Too Many Mir Jaffars

Quislings of Jagannath Temple

A K Biswas

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi's address styled as 'Maan ki Baat' broadcast at 11:28 IST by the All India Radio on June 25, 2017 told his countrymen: "Those who have studied Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar should have seen that Lord Jagannathji's temple and his traditions were very much appreciated, because it contained social justice, social harmony. Lord Jagannath is the God of the poor".

His speech in Hindi seems more ominous. He stated therein that Dr Ambedkar used to greatly appreciate the Temple of Jagannath because of the "tradition of social justice and social harmony—Jagannathji ka mandir our uski paramparaon ka bodi tarif karte the, kyu ki us mein samajik nyay, aur samrasta antarnihit the".

To be fair to the Prime Minister's assertion, one may state the historical truth that during his (recent) "visit he (Dr Ambedkar) could have only a distant view of the famous Jagannath temple at Puri from the terrace of a neighbouring house". One wonders when did, therefore, Ambedkar admire Jagannath and the social harmony of his temple? The historical truth of his visit to Puri merits citation. The last British Viceroy Lord Mountbatten who had accompanied Dr Ambedkar visited Puri. Prof Madhu Dandavate, Railway Minister under Morarji Desai and Finance Minister under V P Singh deposed before the Mandal Commission, euphemism for Backward Classes Commission that while the British Paramount received red carpet reception the priests denied Dr Ambedkar entry into the Jagannath temple. A cute picture of samajik naya, aur samrasta—social justice and harmony for Ambedkar?

The history of treachery, infidelity and compromises of the priests of Jagannath is shocking and embarrassing. By design, the masses are blissfully unaware of the disgraceful complicity of the priests with foreign power for subjugation of the deities of the shrine. In this context, the countrymen in general and the Ambedkaraites in particular would sincerely appreciate to know the precise source of such assertion made by the Prime Minister. Dr Ambedkar had a very different perspective marked by dignity of the untouchables into Hindu shrine.

"Not very long ago there used to be boards on club doors and other social resorts maintained by Europeans in India, which said 'Dogs and Indians' are not allowed. The temples of Hindus carry similar boards today, the only difference is that the boards on the Hindu temples practically say: 'All Hindus and all animals including dogs are admitted, only Untouchables are not admitted'. The situation in both cases is of parity. But Hindus never begged for admission in those places from which the Europeans in their arrogance had excluded them. Why should an Untouchable beg for admission in a place from which he has been excluded by the arrogance of the Hindus? This is the reason why the Depressed Class man who is interested in material welfare should be prepared to say to the Hindus, 'to open or not to open your temples is a question for you to consider and not for me to agitate. If you think, it is bad manners not to respect the sacredness of human personality, open your temple and be a gentleman. If you rather be a Hindu than a gentleman, then shut the doors and damn yourself for I don't care to come".

None can overlook the emphasis that " all Hindus and all animals including dogs are admitted, only Untouchables are not admitted". Puri Jagannath temple is a graveyard of human dignity. Could Babasaheb Ambedkar submitted him to indignity for entry into Jagannath temple?

Babu Jagjivan Ram, a prominent freedom fighter and political leader could not wash off his untouchability though he rose to be the Deputy Prime Minister of India. He wrote : "Shankara-charya can write an article saying that according to the Vedas, the Vedic Temples get polluted if low castes enter therein". In this way, he noted, "the evil spirits get into the idols of the temples, and when these idols are worshipped these evil forces become mighty. In turn the evil feelings like strife, anger and hatred increase and causes diseases, disaster, disorder, great floods, droughts, famines and earthquakes. Thus the people face destruction".

In 1803, Lord Wellesley, the Governor-General told off the East India Company Army to capture Orissa. In a swift move, Orissa was conquered. When the army marched to the gates of temple town Puri, a delegation of high priests of Jagannath Temple trooped into the camp of the Lieutenant Colonel Campbell who led the army to victory. Swami Dharma Teertha (pre-ascetic Parameswar Menon (1893-1978) recorded the trickery the priests of Jagannath temple employed in his History of Hindu Imperialism (1941). An element of unverifiable mystery was introduced in the plot. According to Dharma Teertha, " of the Puri Jagannath Temple proclaimed that it was the desire of the deity that the temple too should be controlled by the Company, and the latter undertook to maintain the temple buildings, pay the Brahmans and do everything for the service of the deity as was customary". The story woven around the 'oracle' was a sonorous music to the British who had long cherished a dream to annex the province. The priests nonchalantly mortgaged their deity to the alien power out of selfish motives.

