The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Divine Affairs By Ishita Banerjee Dube, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Rs 400

As a voluminous crowd surges around the pitch-black rock temple, set off by the Bay of Bengal, you wonder if Puri is a pilgrimage site or a tourist spot. The dividing line between the two, according to Ishita Banerjee Dube, has become very thin over the years.

The imposing structure of the Jagannath temple is the subject of a rich treasure of myths, customs and anecdotes. In her foreword, Dube admits that the sheer volume of research done on the subject is intimidating. Yet, gaps have remained in the research on the temple and its famed car festival, the two most potent symbols of Oriya culture. Divine Affairs is Dube’s effort to fill up these gaps.

Her studies, “located at the intersection of history and anthropology”, trace the transition of Jagannath from a tribal deity to a popular cult figure, from the late 18th and early 19th, to the 20th centuries.

Oral and written accounts of Jagannath describe him as a genealogical god, who was later instituted as the household deity of the Oriya kings. Later, the worship of Jagannath came to incorporate elements from Buddhism as well. Dube analyses the myths and legends spun around Jagannath with the enthusiasm of an ethnographer and a historian.

In later chapters, she probes the interplay between religious belief and politics and shows how the edgy equation affects the people dependent on the temple for a livelihood. The complex pattern of the temple’s governance, colonial intervention, subordination of the indigenous kings and the distortion of rituals add layers of intricacies.

The administration of the temple first changed hands from the native rulers to the British Empire, and then to the independent post-colonial state. In each case, the takeover was an attempt to consolidate the strength of individual parties. The politics began after the British moved into Orissa in the early 19th century. The British government was aware that defying the temple’s priests would be suicidal. The Brahmins had a lot of clout over the temple’s administration and its estates and the Empire took care not to antagonize them. Dube explores how Brahmin and non-Brahman subjects, in collusion with the British, succeeded in incapacitating the king.

Subsequently, a power struggle erupted among them for control over the administration and the earnings from the estates, which in turn led to a manipulation of the temple’s customs and rituals.

The rath yatra is central to Dube’s thesis. Since the 19th century, the spectacular car festival has generated a successful “pilgrim trade”, and remains a cash-spinning exercise even today. The pilgrim tax and fees for a closer view of the rath were a major source of income for the temple. While darshan of the rath and the mahaprasad drew in the pilgrims, tourists were attracted by the splendour of the event. Even now, varied emotions, aspirations and expectations merge on the shores of Puri.

An analysis of the enduring appeal of Puri and Jagannath is also the high point of Dube’s research. The inclusion of accounts of her meetings with people associated with the temple have further enriched her work.

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