Puri in Odisha is not only famous for the Temple of Jagannath, but also the harmonious co-existence of several Hindu religious mutts hailing from various parts of India. Srimandira (Jagannath temple) is the nerve centre of the complex ecosystem nurtured by these temples, mutts and other communities that had played significant roles in the history of the holy city. Heritage conservationists, religious Hindus and concerned citizens are upset over the ongoing demolition drive by the state administration around the Srimandira. The district administration started the demolition drive few days after Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik announced Rs 500-crore grand plan to transform the holy town of Puri into a World Heritage City. Ironically, the municipal authorities are erasing the heritage buildings of the city in a drive to elevate the city into a world heritage city.
The bulldozing drive is aimed at widening the streets and improving the security arrangements for the temple. However, the demolition mission turned into a Frankenstein monster and razed several heritage structures and Mutts that plays an integral role in the Jagannath temple’s daily rituals and traditions. The mahants are allegedly tortured and coerced to permit the demolition of ancient temples, monasteries, libraries etc.
Most of these mathas reside in and around the temple with a few of them near the seashore. Shri Adi Shankaracharya set up one of his four Amnaya Pithas in Puri, Shri Ramanujacharya established Emar Matha, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu spent several years in Gambhira matha premises serving the Lord. Several acharyas from Ramanandi Sampradaya apart from Guru Nanak Devji himself, have visited the town and set up various mathas in this sacred town. Apart from these, there are also a number of mathas catering to Odiya Vaishnava sampradayas. These mathas have functioned as upholders of dharma through centuries by supporting scholars, providing food and shelter to devotees as well as serving the Lord of Odisha, Sri Jagannatha.
Each of these mathas were well-endowed with lands so that they can serve the Lord of the Universe as per the tradition of the respective religious denomination. Devotees of every sampradaya donated lands to their respective Matha – wherein the properties were offered to Lord Sri Jagannatha but with the trustee being the respective Matha. Even under the British Raj, these Lands were classified as separate from the temple’s properties. Post-independence, the secular Government took over the administration of Srimandira by setting up Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) through an act of the State Legislature. Under the guise of better management of temple’s lands, the SJTA claimed the lands of mathas as theirs to administer using the provisions of the act which vested all lands of Lord Sri Jagannath within the administrative control of SJTA. Thus started the plight of the Srimandira as well as the various Mathas in Puri. By alienating their properties, the SJTA has impoverished the mathas. They were struggling to maintain their buildings or even perform their duties properly. Instead of setting things right, the Government has sounded the death knell for these mathas under the guise of development.
The Government declared Centuries-old mathas which are heritage structures as ‘unsafe’ and is demolishing these heritage structures without even serving due notice to the Mahants of the mathas – as the SJTA claims these mathas as temple properties. Most of the Mahants of the mathas have not been consulted for the ongoing process. The 300-year-old Languli Matha, also called Nanguli Matha, was pulled down on August 27 in the presence of 20 platoons of the police force along with Rapid Action Force (RAF). Demolition of the 900-year-old Emar Matha, which faced the Jagannath temple across the street, began on August 29 after idols and books in the 100-year-old Raghunandan library on its premises were shifted. Several more such heritage structures are under imminent threat. Is this any different from the medieval barbaric attacks on Nalanda, and other temples across India? No matter what, heritage structures are meant to be protected – whether or not an individual or temple or State own them. Such callous decision to pull down centuries-old buildings calls for strictest condemnation possible.
The famous Vaishnava monastery Emar Matha or Embar mutt is the second most prominent institution of the holy town after Jagannath temple in terms of land ownership. It was established by Embar (Govindacharya), the cousin of great Vaishnava Saint Shri Ramanuja Acharya following the visit of the Acharya in Puri in 12th century. Embar’s disciples took care of the tradition. So their lineage has been running the Matha since then. Ananthavarma Choda Gangadeva, who built the current temple of Puri (in the same height of Thanjavur Brihadeswara temple) was a follower of Ramanuja Sampradaya. The Choda Ganga dynasty was formed after the marriage between Chozhas and Eastern Ganga dynasty.
The Matha has been involved in various social activities apart from being the supervisor of rituals at Srimandira. While Puri Shankaracharya is famous worldwide as the protector of dharma at Sri Kshetra, not many know that Emara Matha acharya was the spiritual guardian of the temple. The Matha supplies bullock carts to carry the logs required for chariot construction. Its ‘mahant’ offers ‘Alata Chamar’ services during Rath Yatra and ‘panthi bhog’ at Gundicha temple and for Hera Panchami and Niladri Bije. In addition to Alata and Chamara Seva for Badasimhara vesha, the Matha supplies flowers to offer during Balabhoga (Early morning Prasad) for the deities. The Prasad cooked in the Mutt offered to gods, and then Annadana is done in the Mutt premises. The regular Annadana by the Matha has been serving food to masses of destitute coming to Puri. Birds are fed with a few Kilograms of rice as Jeeva Mathra karunya. When British Raj forced Gajapati to stop spending money on the security of the temple, Emara Matha stepped in by paying salary for the guards of the Srimandira. But today the existence of the same Matha has become a security threat as per the Secular Democratic government.