A month ahead of the campaigns for Orissa began, Wellesley had addressed a long letter on August 3, 1803 to Campbell. The letter, contents of which were carefully publicized and strategically propagated among the masses and the priests of Jagannath, mandated inter-alia that "You shall assure the Brahmans at the pagoda of Jagannath that they will not be required to pay any other revenue or tribute to the British government than that which they have been paying to the Mahratta government, and they shall be protected in the exercise of their religious duties". Outlining the Army's role further, the Governor General emphatically told the Lieutenant Colonel that "On your arrival at Jagannath, you will employ every possible precaution to preserve the respect due to the pagoda, and to the religious prejudices of the Brahman and pilgrims". In 14 days Orissa was conquered. No shot was fired; not a drop of blood dropped. The ruling Peshwas, in the teeth of British offensive, fled Orissa without offering any resistance. Victorious army all over the world go berserk and indulge in loot, plunder, savagery. Wellesley sternly warned the Company Army against treating any properties of Jagannath temple as war trophies. Those artifacts or properties should be considered as consecrated to Lord Jagannath.

Globally traitors, conspirators and quislings are not unknown to history. But a deity, equated with God save and except the Lord Jagannath, was unique. He promptly surrendered to the invading power without ado! Jagannath’s embrace of British overlordship without squeamish portrayed a picture of legitimacy to god-fearing Hindus across India. And they forfeited moral grounds for ventilating any grievances against the alien power when their Jagannath kowtowed before the mighty Bania Company.

On April 3, 1806 East India Company enacted Regulation IV and imposed tax varying from Rs 2 to Rs 10 on pilgrims, classified into four categories. The tax turned out to be a goldmine for the British as well as priests. An official account said, "During 21 years ending 1831, pilgrim tax yielded a balance of £ 1,391,000 or £ 6619 per annum after deducting £ 5955 from the gross returns for the temple expenses and changes". Pilgrim tax, it again asserted, formed "an important item of our revenue from Orissa". A part of the tax was spent on performances of customary rituals, practices, celebrations, besides payment of salaries to the priests, pandas, devadasis, etc. The East India Company also paid a share of the income to raja of Khurda, who was the traditional head of the Puri temple administration. About 50% of the income from pilgrim tax went into the Company exchequer.

The Peshwa rulers of Orissa, staunch Hindus though did not spare the Hindu pilgrims of Jagannath. They continued to milk them through invidious taxation the predecessor Muslim rulers had imposed on the pilgrims of Jagannath temple! Tax from pilgrims visiting Gaya, Tirupati, Prayag etc. by the Company! This is so extraordinary. Moral consideration or spiritual conviction did not override pecuniary consideration. Devoted Hindu rulers extorted god fearing Hindus visiting Puri.

The same intellectual class, of course, unfailingly documented the repeated raids on and plunder of Somnath Temple in Dwaraka by foreign invaders. Historians deserve fulsome appreciation. Their failure to show similar uprightness in the case of Jagannath cannot go without adverse notice. The focus of intellectual class on Muslim rulers for exaction of jazia from Hindus is known across India. But they cultivated enigmatic silence over subjugation of Puri Jagannath by the British colonial power in connivance of His priests.

At some point of time or other many nations had suffered the misfortune of invasion by external forces and loss of independence. There was national ignominy, shame and disgrace in subjugation. Internal forces in the garb of conspirators, traitors and quislings, more often than not, were accessories to the such defeat and surrender as in the case of Orissa. Both the invaders and their collaborators are enemies of the nation. The historians as chroniclers of events render a sacred duty here. By their faithful and honest documentation of events for the future generations they play great role. A culture of conspiracy has nurtured for deflecting attention and inquiry into the shame of British-priests tango in Puri. In fact, the cataclysmic event stands completely erased from the pages of history.

