Jagannath temple takes centre stage in Odisha poll discourse as voting crosses halfway mark

BJP rakes up issue of “missing keys” of the Ratna Bhandar, the treasury of the temple in Puri

Updated - May 22, 2024 06:47 am IST

Published - May 21, 2024 10:01 pm IST - BHUBANESWAR

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets in front of the Jagannath temple during a roadshow supporting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from the Puri constituency, Sambit Patra, for the Lok Sabha polls, in Puri on May 20, 2024.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets in front of the Jagannath temple during a roadshow supporting Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate from the Puri constituency, Sambit Patra, for the Lok Sabha polls, in Puri on May 20, 2024. | Photo Credit: ANI

With the election crossing the halfway mark in Odisha, the mystery surrounding the treasury of the Jagannath temple in Puri has taken centre stage in the poll discourse in the State, pushing aside issues of road, water, jobs, and electricity.

Also read: BJP leader Sambit Patra to fast for 3 days over ‘slip of the tongue’ on Lord Jagannath

In back-to-back public meetings since Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have raked up the issue of the “missing” keys of the Ratna Bhandar, the inner treasury of the Jagannath Temple, and blamed the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government, led by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, for its failure to come clean on inventorying the jewellery and precious stones stored in it.

Launching a scathing attack on V.K. Pandian, a Tamil Nadu-born former IAS officer who is a close aide of Mr. Patnaik, the Prime Minister on Monday alleged that the keys of the Ratna Bhandar had been missing for six years and an inquiry report on the matter was yet to be made public. He said the “keys have gone to Tamil Nadu”.

Mr. Modi assured that the report of the Commission of Inquiry would be made public if the BJP comes to power in the State.

“The tradition of Jagannath Dham has been lowered in the name of promoting Puri as tourist hub. The Shreekshetra (Puri) has been transformed into a commercial centre. The mutts have been demolished and the four entry doors of Jagannath Temple remain closed. There was conspiracy to stop Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath,” Mr. Shah said at Sambalpur on Tuesday.

As per an affidavit submitted by the State government in the Orissa High Court, the Ratna Bhandar, which is under double lock and can be opened only after a special approval from the government, is safe. The last inventory of the items in the treasury was carried out 45 years ago when gold and silver ornaments wrapped in red clothes were kept in wooden boxes. The Ratna Bhandar had more than 1.2 quintals of gold and 2.2 quintals of silver when it was last opened in 1978. In addition to this, there was a sizeable amount of gold ornaments which are in regular use in the temple.

Mr. Pandian termed Mr. Modi’s remarks a political statement. Talking to a news agency, he said the Prime Minister should find out where the keys of the Ratna Bhandar had gone, if he had so much knowledge.

While the BJD appeared to be on the defensive over the issue, BJP candidate from Puri Sambit Patra gave the ruling party and the Congress some political ammunition by saying, “Lord Jagannath is devotee of PM Modi and we are family members of Mr. Modi.”

Mr. Patnaik strongly denounced the statement by Mr. Patra and appealed to the BJP to keep Lord Jagannath above any political discourse. In a post on X, he said, “Mahaprabhu Shree Jagannatha is the Lord of Universe. Calling Mahaprabhu a bhakt of another human being is an insult to the Lord. This has hurt the sentiments and demeaned the faith of crores of Jagannatha bhaktas and Odias across the world.”

Mr. Patra later said it was a “slip of tongue” and sought apology. “I will do a penance for mistake by fasting for three days,” he said.

Senior Congress leader Pawan Khera was, however, not convinced. Mr. Khera demanded expulsion of Mr. Patra from the BJP for six years and an apology from Mr. Modi for hurting the sentiments of the followers of Lord Jagannath.

Political commentators say that any issue pertaining to Lord Jagannath is very emotive for the people of Odisha. The temple is a symbol of Odisha’s cultural, social, and religious identity. The Patnaik government has announced ₹4,200 crore for the development of the 12th century temple and the coastal town of Puri. In the run-up to election, the regional party made elaborate arrangements to publicise the work done by the State government. The Opposition parties had then accused the BJD of politicising the issue.

Simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections are being held in Odisha. The next phase is on May 25.

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