Bhubaneswar: With this year`s Rath Yatra festival slated for June 29 fast approaching, the controversy triggered by the suggestion of a ban on the devotees of Lord Jagannath climbing over the chariots as they are pulled is yet to be resolved.
Devotees are at present allowed by the `pandas` to mount the chariots of the three deities of Lord Balabhadra, Lord Jagannath and Devi Subhadra, often resulting in chaos.
The controversy surfaced in 2011 following a clash between priests and the police over allowing people on top of the chariots. It intensified when in 2012, an American national was allegedly beaten up by the temple police and a noted Odissi dancer Illena Citaristi was allegedly humiliated by priests the next year.
Taking up the incident seriously, the temple administration sought the views of Shankaracharya, who is considered the chief of the decision-making body of the 12th century shrine, said Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) administrator Aravind Padhee.
The seer was asked to suggest to the SJTA whether non-Hindus can also climb the chariots and touch the deities.
The practice has been decried by the Puri Shankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati and king Divyasingha Deb, who described it as "Mahapap" (sin).
The Sri Jagannath Temple Managing Committee, headed by Gajapati king Divyasingha Deb, has endorsed the ban recommended by the Puri seer.
Citing religious scriptures and puranas, the Puri Shankaracharya in his recommendation has made it clear that none other than designated priests and temple administration officials can climb the chariots.
"While a maximum of 48 priests and officials having specific rituals to perform can climb `Taladwaja`, the chariot of Lord Balabhadra, 72 persons can be on `Darpadalan`, the chariot of Devi Subhadra. A maximum of 96 people can climb `Nandighosh`, chariot of Lord Jagannath," he said.
Before forming views, the seer held consultation with different religious experts and mutt heads, said an official of Govardhan peeth, the seat of Puri Shankaracharya.
Deb said the Sankaracharya`s opinion was conclusive and that the government should not overrule it.
According to the Record of Rights (RoR) of the 12th century shrine, the decision of the Shankaracharya should be final in case of rituals and traditions.
However, Sri Jagannath Temple Act, 1955 the state government is more powerful than the managing committee.
The delay on the part of the government in taking a decision on the matter is due to the fear that the ban could result in religious outbursts by the Jagannath devotees who are emotionally attached with their Lord.
"It is a sensitive matter. The government must take a decision after considering all angles associated with it," a senior law department official said.
The Daitapati priests, who traditionally remain in charge of the deities when they come out of the temple for the annual Rath Jatra, are opposed to the Shankaracharya`s views and threaten to boycott the festival if the move was not revoked.
"We will not cooperate with the temple administration during the Rath Jatra if it implements the proposal," president of Daitapati Nijog Ramakrushna Dasmohapatra said.
The Daitapati priests argue that as the very nomenclature of the Lord suggests that He is Jagannath, the master of the universe, there should be no ban on the people cutting across religions, castes and creed, from climbing the chariots and touching the deities during the festival.
The Puri king said, "There is no evidence in the temple`s RoR where devotees were allowed to climb the chariots and touch the deities. It only started in 2006 when the temple administration fitted ladders and allowed devotees to climb the Raths not knowing that they created a wrong practice."
Eminent Sanskrit scholar and vice-chancellor of Rastriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth, Tirupati, Harekrushna Satpathy says: "It is in fact a sin to touch Lord Jagannth as he is the `Brahma`. Just having a glimpse of the Lord during Rath Jatra helps to earn `Mokshya` according to Hindu scriptures."
Keeping in view growing threat to Hindu Dhams, former director general of police, Odisha, Gopal Nanda said: "If not for the state of religion, the people should help the administration by not climbing the chariots and touching the deities for security point of view."
However, the daitapati priests feel that there is a conspiracy to debar devotees from touching the Lord and climbing the chariots.
"As Lord Jagannth comes out every year to mingle with people irrespective of religion, there should be no ban," said Jagannath Swain Mohapatra.