The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Little priest in the limelight
- 11-year-old to share platform with royal couple in temple ritual

Puri, April 7: The Puri palace is abuzz with activity for Lilabati Pattamahadei’s Gahan Bije — the queen’s once-in-a-lifetime private visit to the Jagannath temple. In another corner of the city, a small house in a narrow lane is sharing the limelight.

The cynosure of eyes here is 11-year old Lokanath Mudirasta, who will have the privilege of conducting puja for the royal couple tomorrow. According to tradition, a boy priest should be present, along with a married Brahmin woman, when the king and queen offer prayers during Gahan Bije.

But ask Loknath if he is nervous, and he shrugs. “I know exactly what I have to do,” says the Class VII student of Utkal Hindi Vidyapith.

Lokanath got the sanction to perform as priest after a sari-tying ceremony in the temple on January 13. “I had been to the king with my grandfather and the king told me what I have to do. I can carry out my duties without any help.”

At home in Puri’s Manikarnika Sahi, Lokanath looks like any other 11-year-old. He is dressed in a red T-shirt and jeans and is busy playing with sister Dipali.

Talk of cricket catches his attention. “I don’t watch cricket anymore, India did so badly at the World Cup,” he says with a frown.

But there’s no time to dwell on such mundane things. He rushes inside, and minutes later, emerges in a traditional flowing white robe and matching head-dress. The schoolboy has turned into the lord’s servant.

Lokanath belongs to the Mudirasta families of priests who carry out day-to-day rituals in the temple on behalf of the king, Gajapati Dibyasingh Deb.

But with many families not being blessed with sons — girls are not allowed to don the divine mantle — the number of priests has been dwindling over the years. Only two families are now left to bear the torch.

“Some families had no son and thus withered,” says Loknath’s father Padmanav Mudirasta, who earns only Rs 3,000 a month.

Loknath will accompany the royal couple’s procession after word is sent to the place that the temple has been sanitised.

Once in the sanctum sanctorum, the boy priest will climb the Ratna Simhasan, hand over a Khandua Pata (a traditional Orissa sari) to the king, which he will tie around the queen’s head — giving her sanction as a servant of the lord. The couple will then perform alati before the gods.

The king said his family is looking forward to the Gahan Bije. “This is a significant occasion because the queen will offer seva (service) before the lords for the first time. Other relatives will be there for darshan,” he told The Telegraph over the phone. “Preparations for tomorrow’s visit are on,” he added.

The king has invited nearly 50 guests from royal families across the country to the ceremony. Sources close to the palace said some of them will stay at hotels in Puri and the rest in Bhubaneswar.

“We have intimation that they will follow the king’s procession by car,” said temple administrator (rituals) Binod Mohanty, who refused to reveal names citing “security reasons”.

After attending the Gahan Bije, the guests will attend the reception of the eldest princess, Divyajyoti, that evening.

The spread laid out for the 1,000 invites will be “strictly vegetarian”.

Pagu Mohaptra, an experienced temple cook (or suara), will prepare the feast using only desi ghee and leaving out foreign vegetables like potatoes and tomatoes. “We have been specially instructed to see that they are hygienically prepared and are served hot,” said Mohapatra.

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