There is a fear in Orissa and among devotees of Lord Jagannath that the famous Rath Yatra (chariot festival) in Puri may not be be held this year as the 452-year-old tradition might need be cancelled amidst the continuing coronavirus menace.
Although there is precedent for a hiatus when the event was not organised due to unavoidable reasons, the novel coronavirus is a novel hurdle for a festival that cuts across caste, creed and religion to attract over 8 to ten lakh devotees every year.
With social distancing being the major tool to keep the spread of COVID-19 at bay, there is a palpable concern among millions and millions of devotees that if there are still restrictions against large gatherings in late June (when the 2020 edition of the festival is scheduled to take place), this would mean cancellation of the festival which is renowned for its massive crowds and spectacle, so much so that the word ‘juggernaut’ was coined to describe it.
Battle Between Faith and Fear
The Rath Yatra is one of the rare such religious festivals which knows no barrier or boundaries, geographically or emotionally, attracting people from all over the world in their millions. It is not merely about the festivities, of course, but a question of faith.
For the people in power and on the ground, the question is about chalking a path between the imperatives of that faith and its devotees on the one hand, and the dictates of social distancing that may still be in force then, whichwe cannot possibly ignore if we want to fight COVID-19.
With the whole festival having to be run and managed by official structures, this means it is the government, at this juncture, which seems caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Although preliminary preparations have begun, the government has so far avoided saying anything concrete. But, sources within the government emphasise the need to be cautious and not create any confusion, as to presume anything at this stage, and make any statement accordingly, may have adverse ramifications.
“So far there has been no discussion on Rath Yatra,” said Pratap Jena, a state cabinet minister, choosing the safely bureaucratic option.
Even the priests of the temple, who constitute the principal arms of the rituals of the deities, are not advising anything either which way. To quote Rajat Pratihari, Secretary, Garabodu Niyoga, the senior servitors of the temple, “if the government feels then we are ready to carry on with the Rath Yatra”, a statement which firmly leaves the onus on the government to take a call.
It is, perhaps, best left to the discretion of the government in the current circumstances, though it will not be possible for them to remain non-committal forever.
Previous Cancellations of the Yatra
According to records available, so far, from 1568 to 1735 Puri’s Rath Yatra had to be cancelled 32 times because of unavoidable reasons.
In 1568, the Muslim general Kalapahad of the Bengal Sultanate had attacked the temple to Lord Jagannath, leading to the suspension of the Yatra, which sees the chariots of the deities taken across the city. The servitors and local rulers undertook strenuous efforts to safeguard the deities, meaning the festival could not take place that year.
In subsequent years, it was invasions by the Mughal generals – starting with Mirza Khurush in 1601 and followed by Kalyan Mal, Ahmed Beg, Hasim Khan, Mohammed Khan and others – that led to the cancellations, as the deities had to be kept hidden at several places out of the invaders’ reach.
In these last 452 years, it was because of the threat of those old, physical enemies that the Rath Yatra could not be held. Now, it is an unknown, invisible enemy – COVID-19 – that threatens the holy city and its famed festival. Given the multitudes that gather in Puri on the day of the festival, it is difficult to see how it could be considered safe, when social distancing remains the paramount safety net against the virus.
At the same time, given the way in which the Odisha government has been able to control the spread of the disease by proactive measures, it is not entirely irrational to hope that by the time of the Yatra, the state could be virus free and the Yatra could therefore be organised as usual – or at least in a modified form.
A Televised, Restricted Affair?
This year the Rath Yatra date falls on June 30, a little over 70 days from now. While one would hope that is sufficient time, given the tricky characteristics of the virus, with no conclusive opinion of how long it would take to stop its spread, that is not certain.
Can the situation then warrant further preventive measures or what steps can be taken to ensure safety for over lakhs of devotees in Puri?
Normally, during the first day of the festival when the deities come on to the chariots on their way to a 9 day sojourn at their birth place, Sri Gundicha Temple, 6 to 7 lakh people gather.
The influx continues over a week and by the day the deities return back to the main gate called Singhadwar, and undergo the special ceremony of Suna Vesha (jaded with gold and diamond etc), the crowd swells to almost double its original size, numbering well over 10 lakh people.
Given the risk of infections now, nobody would, perhaps, take the chance of allowing such a vast congregation even if officially Odisha can be declared as COVID-19 free. Even if there are a few among the pilgrims with any signs of being positive, or even a single asymptomatic person, then that can cause a real shock.
Hence, the neutral opinion is likely to be that this year’s Rath Yatra should be cancelled.
At the same time, there are indications that an alternative, restricted version of the festival is being considered. No crowd shall be allowed at the Puri grand road and the chariots shall be pulled by the security forces only, rather than the devotees. To esnure that the faithful are not left out completely, the idea is to have a live telecast of the events, for them to watch.
(Dinendra Narayan Singh is a Bhubaneswar-based senior journalist and political analyst. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)