the BJD has so much to thank Gopal Chandra Mitra for resigning as acting chairman of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)-mandated technical panel over the poor upkeep of the 12th century edifice, which has come as the proverbial Manna from heaven for the current dispensation.

With the annual Rath Yatra drawing close, attention of the entire the State now stands shifted to the conservation of the holy monument at the hands of the national archaeology body. While the ASI has invited sharp criticism for its apathetic attitude, the BJD Government also faced flak for sitting pretty, prompting the CM to shoot off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 13, two days before Mitra put in his papers. Mitra’s resignation led to immediate outrage — he still has not disclosed what triggered the decision eight years after he was made a member of the panel — but the sheer timing sure has saved Naveen the blushes as his party was at its wit’s end over how to take on a unified Opposition. With Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan taking up the matter with Mahesh Sharma, his counterpart in the Culture Ministry, the spate of events has taken a new turn.

A Central team, led by Union Culture Secretary, has visited the Puri Temple to take stock of the situation. On his part, Naveen also held a telephonic talk with the PM before making an on-the-spot assessment of “Jagamohan” to silence the critics. Mitra’s claim that the “Jagamohan,” main prayer hall of the shrine, is waiting to crumble if immediate repair and restoration measures are not taken has grabbed the centre-stage with all political parties now making a beeline to the temple.

The whole issue, though, is symptomatic of the deep-seated indifference of ASI towards the shrine. It has been in charge of conservation of the shrine since 1975 and well aware of the stress the 900 year-old structure has undergone. According to information available through RTI queries, the ASI has spent barely about `9.38 crore in 30 years (between 1985 and 2014) which speaks volumes of its disinterest. The ASI had formed two teams in 2006 — a 14-member technical committee to assess the damage and suggest restoration measures apart from a six-member core committee to supervise the whole process. The core committee has not met even once. On the other hand, the technical panel, as per Mitra’s own admission, was allowed to inspect the “Jagamohan” only last year during which it came across the cracks on the beams and columns. Its suggestion to install stainless steel frames to support the structure was apparently rejected by the ASI which had also requested another team from IIT, Madras to suggest remedial measures.

PURI.JPGLast year, when the expert panel headed by its permanent chairman Prof AP Gupta, a former Head of the Department of Civil Engineering at IIT Kharagpur, inspected the temple, it had detected major cracks in the inner roof of “Jagamohan” and on the north east beam and support column. It had then suggested that ASI must carry out repairs to bring structural stability to the main prayer hall. What took the ASI so long to act needs a thorough investigation. There is nothing new about the decaying structural stability of the Puri temple which is thronged by millions of devotees every year but the ASI has long been at loggerheads with the State Government and Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) over the restrictions the latter imposes during restoration works in view of the multitude of daily rituals. This has to be sorted out by taking the servitors’ bodies on board before things get out of hand. The 12th century shrine is one of the four “dhamas” of the country and an emotive issue for both Odias and crores of Hindus.

The fallout of ASI’s actions will not only be under public scanner but could also snowball into a major political issue. Besides, the “Jagamohan” is nothing less than an architectural marvel given the fact that the pyramid structure (Pidha Deula) of the main prayer hall has been built without use of mortar. The State administration must also take equal responsibility by mounting pressure on ASI instead of passing the buck onto the Centre which has been a pattern with it. In 1992 when two stones, weighing about a tonne each, fell from the main temple roof on August 13, the then CM Biju Patnaik shot off a letter to the PM Narasimha Rao seeking immediate protection of the temple.

Within two days, the ASI DG reached Puri. The repair and restoration work started in three weeks and the sanctum sanctorum was handed over to the temple administration by May-end the next year. Why similar measures cannot be taken up now is beyond logic.

When Biju Patnaik shot off a letter to Narasimha Rao

In 1992 when two stones fell from the main temple roof, the then CM Biju Patnaik shot off a letter to PM Narasimha Rao seeking protection of the temple. Within two days, ASI DG reached Puri. Repair work started in three weeks and sanctum sanctorum was handed over by May-end the next year.

ASI spent only L9.38 crore on shrine in 30 years

The whole issue is symptomatic of the deep-seated indifference of ASI towards the shrine. It has been in charge of conservation of the shrine since 1975. According to information available through RTI queries, it has spent barely about  Rs 9.38 crore in 30 years (between 1985 and 2014).

srimoy kar Resident Editor, Odisha E-mail: srimoy@newindianexpress.com

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