Mahants of Emar Mutt never left Puri even during the Islamic invasion time. They always stayed with the deity while the leadership of many other sampradayas deserted the town fearing for their safety. Later, when the Gajapati rule was reinstated, the land of Emar Matha was exempted from paying land tax. King of Khurda also confirms it. The Matha owned around fifty thousand to sixty thousand acres of land in 1800, making it the second most significant religious institution in Puri after Shri Jagannatha temple itself. The Matha was asked to sell grains to the British during the 1866 famine in return of silver bars as payment. Emara Matha also opened its granary for the entire town of Puri and the pilgrims who arrived to have the darshan of Jagannatha. Even provisions required to cook Prasada for Annabrahma Jagannatha Swamy was supplied by Emara Matha when British govt denied the supply of grains citing famine. The Matha fed the whole of Puri for seven and a half months.
Emar math also contributed to bringing Railway, telegraph, and electricity into Puri by giving land and bearing the expenses. Raghunandan Library in the Emar Mutt, established in 1921 for preservation and nurture of Odiya literature, housed the most extensive collection of centuries-old handwritten books, palm-leaf manuscripts, copper manuscripts, etc. The books in this library are a great source of Lord Jagannath’s history, rich heritage, art & culture. The Matha has also been the patron of the Odiya language. The first Odiya dictionary, Purna Chandra Bhasakosa, was published using the funds provided by the Emara matha. We must note that the mahants of the Matha were always non-odiyas from Tamilnadu. A model of national integration in contrast to the Dravida politicians’ depiction of conflicts between north and south India. The Matha’s existence poses a threat to the politically motivated modern narratives about the history of Hindu religious institutions by widening the fault lines across the communities. Perhaps, the syncretic values upheld by the Emara matha throughout history be the reason for the continuous attack on the institution and the Mahant.
Emara math lost a large chunk of property due to the Zamindari and Inam abolition laws. Now the Mutt owns around eleven thousand acres of land. With the enormous assets right opposite the gates of Srimandira, the Matha has been a target for politicians across spectrum considering its real estate value. Orissa government appropriated control of the Mathas through various legislations, which go against the Shirur Mutt judgement of the honourable Supreme Court of India. The plight of the current Mahant Rajgopal Ramanuj Das started on the day his Uncle, the previous Mahant, attained Vaikuntha. Leaving the medicine studies aside, he came to perform the funeral rites of his predecessor. Using the opportunity, Orissa Hindu Religious Endowments officials sealed the Matha refusing to recognise the new Mahant. He had to sleep outside the Mutt on his return from the funeral. After a long and tiring legal battle, certain parts of the Matha has been given back to the Mahant.
However, the Mutt’s sufferings did not end there. Following a court order, the Archeology department started repair works in the Matha. One fine day, police caught two labourers who were trying to sell Silver bricks in Dhenkanal district. On inquiry, he pointed to a small room inside the Matha where 522 silver blocks weighing about 18 tonnes were found. The massive stock of Silver was found from four Sinduka (wooden containers) placed inside a room, closed from all sides by brick walls, in the Emar Mutt. The Endowment department wanted to seize the treasure of the Mutt, which was opposed by the Mahant. So the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) built a case that the Mahant stole the wealth of the Matha and arrested him. They even tortured his son severely. The Endowment department also dismissed him off from the position of Mahant although the denomination’s lineage is hereditary. Despite Court directing the Endowment to pay the Mahant for performing his religious duties, not a penny has been paid till now. Not only he is denied of any means of subsistence, but also there is no idea about the income from the Eleven thousand acres of land belonging to Mutt. His only crime was that he objected to the SJTA’s attempts to appropriate the wealth of the Emar Mutt.
The persecution of the Mahant by fabricating theft case on him was followed by the State authorities moving ahead with a grand demolition plan in the guise of development of Puri. On the one hand, they use the architecture of heritage institutions for tourism promotion and the other hand corporates, and real estate mafia gets their way in bulldozing the heritage for prime property. From 2012 onwards there has been systemic demolition of heritage institutions around the Jagannath temple by the State. Their excuse for the rampant destruction of cultural heritage was that these centuries-old buildings posed a security threat to the grand temple. If shops in the Matha buildings were the reason behind the security threat of Srimandira, why not remove those shops alone? What is the need to demolish the entire building, including the heritage library? The Government’s Talibanic act is similar to that childhood story of a sparrow burning its nest to get light. A few hundred acres of Jagannath’s land was used for aquaculture. When an RTI activist pointed it out, and the administration was asked to shut the farm, the administration had no clue about who runs the farm. However, they never had to think twice before appropriating the properties of the various Mathas in Puri. Earlier, in 2018, the Gajapati Dibyasingha Deb himself had met Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and SJTA officials suggesting the ways to develop the holy city of Puri without losing heritage value. But the rogue Government did not heed to any of the requests to preserve the heritage structures around the Srimandira and went ahead with a massive demolition drive.
In 2018, the Endowment again stripped off the Emara Matha Mahanta from his rights. In the latest demolition drive, the State deployed substantial police force around the Mathas to cordon off the Seers. Since the Mahant of Emar Matha sat before the shrine of Ramanujacharya and has refused to move away from the Matha, he had to undergo severe coercive measures by the State authorities. The atrocities by the secular State against Mahant Rajagopal Ramanuja Das can only have parallels in Mughal history. Even though India attained independence, and we boast of having a democracy, the holy men and spiritual institutions of Hindus have been facing abominable apartheid from the State. It is high time that we recognise that the State persecutes the religious heads and seers of the Hindu community for want of appropriating the wealth and control of the Hindu community. The day we rise to speak about the State-sponsored denial of the fundamental rights of the Hindu religious institutions with the same vigour as how they talk about the human rights violation in Kashmir, India can ever think of developing into a Viswaguru.
Featured Image: Odisha Sun Times