As the Shree Jagannath Temple in Puri reopens for devotees after four months on Monday, it will put to test the temple administration’s strategy that could become a template for other shrines during the pandemic.
A comprehensive inoculation drive for the over 3,500 servitors and their family members forms the core of the strategy. A top temple administration official said they were working out a strict protocol for entry, onboarding all stakeholders, and adapting to the temple’s unique challenges.
The plan for the entry of devotees evolved in the months after last year’s Rath Yatra, when the temple administration took out the chariots of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, and Devi Subhadra without the presence of devotees for the first time in recorded history, Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) Chief Administrator Krishan Kumar told The Indian Express.
He added that the biggest challenge was last year’s Rath Yatra, especially because of the circumstances. The pandemic was new at the time, and there was a high fear of the unknown, said the IAS officer who took charge months before the pandemic struck.
It was the Supreme Court that cleared the uncertainty around the annual yatra, which attracted up to 12 lakh devotees a day in pre-pandemic times.
The chariots were rolled out and safely brought back and gave the officials a rough idea about the strategy. As a first step, the servitors were repeatedly screened, health and administration officials said.
Kumar said even the biggest pandemic of the century could not stop the yatra.
Following the second Covid-19 wave, the temple was shut on April 24, barely months after reopening. The temple drew around 50,000 devotees daily before the pandemic, among the highest figures in India. The administration began working on a plan, holding multiple meetings with stakeholders such as health officials and agreed that they needed to address the devotees’ religious sensibilities as the virus was here to stay and reopen the temple.
This year’s Rath Yatra was also conducted without public participation, but the administration had learnt its lessons and was better prepared. Around 12,000 people were testing using RT-PCR before the yatra and visitors were barred from entering the city.
However, certain issues still needed to be tackled before the administration could reopen the temple as a virus outbreak could wreak havoc.
Several challenges, including some specific to the temple, were raised during meetings between district officials and the temple administration.
Lord Jagannath being a ‘living’ deity, different sets of servitors are involved for each task. Each day, there are 19 mandatory and major rituals, with the number rising significantly on special days.
Madhab Chandra Pujapanda, a member of the managing committee where he represents a group of servitors, said around 1,200 sevayats take part in the daily rituals.
Health officials said ensuring the servitors’ safety was the main concern, especially since they could not wear masks during the rituals. As a result, spreading awareness became the key, they said.
Puri district was reporting around 250 Covid-19 cases a day on average during May and June, said Chief District Medical Officer Dr. Sujata Mishra.
She said the district administration carried out awareness and inoculation drives at the servitors’ doorstep, leading to encouraging figures. The district’s daily average caseload addition now is around 25-30, she said.
However, the likelihood of a third wave still remains.
The temple’s chief priest Pattajoshi Mohapatra said the pandemic broke the backbone of the city’s economy, which is reliant on visitors to the temple. The servitors, who supplemented their income from the offering the devotees made, had to rely on their savings for survival.
The administration got the servitors on board, and then rolled out an intensive exercise to secure them and their family members in March.
Dr. Mishra said 99 per cent of servitors and their family members in the 45-plus category have been fully vaccinated. Around 91 per cent and 66 per cent in the 18-plus category have received one and both doses, respectively.
The servitors have also gone through multiple Covid-19 tests as well this year.
According to temple officials, ensuring the safety of the servitors and their family members was key. The families were provided sanitisers cans for free for around Rs 2 crore, said Kumar. The servitors were also given health insurance.
The temple administration then moved to keep the servitors’ confidence amid the financial hardships of the lockdown. It announced Rs 20,000 in aid to each servitor family, raising the relief amount by Rs 5,000 from last year.
With the servitors onside and cases declining, the temple and district administrations decided to reopen the temple for devotees.
Kumar said there were talks of putting a cap on devotees, but that was quickly rejected.
On August 4, it was decided to have a staggered reopening — for families of servitors from August 11, devotees of Puri municipality from August 16, and others from August 23 — following strict Covid-19 protocols.
As per the SJTA’s SOP, devotees need to show either a double vaccination certificate or a negative RT-PCR test report no older than 96 hours to enter. The temple will remain open between 7 am and 7 pm on weekdays, while weekends would be used to sanitise the complex.
Officials expect a daily footfall of 10,000 once the temple opens for devotees from outside the state. They see the number going up to 25,000 in two weeks. Kumar said the challenges included managing the devotees’ interface with the servitors without hurting sensibilities.
Mohapatra, the chief priest, said the task of the servitors would be uphill and it might not be possible to maintain social distancing at all times. He appealed to the devotees, however, to maintain social distance and remain safe.