The Supreme Court has stayed the Puri Rath Yatra, which was slated to take place on the second day of Ashadha Shukla Paksha, or the waxing phase of the moon in the month of Ashadha (23 June this year), in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. An NGO in Orissa, called the Odisha Vikas Parishad, had made the plea to the apex court, elucidating the hazard that it could throw up in the times that we are going through now. Responding to it, a bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and AS Bopanna said, “Lord Jagannath won’t forgive us if we allow this year’s Rath Yatra to go on, as such a huge gathering can’t take place during the pandemic.” He cited the interest of public health and safety of citizens.
Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said that a blanket ban across the state would be detrimental to the traditions of the temple that has held this festival for centuries in the face of all odds, but the court was firm in its stance. Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, who represented petitioner NGO Odisha Vikas Parishad, said, “The religious fervour is usually so much that people will throng the streets,” stating that the Olympics were cancelled too. Senior advocate Harish Salve, who represented the Odisha government, resonated with this position and said, “The moment there is any celebration, people will congregate on the streets.”
On the other hand, the head priest at the temple of Puri said that the home ministry had previously given the permission for the construction and artwork necessary for the run-up to a localised celebration of the rituals within the precincts of the temple itself. Now that everything is ready, the temple has not viewed the Supreme Court’s stay order in a favourable light, citing the clash in traditional rituals that is to follow such a blanket ban. The priest was quoted saying that a number of sevāyats, or those thickly involved during the yatra, had been quarantined and trained specially to carry out the rituals, keeping in mind the norms of social distancing as well as the other precautions required to be taken to stop the spread of the pandemic. He said further that the ‘Narayan Shila’ or the sacred black coloured stone said to be the earthly form of Vishnu, to which Lord Jagannath along with Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra go to during the Ratha Yatra, is instead being “taken out” this year around as Jagannath would not be able to make the journey all the way to the shila. This was supposed to happen after a full 100 years as the last time the Narayan Shila was taken out from its shrine was in the year 1920 — at the time of another pandemic then. Yet, the yatra had not stopped. The ritual had taken place, albeit in a very watered-down fashion. Locally, within the premises of the main temple. The head priest said that the authority could have looked into such an arrangement this time around too and they were completely prepared for the same.
The priests at the temple of Puri have suspected foul play at the hands of the petitioning NGO that has taken the matter to the Supreme Court. More so because, as per the temple tradition, if the yatra does not happen at all this year, the ritual of ‘Nabakalevar’, or ‘acquiring a new body’, would have to take place, after which that new ‘body’ of Jagannath shall not be able to participate in the Rath Yatra for a period of a full 12 years. Thereafter, there would be the next ‘Nabakalevar’ and only then would the deity and the temple be able to resume the yatra. This would be a serious hit upon the temple ethos and must in no which way happen. This is precisely the reason why the head priest at the temple has made a request to allow for the festival to happen in a very basic manner within the temple precincts, wherein devotees would not be allowed. Only to keep up the traditions of this age-old festival that has been awaited with zealous devotion and unabated patience by the temple every year, for centuries. The temple and devotees alike will certainly look upon every attempt at holding it up this year as a sinister design to not only mar the temple’s ritualistic culture but also a lethal blow to the larger Hindu cause as well. A cause that today stands very visibly threatened from various quarters both within and outside of our nation.