Jagannath Rath Yatra ⁠: A Transcendental Pull of Emotions

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Recently, a Supreme Court decision had spiked debate among the citizens of India. The decision was in regards to allow the 462-year-old tradition of Jagannath Rath Yatra which is celebrated every year in Puri, Orissa. Popular criticism called this a biased decision and were comparing to the Tabhlighi incident where people of the Tabhlighi jamaat (community) from India and other countries had gathered at Nizamuddin Markaz Mosque, in South Delhi.

Delhi was put under complete lockdown due to the increasing number of cases found in the capital, however, even after its imposition 3400 people gather at the Nizamuddin markaz on account of a religious tradition. A few days later, the PM of India imposed a nation-wide lockdown but again after a day 1500 people vacated the mosque and travelled to different parts of the country. An Indian preacher who attended the gathering in Delhi was tested positive and later died in Srinagar. Delhi Police has claimed that they sent two notices to the mosque committee but they still didn’t mend their ways. Towards the end of the incident 4,400 people in India were reported of contracting the deadly COVID 19 out of which one third of the cases including the people who attended the event at the markaz.

The government claimed more than 8,000 people, including foreigners, visited the headquarters in early March. While accusing the Jamaat leadership of “carelessness” during a global pandemic, experts and civil society members also blamed the central government for its delayed response and allowing foreigners, particularly those coming from COVID-19 hotspot nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia, into India.

Three months since the Nizamuddin Markaz incident, the cases in India had drastically multiplied. The time of Jagannath Rath Yatra celebration was soon approaching. The Rath Yatra, or the Chariot festival, is a 10-12-day annual celebration during which Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are taken in chariots to stay in the Gundicha Temple, 3 km away from the Jagannath temple, for nine days. There are varying accounts in Hindu mythology as to why the deities are taken to Gudincha. One legend has it that the deities go to meet Gudincha, the queen of King Indrayumna, who is believed to have built the temple. The servitors at the Shri Jagannath temple had quarantined themselves 2 months before the procession of chariot pulling. This yearly celebration of chariot pulling has been practised even before the British Raj and this festival is extremely dear to all the Hindus across India, and especially for those who live in Orissa. Before the yatra could be conducted an Orissa based NGO named Odisha Vikas Parishad filed a petition in the SC requesting a ban on the Jagannath Rath Yatra this year due to the pandemic. During this time, Orissa was among the states which had fewer Covid-19 cases as compared to the other parts of India. In the hearing of this petition, a bench of Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justices A.S. Bopanna and Dinesh Maheshwari said that this year’s Rath Yatra at Puri cannot be allowed in the interest of health and safety of citizens. The Chief Justice said,

“Lord Jagannath won’t forgive us if we allow this year’s Rath Yatra.”

The bench said social gatherings cannot take place due to the rampant rise in coronavirus cases across the country. The bench also told the Odisha government to not allow any such chariot procession or pilgrimage anywhere in the state to avoid the spread of coronavirus. This decision by the SC wasn’t welcomed by the devotees of Lord Jagannath. It is believed that if even one year of the chariot pilling tradition is skipped, the same tradition cannot be practised for the next 12 years. The SC was again flooded with petitions, requesting the Court to reconsider the decision. These petitions vividly revolved around three basic things, theology of the procession, legality involved and public health.

Theology of The Jagannath Rath Yatra.

Jagannath temple in Puri is one of the four sacred Dhams of India. It is also one of the oldest temples in India and is worshipped by Lord Sri Krishna, Balarama and his sister Goddess Subhadra. The Jagannath Temple of Odisha is one of the few orthodox Hindu temples in India where only the followers of Hinduism are allowed to enter the premises and offer prayers. The people of other religious sects cannot catch a glimpse of the Lord as they get access till the doorstep of the premises no matter how ardent devotees they are, except on some special days. However, the door of the Puri Jagannath Temple is open to all, irrespective of caste and religion, during the Rath Yatra Festival. The people of different Indian communities can worship the Lord and get blessed. The history of this festival of RATH YATRA in Puri is quite ancient and it was started by the Ganga Dynasty in 1150 AD. The festival of Rath Yatra has started from Jagannath Puri itself. After this, the festival started being celebrated all over India. This was the festival, which became famous all over India under the name of Puri’s Rath Yatra. With this, it was the first Indian festival in the western world, about which attracted the foreigners. RATH YATRA has always been a mark of reverence for the people, this is the reason that on this day a large number of devotees come from far and wide to Puri to pull the chariot of Lord Jagannath. It is believed that by helping to pull the chariot on this day, one attains salvation. For this reason, devotees are eager to pull the chariot of Lord Balabhadra, Goddess Subhadra and Lord Jagannath on this day.

