The opening of the Ratna Bhandar is happening amidst a charged atmosphere of distrust and mistrust. The various factions are at loggerheads. Whether the Ratna Bhandar is an el dorado with fabulous riches is something that will not be known or rather it should not be known. Logically, whatever is there is only that which was accumulated after September 1803, the Marathas must have surely made a clean sweep of all the riches before they fled. Ironically, in history, the Ratna Bhandar had its safest period during the British occupation of Odisha. In the present context one has to delve into history to get a perspective of the sheer opportunism that prevailed even when Puri was last attacked by the English in 1803.
The Governor General, Marquis of Wellesley, had sent Lt. Col. Campbell, the Commander of the 74 Regiment of the Northern division of the army under the Madras Government to capture Puri. Campbell took ill before the strategic operation, and Colonel Harcourt of the 12th Regiment took charge.
It took the East India Company soldiers just fourteen days to conquer Odisha. The entire province was subjugated from the 3rd to the 18th September 1803. Wellesley was aware of the sanctity of the temple and had given strict instructions, “You will understand that no part of the property, treasure or valuable article of any kind contained in the pagoda of Jagannath or in the religious office or possessed by any of the priests and Brahmins or persons of any description attached to the Tempe is to be considered prize to the army. All such property must be considered as consecrated to religious use by the customs or prejudices of the Hindus. No account is to be taken of any such property nor any person be allowed to enter the pagoda or sacred buildings without the express desire of the Brahmins.”
When the British troops entered Puri on the 18th of September, they found no resistance. The Marahattas had fled; the local population cowered in their homes. The Company troops set up camp two miles away from the temple. For full two days,the troops stayed put, on the morning of the third day a big crowd of people were seen coming towards the Camp. The British troops took up battle stations, but as the crowd came nearer, they saw that it was not an attacking force but a delegation of Pandas, carrying umbrellas, flags and standards, beating drums and cymbals.
Campbell writes : “The Brahmins at the holy temple had consulted and applied to Juggernaut to inform them what power was now to have his temple under its protection, and that he [Jagannath] had given a decided answer that the English Government was in future to be his guardian.” The Pandas practically gave Campbell the keys to the temple and even invited him to visit the shrine. However Campbell declined the offer, he adhered to Wellesley’s advice. The Governor General had instructed: “On your arrival at Jagannath you will employ every possible precaution to preserve the respect due to the Pagoda and the religious prejudices of the Brahmins and pilgrims. You will furnish the Brahmins with such guards as shall afford perfect security to their persons, rites and ceremonies and to the sanctity of the religious edifices and you will strictly enjoin those under your command to observe your orders of this important subject with utmost degree of accuracy and vigilance. No person should enter into the pagoda without the desire of the Brahmins.”
“You shall assure the Brahmins at the Pagoda of Jagannath that they will not be required to pay other revenue or tribute to the British government than that which they have been in the habit of paying the to the Marathas and that they will be protected in the exercise of their religious duties.”
Wellesley was well aware of the Pandas and wrote: “The Brahmins are supposed to derive considerable profits from the duties levied on the pilgrims. It will not therefore be advisable at the present moment to interrupt the system which prevails for the collection of those duties. “
Walter Hamilton’s East Indian Gazetteer (1828) states that the “possession was accordingly taken of the town and the temple on 18th September 1803, the sacred will of the idol having first ascertained through the medium of the officiating priests.” John Melville, the Commissioner of Orissa, wrote to Wellesley that he had used “Jagganath’s answer” as a device to win over the Brahmins. William Hunter’s account of Puri (1877) says: “a deputation of Brahmins accordingly came into the camp, and placed the temple under his (Commanding Officer) protection without a blow being struck.”
The facts of the British victory in Puri are too embarrassing to place in history. The sacred shrine came under the enemy occupation voluntarily and unconditionally, on the supposed oracle of Lord Jagannath. This was the beginning of the saga of joint management of the greedy experiment of the mercantile west and the spiritual east. From then onwards, the Pandas and the East India Company jointly taxed the pilgrims of Lord Jagannath and earned lakhs of rupees. Pandas were sent upcountry to solicit pilgrims to come to Puri; the collections were split among the Company and the Pandas.
The Pandas, along with the Company officials indulged in caste prejudice, discrimination and inequality. Several regulations were passed by the East India Company to degrade the people. In 1806, the Superintendence of the temple was vested in an assembly of three Pundits. In 1809 the assembly of Pundits was abolished, and the management was transferred to the Raja of Khurda (now known as the Puri Gajapati), who was appointed as hereditary superintendent of the temple subject to the control and supervision of the British Government. With a view to give up all connections with the management of a Hindu shrine, the Bristishers, in 1840, vested the Raja of Puri with full and absolute authority in the management of the temple and its property, and in the same year abolished the pilgrim tax. But to ensure adequate finances for the shrine the Company made huge endowments to Lord Jagannath to defray the expenses.
Today, the Pandas of Puri are the most infamous and intimidating amongst all Hindu shrines. For the devout pilgrims, a visit to the temple is a spiritually fulfilling, but the behaviour and squalor they face leaves a bad taste in the mouth. The Pandas fleece the pilgrims, the haggling and hectoring can be very discouraging. There have been many instances of rude priests scuffling for money and even engaging in fisticuffs with devotees.
Article by Anil Dhir