In recent developments coming from Odisha, the state government has decided to hand over the control of the Govardhan Math (Hindu monasteries) to Puri’s Shankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati by taking it out of the purview of the Orissa Hindu Religious Endowment Act, 1951.
“The state cabinet which met in the evening passed a proposal to exclude the Govardhan Math from the Act considering the pre-eminence and the unique place occupied by the Shankaracharya among Hindu religious institutions of State. The state cabinet resolution said an amendment in the Act will be made soon for better upkeep of the religious pre-eminence and importance of the institution”, chief secretary Asit Tripathy said.
This move by the Odisha government comes in the backdrop of growing discontentment against Odisha government’s move to redevelop areas around the 12th century Jagannath Puri Temple. Since last month the Puri district administration has been on a demolition drive aiming at old structures within 75 meters radius of the Jagannath Temple. The district administration has also claimed that the Rs 500 crore mega plan would turn Puri into a world heritage city and help to prevent terrorism. Parts of the centuries-old Emar Math and Languli Math have already been demolished.
However, now the state government seems to be on the back foot after firm criticism from devotees and priests. It is to note that the demolitions were conducted based on the report of a committee headed by a retired judge of Odisha High Court BP Das, however, Shankaracharya of Puri, Swami Nischalananda Saraswati alleged that the BP Das Commission had not taken any suggestions and feedback from the stakeholders in this connection.
“Whatever report submitted by Amicus Curiae and Das Commission to government and the Supreme Court, respectively is completely invalid. As BP Das Commission submitted its report without consulting the head of the religious institution, the report is a conspiracy to declare Puri Srimandir as a secular entity instead of a religious one.”
Also taking on Odisha government is the apex court which lashed out on at the Odisha government earlier this month for demolishing several old Math around the Jagannath temple which many have claimed to be essential for worship in the temple. Asking the state government to stop from “interfering in rituals of the religion if it doesn’t understand them”, the court said, “something is very wrong here. How can you destroy math like this?” The court also directed the state government to consult spiritual leaders such as the Puri Shankaracharya and other stakeholders who were left out earlier for consultations before continuing with the demolition drive.
Hindu religious sites have long been a victim of exploitation by political forces, from the invasion by radical Islamists to current day ‘secular’ governments. Different state governments have enforced laws through which they have assumed both financial and administrative control of Hindu religious sites. The Supreme Court had earlier too questioned the government authorities taking over financial and administrative control of Hindu temples. The Supreme court had said that the task of managing the affairs of the temples should be left over to the devotees as the court also cited continually degrading management situation of temples under control of various state government.
Nonetheless, despite the state government halting its demolition operations and handing over the control of Govardhan Math to Puri’s Shankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati; still over 16000 temples and 450 Math in the state are controlled by the government through the Odisha Hindu Religious Endowment Act. Other major religious sites under government control include Tirupati temple, Guruvayur temple, Srisailam, Kashi, Mathura, Ayodhya, Vaishno Devi Temple, Siddhi Vinayak Temple, Shirdi Sai Baba Temple, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath and Rameshwaram.