Quislings of Jagannath Temple at Puri


In his speech to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, Dr B R Ambedkar expressed deep anguish and apprehension over probable danger to India’s independence. He cited illustrations in support of his anxiety. In his war against Mohamud Bin Kasim,  military commander of King Dahir of Sindh did not fight against the invader. He was bribed by the invader. India lost independence. Mohammud Ghori was invited by Jaichand “to invade India and fight against Prithvi Raj and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki Kings.” Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings fought on the side of Moghul Emperors when Shivaji waged war to liberate Hindus. The British aimed at destroying the Sikh rule, but Gulab Singh, their principal commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh Kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the event as silent spectators.

Two similar historical events to deserve attention, regrettably, escaped scholastic focus. Battle of Plassey in 1757 on the soil of district Nadia, now in West Bengal, was preceded by a powerful network of conspiracy leading to fall of Siraj-Ud-Daula, Nawab of Bengal, Behar and Orissa. A historian of the nineteenth century Ernest Foster recorded that “Vast riches were now showered by Meer Jaffar upon the East India Company and upon Clive, in acknowledgement of the aid given in placing him upon his throne. No less a sum than £800,000 was sent to Calcutta for the former, while Clive himself, in addition to a special gift of £160,000 from the grateful Nabob, found the treasury of Moorshedabad, then the capital of Bengal, thrown open, and liberty was given to him to help himself. He received between £200,000 and £300,000 ; and it was in reference to this circumstance that some years later, when called to account in the British Parliament for his capacity, he indignantly replied — ” When I recollect entering the treasury, with heaps of gold and silver to the right hand and to the left, and these crowned with jewels, I stand astonished at my own moderation.”  [1] William Watts, a company representative at the court of Nawab Siraj got a bribe of over one million rupees. [2]

But a section of historians overlooked to highlight a critical fact playing important role in conspiracy against Nawab Siraj that Robert Clive, Commander-in-Chief of British India, presented 12 guns which were used in the battle of Plassey to Krishna Chandra Roy, who was a big and powerful zamindar of Nadia. He was the key conspirator for fall of Siraj to entitle him the gift of lethal firearms, more devastating than which was perhaps unknown to the globe till then. Those guns were on display around the palace of the landlord at Krishnagar till 1947. Clive also used his good offices to secure an honorific title of ‘Maharaja’ from the Mughal Emperor of Delhi for his Krishna Chandra, a strange, ally least focused in the historiography. [3] A section of historians dismissed Krishna Chandra’s role, as undependable, in the overthrow of the Nawab documented by Rajiv Lochan Bandyopadhyay, biographer of Clive’s ally. They are vocal about Rai Durlabh, Yar Lutuf Khan and Omichund (Amir Chand), a Sikh merchant, and several officers in the army but enigmatically reticent about the gift of guns from the founder of British Empire to Krishna Chandra Roy.

British vis-a-vis Bhagwan Jagannath, Puri

An unholy honeymoon history does not record

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 Jagannath Ji’s temple and his traditions were very much appreciated because it contained social justice, social harmony. Lord Jagannath is the God of the poor.” [4]

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.— Jagannath ji ka mandir our uski paramparaon ka bodi tarif karte the, kyu ki us mein samajik nyay, aur samrasta antarnihit the.” [5]

To be fair to the Prime Minister’s assertion, we may state the historical truth  that during  his (recent) “visit he (Dr Ambedkar)  could have only a distant view of the the famous Jagannath temple at Puri from the terrace of a neighbouring house.” [6] We wonder 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 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, the 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 nyay, 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 the foreign power for the subjugation of the deities of the shrine.  In this context, the countrymen in general and the Ambedkaraite, 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.” [7]

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 have submitted him to indignity for entry into Jagannath temple?

Hear what Shankaracharya of Puri said

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: “Shankaracharya 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 hated increase and causes diseases, disaster, disorder, great floods, droughts, famines and earthquakes. Thus the people face destruction.” [8]

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,  “……………oracle 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.”  [9] 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.

Wellesley’s appeasement led to surrender of Jagannath temple

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 internal 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.” [10] 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 artefacts 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.

Read -  "Tibet will Control China through Buddhism", Says Dalai Lama

East India Company laws banned entry of untouchables into Jagannath temple

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 £1,39,000 or £6619 per annum after deducting £5955 from the gross returns for the temple expenses and charges.” 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, devadasi, 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.  [11]

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 Dwarka by foreign invaders. Historians deserve our 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 the 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 in 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 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 a 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 with 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 Rabindra Nath 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); Nullias (Telinga boatmen); Patras (low cast cloth-makers); Kandra (guards); Common prostitutes; persons who have been to jail, but with right of expiation; Washermen; and Potter (but these two may enter the outer court. [12] 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.