The Company launched further reforms. A Regulation IV was enacted in 1809. In compliance to section VII of the said Regulation, several castes, e. g., Lolee or Kasbi, Kallal or Sunri, Machhua, Namasudra or Chandal, Ghuski, Gazur, Bagdi, Jogi, Kahar-Bauri and Dulia, Rajbanshi, Pirali, Chamar, Dom, Pan, Pior, Bhuimali and Hari were barred entry into Jagannath temple. The Pirali denotes the family of poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who, according to Bengali orthodoxy, were degraded Brahmans for alleged consumption of beef by one of his ancestors. A vast range of humanity stood outraged by Jagannath Temple.

Decades after the British recused themselves from the task of management, control and superintendence of Jagannath, chronicler of the Empire William Hunter, drew up "a list of castes, partly from the statements of Brahmans, and partly from those of the low castes themselves, denied entry into the shrine of Jagannath in Puri". The castes and communities still suffering prohibition were Christians; Muhammandans, Hill or forest races; Bauris, Savars, Pans; Haris (except to clean filth); Chamars; Doms; Chandals; Chirimars (bird killers); Siuals (wine-sellers); Tiyars (fishermen); Nullais (Telinga boatmen); Patras (low caste cloth-makers); Kandra (guards); Common prostitutes; persons who have been to jail, but with right of expiation; Washermen; and Potter (but those two may enter the outer court). It was not in British interest to exclude a vast section, who, as potential pilgrims, could swell the tax income but they acquiesced the priestly prejudice and caprice against untouchables in banning their entry.

Edward Washburn Hopkins (1857-1930), an American Sanskrit scholar and professor of Sanskrit in Yale University declared that "The Jagannath temple is dedicated to Buddha. Name, temple, and idol-car are now all Vishnu's!" Swami Vivekananda while intervening into a debate whether Jesus Christ ever visited Jagannath temple, on the other hand, observed that ".....the temple of Jagannath is an old Buddhistic temple. We took this and others over and re-Hinduised them". There are other Buddhist temples forcibly encroached and usurped by them. A bloody chapter over capture of Buddhist shrine by the Hindu bigots is buried under the debris of history.

The Proceedings of the Bengal Legislative Council revealed that Jagannath temple had 100 devadasis who, dedicated by their parents in tender age, were subjected to immoral abuses and exploitation there. This was public disclosure of serious dimension. Information was furnished by the Government of Bengal in response to a question tabled by Bal Krishna Sahay who represented Chota Nagpur (now State of Jharkhand) in the Bengal Legislative Council.

In the columns of The New York Tribune, Karl Marx charged the British, "...did they not, in order to make money out of the pilgrims streaming to the temples of Orissa and Bengal, take up trade in murder and prostitution perpetrated in the temple of Juggernaut?" The charge of flesh trade in the Jagannath temple against the East India Company was indefensible. Marx was wrong in his accusation against the British. The available evidence suggests that devadasi was there before British take-over of Jagannath. A French traveller of Mughal India, Francois Bernier recorded a candid account of profligacy of the priests inside the temple of Jagannath as part of rituals under the cover of darkness at night.

A nation that does not take lesson from history is accursed. A nation that shies away from acknowledging its weakness and frailty with candour and without squeamishness under pressure of her black-guards who are perpetrators of national tragedy is morally bankrupt. Such nation must remain prepared for future disaster also from the same corner. A nation is greater and more sacred than a small section of conspirators and traitors. An uncompromising defender of human dignity and sacredness of human personality, Babasaheb Ambedkar could never be expected to discover social justice and harmony in Puri Jagannath. In nineties of the last century, Arun Shourie had created ripples with allegations that Dr Ambedkar was a British collaborator. Shourie's myopia obstructed him from seeing the aforesaid dark role of Jagannath and his priests from recording a correct appreciation of Indian quislings of the colonial rulers. There were many who kept company of Shourie.

[The author is a retired IAS Officer & Former Vice-Chancellor B R Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar and he can be reached at <>]

Vol. 50, No.28, Jan 14 - 20, 2017