When the keys to the Jagannath Temple were handed over to the British

Odisha Uncategorized
By Anil Dhir
Puri, April 4, 2018: 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
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
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 them to the
Marathas and that they will be protected in the exercise of their religious
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 “Jagannath’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.

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