A Buddhist shrine captured by the Hindus for Jagannath

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!” [13] 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.” [14] There are other Buddhist temples forcibly encroached and usurped by them. A bloody chapter over the capture of Buddhist shrine by the Hindu bigots is buried under the debris of history.

A shrine of immorality?

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. [15]

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?”  [16] 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 takeover of Jagannath. A French traveller of Mughal India, Francois Bernier recorded a candid account of the profligacy of the priests inside the temple of Jagannath as part of rituals under the cover of darkness at night. [17]

A nation that does not take the 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 the nineties of last the century, Arun Shourie had created ripples with allegations that Dr Ambedkar was a British collaborator. [18]   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 the company of Shourie.

References –

[1] Ernest Foster, Heroes of the Indian Empire,  London, 1890,  p. 37.

[2] Modern India by Dr. Bipin Chendra, a publication of National Council of Educational Research and Training.

[3] Dinesh Chandra Sen, Greater Bengal (in Bengali, Brihat Bango), volume II, 1935, p. 1133.

[4] Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister’s Office, Mann ki Baat’ programme on All India Radio on  June 25, 2017.

[5] “जिन लोगों ने डॉ0 बाबा साहेब आम्बेडकर  का अध्ययन  किया होगा, उन्होंने देखा होगा  कि भगवान जगन्नाथ जी का मन्दिर और उसकी परंपराओं की वो बड़ी तारीफ़ करते थे, क्योंकि उसमें सामाजिक न्याय, सामाजिक समरसता अंतर्निहित  थे।” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister’s Office, Mann ki Baat’ programme on All India Radio on  June 25, 2017.

[6] Keer, Dhananjay, Dr Amedkar: Life and Mission, Bombay, Popular Prakashan (First published, May 1954, ), p. 375.

[7] Quoted by Biswas, A. K., in an article  Ban on Temple Entry for Dalit, Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, no. 30, July 16, 2011.

[8] Ram, Jagjivan, Caste Challenge in India, Vision Books, New Delhi, 1980, p. 24.

[9] Swami Dharma Teertha, History of Hindu Imperialism, 1941, pp 150-151.

[10] Col. Laurie, op. cit p. 238.

[11] Col. Laurie, Puri and the temple of Jagannath, Calcutta High Review, vol. X, September 1848, p. 218.

[12] Hunter, W. W., Orsisa, vol. I, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1872,  p. 136.

[13] Quoted by  O’Malley, L. L. S, Bengal District Gazetteers, Puri, Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1908, Calcutta p. 94.

[14] Swami Vivekananda in ‘The Sages of India’ in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 3, p. 264, published by Advaita Ashram, Calcutta.

[15] The first part of the question  Babu Bal Krishna Sahay  tabled was as follows: “Has the attention of the Government of Bengal been drawn to the open letter published in a Calcutta paper named Satya Sanatan Dharma on the 14th November 1910 and again on the 16th April 1911, addressed to the Government of Bengal and to the Imperial Government, respectively, bringing to light the custom of dedicating female children to the temple of Jagannath in Puri, who when grown up, lead immoral life and requesting the government to abolish the said custom?”

On behalf of the Government, C J Stevenson-Moore, ICS replied in the Council, “The answer is in the affirmative.”  He highlighted that there were 100 girls attached to the temple and there was no other temple in the Province with devadasi. The questioner wanted the government to take steps for stopping “this immoral custom.” In reply, Moore further stated, “The Government would view with favour and lend its support to any organised attempt made by Hindu society at large to eradicate the evils which have grown up round this system at Puri.[……….] it does not propose to initiate reforms on its own motion in a matter closely connected with religious observances.”

Proceedings of The Bengal Legislative Council; Vol. XLIV (January-March, 1912, Calcutta, Bengal Secretariat Press, 1913, p. 19. of Jagannath.

[16] Marx & Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1962, p. 357.

[17] Francois Bernier, Travels in Mughal Empire, S. Chand & Co., New Delhi, first edition in 1891, second edition, 1968, pp. 305-306.

[18] Shourie, Arun,  Worshipping False God: Ambedkar and the Facts that have Been Erased, 1997,   Harper India, Delhi.

Author – Dr. A K Biswas

A retired IAS officer & former Vice-Chancellor B R Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar can be reached at biswasatulk[@]gmail.com

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