The legal rights of the deities and owners of the temple

The law, in general, recognizes two kinds of persons; natural person and legal person. Human beings are considered natural persons whereas other things which could be given the status of a person predominantly for the purpose of Law can be categorized as Legal Persons. Thus, in this context, Courts treat Gods, corporations, rivers, animals as Juristic Persons, whenever necessary. The Recognition of Deities as a Juristic person was introduced in India in the British Era.

The Supreme Court had ordered that no Rath Yatra should held in the Lord Jagannath Temple in Odisha this year, due to the pandemic. A plea was filed by Odisha Vikas Parishad seeking a stay on the annual Lord Shri Jagannath’s Rath Yatra in the state, which was scheduled to take place on 23rd June. CJI Bobde observed “We are not allowing this. Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow this to continue. Activities related to the Rath Yatra are injuncted.”

“We consider it appropriate that in the interest of public health and safety of citizens to restrain the Respondents from holding the Rath Yatra this year. We direct that no Rath Yatra will be held in the temple area of Odisha”, the Court ordered.

The ban on Jagannath Rath yatra was lifted since 21 petitions were filed in the SC requesting the Court to lift the ban. A lot of reasons were cited as to why it was of utmost importance to lift the stay on the procession. One of the major reasons was that if this year the procession wouldn’t be carried out, then due to traditions and customs, the procession wouldn’t be carried out for the next 12 years. Since there was no rule stating the number of devotees that were required during the Rath yatra, the petitioners even agreed to settle for a lesser number of devotee participation this year. Few petitioners even stated nitis, which were also stated in the rights of record in the Jagannath Administrative Act, 1955, which is governed by namely two scriptural books which are cornerstones for the Rath Yatra known as Niladri Mahodaya and Vamana Samhitha. The petitions also stated the relevant nitis, and how the nitis explained that the idol of Lord Jagannath is merely not a wooden idol, but is a living entity consecrated inside the temple as per the dharma shastras. They further mentioned how there has been a breach of the legal principal audi alterum partum and Lord Jagannath has been cheated of his fundamental rights enshrined as per the Constitution of India. After modifying the absolute stay on the Jagannath yatra ban, the Hon’ble SC allowed it by enforcing reasonable restrictions for the procession. The restrictions imposed were given utmost importance to public health and only 500 people were allowed to participate in the procession. The people participating were asked to test themselves of COVID 19 and only the ones tested negative were allowed to be a part of the procession. There should be an interval of one hour between 2 chariots and the state government can call off the procession anytime in those 12 days when they feel that it is becoming a threat to public health. It’s been 12 days of the yatra and no major outbreak is reported in Odisha due to Rath Yatra.

Rath Yatra begins in Odisha's Puri amid Covid-19: All you need to ...

Image source- Hindustan Times- Rath Yatra of 2020


Public health care involved in the decision.

Amid the coronavirus health crisis, the Jagannath Rath yatra took place with several necessary precautions so as to avoid more positive cases. Following were the measures taken to ensure the same:

Servitors were quarantined two months prior to the event to make sure they don’t contract any infection.

All police personnel, servitors, were mandatorily made to test for COVID-19. Just one servitor tested positive ahead of Rath yatra, who was then barred from participating in the processions as only those who would test negative would be allowed to participate in the event, according to the directions of the supreme court. He was shifted to a Covid-19 hospital.  The city of Puri was in curfew on days when the Jagannath Rath yatra was scheduled. Unlike every year, the chariot was made to take rounds inside the Jagannath temple at Puri instead of completing the whole yatra from Puri to Gundicha temple at Ahmedabad. Not more than 500 people were allowed to attend the yatra. This includes devotees and police personnel.

It’s been almost a month since the 12-day long procession has gotten over and no reports of major community outbreaks of Covid-19 or any damages of any kind has been reported from Puri. It is indeed commendable on part of the judiciary, the servitors, the devotees and the people of Puri that they celebrated this beautiful festival with utmost care and sincerity.

                                                      – Shivani Khedkar, BBV Researcher

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