Jagannath Rath Yatra during COVID-19

The Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha dates back to the 12th century and its annual rath yatra is also of like vintage. Barring some years in earlier centuries the three chariots of the deities – Balabhadra, Jagannath and Subhadra have rolled out for the yatra with unfailing regularity. Rath Yatra is a journey in a chariot accompanied by the public. It typically refers to a procession or journey of deities, people dressed like deities, or simply religious saints and political leaders.

Supreme Court passed an order on 18 June which restrained the people from holding the Rath Yatra this year keeping in view the danger presented by gathering of 10 to 12 lakhs devotees for a period of 10-12 days.The apex court gave the reason that any spread of the Coronavirus due to the Rath Yatra would be disastrous due to the large number of persons and the impossibility of tracking all the infected people after they have gone back to their respective homes. Needless to say that it is not possible to screen the medical conditions of all those who converge on the cities for the Rath Yatra.

In modification of its earlier June 18 order imposing a complete ban on the Rath Yatra at Puri, a bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde, Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and AS Bopanna have allowed the Rath Yatra to proceed without the general congregation of participants subject to the certain conditions as laid down in the order. The conditions are mentioned below.

  1. All entry points into the City of Puri, i.e., airports, railway stations, bus stands, etc., shall be closed during the period of Rath Yatra festival.
  2. The State Government shall impose a curfew in the City of Puri on all the days and during all the time when Rath Yatra chariots are taken in procession. The Government may also impose curfew in the city of Puri on such other days and such time as deemed necessary. During the period of curfew no one would be allowed to come out of their houses or their places of residence, such as, hotels, lodging houses, etc. To start with, the curfew shall begin tonight at 8 P.M.
  3. Each Rath, i.e.., Chariot, shall be pulled by not more than 500 persons. Each of those 500 persons shall be tested for the Coronavirus. They shall be permitted to pull the chariot only if they have been found negative. The number 500 shall include ocials and police personnel.
  4. There shall be an interval of one hour between two chariots.
  5. Each of those who is engaged in pulling the chariot shall maintain social distancing before, during and after the Rath Yatra.
  6. We are informed that certain rituals are associated with the Rath Yatra. We direct that only such persons shall be associated with the rituals who have been found to have tested negative and shall maintain social distancing.
  7. The primary responsibility for conducting the Rath Yatra in accordance with the conditions and other norms shall be that of the Committee in-charge of Puri Jagannath Temple Administration. Each member of the Committee shall be responsible for due compliance with the conditions imposed by this Court and the general directions which govern ensuring of public health issued by the Union Government. In addition, the o cers designated by the State Government for conduct of the Rath Yatra shall be responsible likewise.
  8. The rituals and the Rath Yatra shall be freely covered by the visual media. The State Government shall allow TV cameras to be installed at such places as may be necessary by the TV crew.
  9. The bare minimum number of people shall be allowed by the Committee to participate in the rituals and in the Rath Yatra. We take a note of the fact that the State of Orissa has a good record of having controlled the pandemic with a very little loss of life. We see no reason why the same attitude of care and caution should not be applied to the Rath Yatra.
  10. The State Government may take such help as may be found necessary from the Union Government. Shri Tushar Mehta, learned Solicitor General, has assured the Court that the Union Government shall offer all assistance and help to the State Government in this endeavour;
  11. The State Government shall maintain a record containing details of all those who have been allowed to participate in the Rath Yatra or the rituals connected therewith along with details of their medical conditions after testing.

Earlier today, Supreme Court had allowed the Rath Yatra at Puri and had ordered that the Centre and State should “work in tandem”, Detailed instructions of which were to be released and stated in the signed copy of the order “soon to be released”. The Central Government supported the modification of the stay order to allow the Rath Yatra after taking necessary precautions. Solicitor General submitted that there are guidelines of the Central Government, as per which the Rath Yatra can be carried out without compromising health and safety. He asserted that no compromise shall be made while carrying out the Puri Rath Yatra in terms of health and safety. “Traditions of centuries cannot be stopped. It is a matter of faith for crores. If Lord Jagannath will not come out tomorrow, he cannot come out for 12 years as per traditions”, the SG had submitted in the morning.

Author’s Opinion

Devotion is in the mind and not in physical presence.

The author is of the opinion that the apex court might have made a mistake by modifying the order dated 18.06.2020 and allowing the Rath Yatra. Public health should always be the utmost priority. Conducting rituals while keeping the lives of thousand at stake is not a practical thing. Now is not the time to consider the sentiments of the people. The court should have looked at the safety of people at large. If the rath yatra results in spread of coronavirus then it will eventually infect the people who were not part of the yatra. We have already witnessed the Tablighi Jamaat gathering case which resulted in a spike in number of cases in Delhi. The Tablighi Jamaat event and the ban of Rath Yatra was made a religious issue in no time. We should keep in mind that the virus does not infect people after looking at their religion. We must fight the coronavirus as one by practicing social distancing and avoiding mass gathering of people. The author advises people to stay at home and worship deities from their respective houses. It is the thought that counts not physical presence.

The state of Odisha currently has 1,421 active cases (as on June 21, 2020) and 14 deaths due to coronavirus. The state has done a decent job in keeping the number of cases low but this can change in one day. The apex court had pointed out in the order that in the 18th-19th century a yatra of this kind was responsible for the spread of cholera and plague like wild fire. If we learn from our mistakes then they are no longer a mistake, instead they turn into lessons. We should have learnt from our mistakes during the spread of cholera and plague in 18-19th century and the Tablighi Jamaat event and should have stopped the yatra. Now time will tell if the limitations set by the apex court is respected and strictly followed. If this is not the case then there will be a big spike in coronavirus cases in a weeks time and we might end up regretting going through with the yatra.

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