Puri, Odisha: Facing the temple of Jagannath, with his hands raised above his head in obedience, a young devotee, Ankit, sings, “Jai Jagannath”. He’s late for his train, but just had to have a darshan of Lord Jagannath, even from a distance.
“Train chhoot bhi gayi toh koi baat nahi, Jagannath ke darshan ho gaye (Even if I miss the train, I have to see Jagannath), ”Ankit says.
The temple of Jagannath and its resident deity hold a place of greatest reverence in Odisha, so that on any auspicious occasion the first invitation goes to Lord Jagannath. Throughout the city a common greeting rings out: ‘Jai Jagannath‘!
But now, in the land of Jagannath, new developments are brewing. The temple surroundings will undergo a major facelift as part of the Shree Mandira Parikrama project, itself part of the state government’s ABADHA (Increase in Basic Amenities & Development of Heritage & Architecture at Puri) program.
As part of this main project, which aims to obtain a World Heritage Site label, a 75-meter corridor is being constructed around the two-kilometer-long perimeter of the temple.
The corridor will allow pilgrims to make a parikrama (circumambulation) around the temple. There will also be a renovated clock tower, parking space, gardens, restrooms and an information kiosk.
Thousands of pilgrims crowd into the temple, despite the threat of Covid infection and the new Omicron variant, several of which without masks. The temple is one among the Char Dhams in the Hindu religion, believed to help people achieve salvation.
About 40,000 tourists visit Puri every day, with tourists even coming in thousands of dollars the weekend before the pandemic, says collector Samarth Verma. About 60,000 to 70,000 people come on weekends now, he says.
However, much of the temple’s periphery bears a dilapidated appearance. Many structures have been demolished, others are under construction.
Read also : The Jagannath Temple of Odisha was at the center of the British government’s decision to become secular in India
New hallway, ‘golden handshake’
Verma explained that the acquisition of land for the Parikrama project started in 2019, but suffered delays due to the pandemic. “Now the construction has started and the land acquisition process is almost complete as well,” he says.
He points out that in the past, the outskirts of the temple were very crowded, obstructed by illegal constructions and mutts. There was a constant security threat and the risk of stampede was omnipresent.
Dr Krishan Kumar, secretary of the public works department in Odisha as well as the chief administrator of the Puri temple administration, said the target for the completion of the Parikrama project is 2023 Rath Yatra. The first stone was laid on November 24 in the presence of Odisha’s Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik.
The most difficult part of the whole process, Krishan Kumar told ThePrint, was the acquisition of land.
“A lot of people with shops and houses around the perimeter wouldn’t have wanted to part with it, given the importance of Lord Jagannath. Because they stayed there so long, we gave each a very nice rehabilitation package. It’s like a golden handshake, “he says.
With different stakeholders and popular sentiments involved, land acquisition took the form of a very comprehensive consultation process, he further explains.
“It’s a very sensitive issue of people’s faith and belief, so we had to be careful,” says Kumar.
Kumar’s words are corroborated by the reactions of pilgrims to the Parikrama project.
Shivi Soren, a resident of Jamshedpur, visits Jagannath Temple for the first time in 45 years. “Jo purvaj se hai, ched chhad nahi hona chahiye (nothing should be done to the original temple structure, which was seen by our ancestors),” she says.
According to Collector Verma, the total amount spent on resettlement and rehabilitation is around Rs 325 crore. The money went to 134 land users and 18 mutts.
“A cultural project”
The redevelopment of the parikrama temple is being carried out by Tata Projects at a cost of around Rs 800 crore, fully supported by the state government. Of the Rs 800 crore, Rs 330 crore represents the cost of civil works, while the rest was spent in the land acquisition process.
Kumar says he never saw this as an infrastructure project. “It has always been a cultural project for me, creating facilities for pilgrims.”
One of the temple’s main priests, Mahant Narayandas, said he was fully in favor of the project because so far no leader had taken the initiative to build a Parikrama corridor in Puri. He said he thanked CM Naveen Patnaik and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for taking the initiative.
“Puri is a religious capital and one of the Char Dhams. However, there was no Parikrama Marg, as in Tirupati or Rameswaram. This Parikrama project will greatly benefit everyone at Puri, ”he says.
“The focus should be on the pandemic”
The temple project and the ABHADA program offer a lot of development work in Puri. But, in the midst of a pandemic, with the looming threat of a new variant, many believe the timing is not right.
Dr Rita Ray, a sociologist and assistant professor at Odisha National Law University, says the state government’s priorities are completely misplaced and the project is not needed at this time.
“It is unfortunate that there is no question at this stage of developing schools and building new hospitals. No one is worried about the degradation of the environment or asks for more vaccines, ”she said.
Previously, CM Naveen Patnaik would go quietly to Puri and visit the Jagannath Temple, but in recent times such visits have become “big shows,” says Ray.
Senior journalist Rabi Das accepts that the Shree Mandira Parikrama project will greatly help tourism, as well as the rest of the ABHADA program in Puri. But he agrees with Ray that the top priority should be the pandemic.
“This will greatly help Puri to develop as a main tourist destination. However, there is also Covid and we cannot let our guard down, ”he said.
(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)
Read also : Jagannath Yatra — a 462-year-old tradition that was nearly canceled this year
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