COVID Juggernaut: Will Puri Again Risk COVID Curse for Rath Yatra?
Even as cases rise, the priest community is upfront about its resolve to go ahead with the Rath Yatra.
Even in a religious country like India, faith is supreme but not more precious than human life. However, even as the second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc in the country, the priests of Lord Jagannath and the administration in Odisha’s Puri seem unfazed and quite willing to organise the yearly Rath Yatra.
A risk perhaps not worth taking as over 2 lakh Indians have already lost their lives to the virus.
Preparations for the world famous festival have already begun this year, even though hundreds had tested COVID-positive due to the 2020 Rath Yatra and several priests had died of the infection.
Senior Sevayat Binayak Das Mohapatra told The Quint, “We are going to adhere to the guidelines of COVID and organise the Rath Yatra like last year without any devotees.”
Did We Learn Nothing From Last Year?
Last year's festival, which was organised under tremendous pressure from the priests' community, had been opposed by many. But it went on as the sevayats had their writs override all opposing views from many quarters .
However, the festival could only be possible when the Supreme Court modified its ruling and allowed the Rath Yatra with strict adherence to COVID protocols.
But all that could not stop the ramifications and lives were lost. Ten from the sevayat community died of the virus infection.
The Worrying Surge in Puri
It is worth noting that last year the surge in cases was nowhere as sharp as it has been in 2021. India on Thursday, 6 May, reported 4,12,262 new COVID-19 cases, taking the tally in the country to 2,10,77,410, while the death toll reached 2,30,168.
The situation in Puri is as bad as in rest of the country, with 500 to 600 cases reportedly being detected on an average daily.
Looking at the gravity of the menace in the state, the government has ordered a 14-day lockdown from 5 May. This comes in addition to the ongoing weekend shutdown and night curfew.
Administration Unsure, But Preparations Underway
Whispers from Puri would have us assume that the state government is not in favour of a huge gathering.
"How can a massive event like Puri Rath Yatra be allowed amid all that is happening everywhere," said Pratap Rath, a professor at Utkal University. He added that the situation in Puri is dismal and would deteriorate if "not handled with enough foresight."
However, the preparations for the ‘Akshya Trutiya’ – a ritual which is a prelude to the festival – are already underway in Puri. This implies that the temple administration and the sevayats have made up their minds to go ahead with the process.
The priest community is upfront about its resolve to go ahead with the Rath Yatra. Senior Sevayat Binayak Das Mohapatra said, “we urge the authorities to allow rituals for the Akshya Trutiya and Chandan Yatra in the open unlike last year when it were done inside temple premises”.
When asked about the planning for the coming rituals of Akshya Trutiya and Rath Yatra, Puri Collector Samarth Varma said that since a lockdown has been imposed, the administration would put the question regarding the he Akshya Trutiya and the subsequent Chandan Yatra before the temple management committee and the Chhatisa Niyog, an autonomous body constituted of top sevayats.
However, warning of the possible consequences, senior journalist S Harichandan, who has been covering the festival for years in Puri, said, “What is required at this juncture is a bit of restraint by the priests.” He advised them to “keep their emotions in control in the larger interest.”
Although the Rath Yatra – to be conducted on 12 July this year – is two months away at the moment, the administration should be doubly resolute not to come under any pressure this time.
(Dinendra Narayan Singh is a Bhubaneswar-based senior journalist and political analyst. This is a report and analysis. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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