Bhubaneswar: The first Nabakalebara of the century (and indeed the millennium), which also happens to be its first fully televised edition, has unfortunately turned out to be also the most controversial.

Everything that could have gone wrong has gone horribly wrong so far. But the bigger worry is there is a lot that can go wrong between now and July 18, which would mark the culmination of the gigantic, four-month long religious exercise called ‘Nabakalebara’ that comes roughly every 19 years and involves a ceremonial change of bodies for the three deities of the Lord Jagannath temple in Puri.

It has been a seemingly unending saga of unsavoury happenings, crash materialism and violation of every tenet of the scriptures that have laid down the elaborate and intricate set of rituals that go into the making of the Nabakalebara. What has made it worse is the deadly mix of politics, personal ambition and plain greed. Things have got to a stage where the faith of the average Odia – for whom the Nabakalebara is as big, if not bigger, as the Kumbh – in the sanctity of the whole exercise has been badly shaken.

The signs that this is not going to be a smooth Nabakalebara were visible even before the process got underway on March 29 with the start of the Banajaga Yatra, the search for the ‘darus’ (the neem trees with divine signs out of which the new wooden idols of the deities are carved).

While the selection of the ‘dalapati’ (team leader) of the Banajaga Yatra team consisting of Daitapati servitors of the Lord Jagannath temple did not pose too many problems, things came to a head over the selection of the ‘upadalapati’ (deputy team leader). Anxious not to displease any factional leader of the powerful Daitapati community, the Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) settled for the unprecedented step of appointing no less than four of them, throwing time-honoured practice out of the window in the process.

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As events proved later, the wrangling over the selection of the Banajaga team positions was only a minor irritant. It is the selection of what the team had set out in search for – the darus – that has been the biggest scandal this Nabakalebara. For the uninitiated, the selection of the four darus for the making of the idols of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra and Lord Sudarshan is supposed to be a divine exercise that involves Goddess Mangala coming in the dream of the Banajaga team leader and telling him the exact location of the daru for each of the deities.

But in a talk show on leading Odia news channel OTV, the dalapati of the Banajaga team admitted, without so much as batting an eyelid, that there had, in fact been no dream!

The candid admission was only the first of many shocks that the average devotee was to receive in the days that followed. Instead of moving on foot in this sacred search as ordained by the temple manual, Daitapatis were seen zipping around in fancy SUVs, stopping every now and then to give interviews to TV channels. The image of the Daitapati as an austere religious emissary in search of something sacred with his attention not wavering for a minute from the task at end went for a toss as the new age Daitapatis took pictures and shot videos of their televised journey on their high-end smart phones and uploaded them on the social media.

But this was nothing in comparison with what came next: allegation of ‘daru fixing’, the new term that entered the lexicon of the Jagannath cult this Nabakalebara. Subsequent events proved that this was not a frivolous allegation and had a sound basis to it. For one thing, three out of the four darus – those of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra – were found in a small area in Jagatsinghpur district, something that was too glaring to be accepted as mere coincidence. [The local media, in fact, had predicted the precise locations where the darus of particular deities would be found at least a fortnight in advance!]

For another, at least two of darus did not meet the stringent criteria laid down in the manuals for idol making. While one had nails driven into it – a strict no-no – the other had a family of owls nesting on a branch, something that should have automatically ruled it out.

Austerity and solemnity went for a six as the first timers in the Banajaga tam, who comprised nearly 70% of the team this time, made it into an occasion for merry making even as their seniors converted it into an occasion for money making (even selling the ‘sacred’ leaves of the neem tree for hefty sums!). Hundis were placed at the site of each daru and generous donations consisting of cash, gold and silver collected every day for the entire fortnight that they spent at the location. Ministers and other VIPs were seen sneaking in and out of the supposedly no-go area called Sabarapalli, their temporary abode, even during the secret rituals. There were reports of glucose sachets vanishing from the shop nearby and ending up at the Sabarapalli on the day when the Daitapatis were supposed to be on a ‘nirajala’ (sans water) fast!

The vulgar display of wealth and greed and the nonchalant violation of established practice and procedure continued through the entire exercise of the felling of the darus, axing them into logs and then transporting them to Puri on wooden carts.

But nothing that had happened till then had prepared the devotee for what transpired on the night of June 15 and the better part of June 16 during the Brahma Parivartan, the transfer of the ‘brahma padartha’ (soul) from the old idols to the new ones. The all-important ritual that should have been mandatorily completed in the dead of the night (as prescribed in the scriptures) on June 15 got completed only around 5 pm the next day.

What sent shockwaves throughout the state was not so much the over 12-hour delay, but the reason for it: an unseemly fight breaking out over entry into the ‘anasara pindi’, the place where the soul transfer takes place. While the centuries-old temple tradition mandates that only the four ‘badagrahis’ (body protectors) of the deities do the Brahma Parivartan blind-folded and in complete darkness, the warring Daitapatis themselves revealed after coming out that nearly a 100 had barged inside, many of them had ‘darshan’ of the ‘Brahma’ and even touched it. The revelation that most of them had taken their mobile phones inside spawned fanciful stories about the ‘Brahma’ having been ‘shot’ on camera and sold out for a huge but undisclosed amount! Pictures of the supposed ‘Brahma’ are already doing the rounds on the social media.

Also doing the rounds of the social media – and now even the mainstream media – are photographs of Law minister Arun Sahu, the man in official charge of the affairs of the temple, getting up, close and pally-pally with the Daitapatis. No wonder, went the reasoning, the Daitapatis are calling all the shots, breaking every rule, flouting every tradition and hurting the religious sentiments of the people.

Predictably, the Opposition has started baying for the heads of Sahu and chief administrator of the SJTA Suresh Mohapatra and now Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik himself.

The extent of the public outrage over the incestuous relationship between leaders of the BJD and some senior Daitapatis (a few of them card holding members of the ruling party) leading to the gross bungling of the Nabakalebara rituals became clear when people across the state lent their unstinted support to the 12-hour bandh called by the Congress on Friday.

In his 15 uninterrupted years in power, Naveen has hit every challenge thrown at him for a six. But he may find this one too hot to handle. Because Odias would tolerate anything, but not anything that even remotely hurts their sentiments for Lord Jagannath.

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Scandalous lapse in Lord Jagannath’s rituals: Why this will be too hot for Naveen to handle