Demolition drive in Puri: State destroys Heritage Structures

Jagannath Puri, one of the Chardham, has the unique distinction of having several mathas representing different religious denominations – each of them intimately connected with Sri Jagannath temple where they have specific rights and duties. 

Most of these mathas are situated in and around the temple with a few of them near the seashore. Shri Adi Shankaracharya set up one of his four Amnaya Pithas in Puri, Shri Ramanujacharya established Emar Matha which is considered as the second biggest institution of the holy town after Jagannath temple in terms of land ownership, Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu spent several years in Gambhira matha premises in the city serving the Lord; several acharyas from Ramanandi Sampradaya apart from Guru Nanak Devji himself have visited the town and set up their mathas. There are also various mathas catering to Odiya Vaishnava sampradayas. 

These mathas have functioned as upholders of dharma through centuries by supporting scholars, providing food and shelter to devotees as well as serving the Lord of Odisha, Sri Jagannatha. The mathas have supported the society in times of distress and need – eg. Emar Matha helped fend off famine in 1866 by providing rice from their granaries. The mathas have also helped the society through various other means – the oldest library in Puri, Raghunandan Library (with ancient manuscripts), was started by Emar Matha in 1921. The matha also gave land for setting up of various public utilities in the town.

Each of these mathas were well endowed with lands so that they can serve the Lord of the Universe following the tradition of the respective religious denomination. Devotees of every sampradaya donated lands to their respective matha – wherein the lands were offered to Lord Sri Jagannatha but with the trustee being the respective matha. These lands were always identified as separate from temple’s own lands even under British Raj. 

Post-independence, after the temple administration was vested in Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) through an act of the State Legislature, under the guise of better management of temple’s lands, the SJTA claimed these lands of mathas as theirs to administer using the provisions of the act which vested all lands of Lord Sri Jagannath within the administrative control of SJTA. 

Such a claim is verily against the rights conferred on religious denominations by Article 26 of the Constitution which gives the denominations the following rights among others:

“(c) to own and acquire movable and immovable property; and 

(d) to administer such property in accordance with the law.” 

Given that hereditary trusteeship is akin to right to property, the right of these institutions to manage and administer the lands on behalf of their denominations is absolute as it is protected by the very Constitution of Bharat.

The State Government of Odisha, through SJTA, has denied this fundamental right to these mathas who have been the upholders of dharma through the centuries and even helped the community weather even the dark days of the medieval era. 

By alienating these properties, the SJTA has impoverished the mathas which are not in a position to maintain their buildings or even perform their duties properly. Instead of setting things right, the government has now sounded the death knell for these mathas under the guise of development. The state cabinet has declared a 75-meter zone around the temple, and all buildings in the zone are being demolished as a part of beautification and security drive. 

Centuries-old mathas which are heritage structures are being declared as ‘unsafe’, and the government is demolishing these heritage structures without even serving due notice to the Mahants of these mathas – as the SJTA claims these mathas as temple properties. Nevertheless, heritage structures are meant to be protected – whether or not individual or temple or state own them. Such callous decision to pull down centuries-old architecture call for strictest condemnation possible. 

Most of the Mahants of these mathas have not even been consulted as we have come to know now – which is an insult to the entire Hindu community. Centuries-old Languli Matha, the famous Raghunandan library of Emar Matha has been demolished. Bulldozers are waiting to tear down the Bada Akhara of Ramanandi Sampradaya and core areas of Emara matha. Several more such heritage structures are under imminent threat.

The government must exercise restraint and cease the demolition of mathas forthwith. If the buildings are unsafe, they should be repaired and maintained well. Bharat is a member of UNESCO – adherence to Venice Charter of UNESCO requires that we protect and preserve our heritage structures. Such callous behavior is unbecoming of any civilized state, let alone a civilization as old as Bharat.

(Note: This piece has been authored by Anjali George, who tweets at @IchBinGorg)


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