Haggling, threats, misbehaviour: Pandas are a law unto themselves at Puri’s Jagannath Temple

Puri (Odisha): For devotees arriving from all over the country to the Jagannath temple here, the Pandas have become a pain in the neck.

They promise the visitors easy and quick access to the sanctum sanctorum and demand money in return. They cajole, they threaten and they haggle, till they get the money they want. The Supreme Court had ordered the temple to take action against this racket, but little has changed.

Start chasing visitors from railway station

The network of Pandas, divided into more than 36 groups, are active all the way from the railway station to the temple sanctum. They take money in exchange for getting devotees a faster entry into the temple, for getting the special prasad from the temple’s sanctum and for organising a puja. If the devotees don’t give them the amount they ask for, they misbehave with them.

Post of Pandas is hereditary

The post of Jagannath temple sevaks is more than 1,100 years old and is passed from one generation to the next. However, the temple committee does not give them any honorarium or salary. In this scenario, the Pandas resort to haggling with the devotees. Families of close to 1,500 sevaks work in the temple. The temple committee is not bothered by the problems faced by the devotees due to the sevaks, nor is any action taken against them. There is no place where you can complaint against them.

Rs 500 for prasad, flowers and tulsi

On the morning of June 10, a Bhaskar team reached Puri. The team was approached by some Pandas, claiming to be connected to the temple, outside the railway station. They offered deals that included a quick entry into the temple, prasad and cheap hotel accommodation. At the temple entrance, some sevaks were busy haggling with devotees to get them inside the temple faster. Around five sevaks were seen talking to families, the elderly and the newlyweds. As soon as they struck a deal, they took the devotees to the other gate where there the crowd was thinner.

After this, to get special offerings and flowers from the sanctum, they ask for Rs 500. Once you are inside the temple premises, you will find there as well. It is here that they are able to trap most of the people. They have a predetermined rate per person for visiting the temple chamber. They demand Rs 100-200 to give the devotees prasad and flowers. For puja and other rituals, they charge up to Rs 1000.

We want to protect the devotees: SC

In their judgment, Justices Adarsh Kumar Goyal and Justice Ashok Bhushan of the Supreme Court had said, “We want to protect the devotees who have been coming to the temple for more than a thousand years. It is important that all devotees are able to visit the temple without any hassle. The offerings made to the temple should be put to proper use. The district administration has made arrangements to give them fair wages for their work. It is also important to pay attention to cleanliness and encroachment on the temple premises. Also, misbehaviour with devotees should be stopped immediately. ”

‘Ensure that sevaks do not take any offerings’

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Among other things, the SC had asked the different authorities to take a series of steps for easing the problems faced by the devotees

District Judge: A committee, headed by the District Judge of Puri, will submit suggestions by June 30 on solving the problems faced by visitors to the temple.

District Administration: Review the positioning of CCTV cameras in the temple and form an independent committee to monitor the footage. The committee’s report will be considered by the Puri District Judge.

Temple Management: Ensure that the sevaks do not directly take offerings. The temple should stop accepting direct donations.

State Government: The state government should constitute a committee that will  study the arrangement at Vaishno Devi, Somnath temple, Golden temple, Tirupati temple and Karnataka’s religous sites and submit a report on how to improve the Jagannath temple by June 30.[/box]