Jagannath Temple corridor | An attempt to counter BJP’s Hindutva push ahead of elections

The heritage corridor is one of the two major temple projects the State government has undertaken in recent years

Updated - January 18, 2024 09:51 am IST

Published - January 18, 2024 08:30 am IST - Bhubaneswar

Aerial view of the Jagannath temple and its corridor at Puri, Odisha

Aerial view of the Jagannath temple and its corridor at Puri, Odisha | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Wednesday unveiled a sprawling heritage corridor around the Jagannath Temple in Puri, a project being seen as an attempt to counter the BJP’s Hindutva push ahead of the Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections later this year.

The Chief Minister reached Puri for the ceremony in the afternoon during the culmination of three-day-long rituals presided over by Puri’s titular king Dibyasingha Dev.

Over the next fortnight, the government will be facilitating the visit of around 10,000 villagers to the temple every day, apart from carrying out activities to spread awareness about the Jagannath culture, for which it has set aside a corpus of ₹177 crore.  

The heritage corridor is one of the two major temple projects the State government has undertaken in recent years — the other being the renovation of the Maa Samalai Temple at a cost of ₹200 crore in western Odisha town of Sambalpur. A grand inauguration ceremony is scheduled for January 27 there.

Both events come in the backdrop of the consecration ceremony of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, a cause championed by the BJP for years.

Living up to the hype

According to political analysts, the “lokarpan” (dedication) ceremony of the Shree Mandir Parikrama Prakalpa (SMPP), constructed at a cost of ₹800 crore within three years of its announcement, lived up to its hype created by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government.

Similar to the collection of bricks from devotees for the construction of a Ram temple during the Ayodhya movement in 1992, arpan rathas were taken out across Odisha leading up to the corridor inauguration ceremony, while rice and betel nuts were collected as contribution from villagers.

The government also carried out a massive advertising campaign to highlight the project.

The heritage corridor project facilitates circumambulation by devotees around the 12th-century shrine. Public convenience facilities such as restrooms, cloakroom and a police kiosk have also been set up.

The SMPP project was taken up on basis of a recommendation of the Justice B.P. Das Commission, which was constituted to examine governance issues relating to the temple in 2016. The commission had recommended creation of a 75-metre-wide buffer zone around Meghanad Prachir (temple boundary wall) to deal with any threat to the shrine.

Herculean task 

Initially, it appeared to be a herculean task to acquire properties around the temple as these had been occupied by people for several generations. The Naveen Patnaik government lucrative land acquisition deals.

Mr. Patnaik also made an emotional appeal to people to relinquish their properties for the corridor, which was dubbed once-in-a-century project.

Despite numerous obstacles, setbacks and legal battles, the project was executed at a breakneck speed.

The State government appeared to have taken a cue from the Kashi Vishwanath temple corridor project, for which about 300 properties were acquired in the old town to ensure easy movement of pilgrims between the ghats and the temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi.

V. K Pandian, the Odisha CM’s trusted aide, said Mr. Patnaik is an ardent devotee of Lord Jagannath and the project was the outcome of his conviction that the deity forms the bedrock of Odia culture, tradition and collective consciousness.

Political dividends 

However, Opposition political parties accused the Odisha CM of milking the mass devotion around the temple for his political gain.

Senior journalist Prasanna Mohanty said Mr. Patnaik is an astute politician, who did not want to concede his party’s vote base to the BJP by allowing it to champion the Hindu cause.

The BJP had displaced the Congress as the principal Opposition in Odisha, increasing its vote share from 18% in the 2014 Assembly poll to 32.5% in 2019. With Hindus comprising 93.6% of the State’s population, the timing of the project was deemed strategic.

Mr. Mohanty said the Jagannath Temple project undertaken by the BJD government mirrored the BJP’s successful creation of a sense of Hindu resurgence on the national level, leaving Opposition parties grappling to calibrate their strategies to counter it.

The BJD government not only initiated a significant infrastructure push in Puri but also ensured that the message reached the masses effectively.

Rabi Das, a veteran journalist and political analyst, said villagers from across Odisha will be taken to Puri to witness the transformation of the temple town. He said BJD strategists have carefully planned to ensure that the efforts for temple development remain ingrained in the minds of people.

He said temple development in Odisha has positioned the BJD as the primary party, not playing the second fiddle to the BJP, especially when it comes to championing of the Hindu cause.

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