When the juggernaut rolls during the Rath Yatra festival in Puri on July 4, a discordant note amid the revelry would be the missing keys to Lord Jagannath temple’s treasure trove—the Ratna Bhandar. It would be more than a year since the keys went ‘missing’, and no one knows if some of the precious jewellery worth crores of rupees have also disappeared. Nor does anyone know if the keys marked ‘duplicate’ that mysteriously surfaced at the record room of the district collector’s office, nine days after the keys were reported missing on April 4, 2018, were actually the keys of the Ratna Bhandar.
In what is perhaps the only case of its kind in the country, an embarrassed state government had ordered a judicial inquiry on June 7, 2018, six days after a leading Odia TV news channel broke the story of a heated discussion about the missing keys at the meeting of the temple management committee on the same day when the keys were reported missing. As per the minutes of the meeting revealed by the news channel, Gajapati Dibyasingh Deb, the ‘first servitor’ of the temple, expressed his unhappiness over the shoddy handling of the affair.
The inquiry commission headed by Justice Raghubir Das, a retired judge of the Orissa High Court, submitted its 324-page final report to the government on November 30, 2018, well before its six-month deadline. And there the matter has rested ever since. The report is yet to be placed in the assembly and no one knows what it contains or what action has been taken on its recommendations. “The inquiry report has been submitted to the government, which will decide on what action is to be taken,” says Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) chief administrator Pradipta Mohapatra, on being asked about the report. But aren’t six months enough for the government to act on an issue that has left millions of Lord Jagannath devotees fuming?
The absence of action has spawned speculation that the bulk of the jewellery inside the temple had been pilfered over the years by an unholy nexus of temple officials and servitors. And such speculation has a basis—the last time the Ratna Bhandar was inspected and an inventory made was way back in 1978, even though the Jagannath Temple Act, 1960, stipulates the opening of the treasure trove every six months and the preparation of an inventory every three years.
The temple administration has not tried to see whether the ‘duplicate’ keys can open the chamber gates.
Moreover, the temple administration has made no attempt to find whether the ‘duplicate’ keys can open the Ratna Bhandar gates, strengthening the suspicion of pilferage. In any case, nothing stops it from breaking open the locks and taking stock of the wealth. The whole thing would have remained under wraps had it not been for a high court order asking the temple administration to take stock of the physical condition of the storehouse. On April 4 last year, armed with the order, a 17-member team comprising officials of the temple administration, the state government and the Archeological Survey of India, led by the then SJTA chief administrator Pradeep Jena, had gone with a bunch of keys, but mysteriously returned without entering the room. “The team did not feel the need to go in since we were able to assess the condition of the structure from outside with the help of searchlights,” Jena had told waiting journalists after the team came out. The explanation convinced no one.
“Why didn’t the team go in?” asks Srikumar Shukla, a Puri-based lawyer and journalist. “After all, it was on the high court’s order that they were to enter the Ratna Bhandar. Not sure if the keys they were carrying would open the locks, they had also carried gas cutters to break them open. It does appear rather strange that the team made no attempt to enter the premises or even inform the high court about it.”
A year down the line, several questions remain unanswered. Where did the ‘duplicate’ keys come from when retired temple officials and Jagannath cult experts aver that there was no provision for any duplicate keys in the Temple Act? And why were they found in the record room of the district collectorate instead of the strong room in the district treasury where they are supposed to be? And why is the government sitting on the inquiry report instead of making it public and acting on it?
In the absence of any answers, either by the temple administration or the state government, the field has been left wide open for all kinds of speculation. Most people in Odisha are now convinced that the state government is reluctant to enter the Ratna Bhandar and do a much needed stocktaking because it knows the bulk of the jewellery has gone missing.
Since no inventory has been made for over four decades now, no one knows the size of the temple wealth. But even the most conservative estimate by those in the know puts the figure at several hundred crores. “Top jewellers from Mumbai and Gujarat had been invited to assess the value of the ornaments during the reign of the Gajapati king, but they failed to put a figure to it as they had never before seen some of the rare diamonds they found inside. You can guess the size of the wealth then,” Surendra Mishra, an expert on the Jagannath cult, had told Outlook when the controversy broke last year. Mishra believed that only a CBI inquiry would bring out the truth. But that is asking for too much from a state government that has been sitting over the inquiry report on the missing keys for over six months now.
By Sandeep Sahu in Puri