Unfazed by the controversies over the development of the surroundings of the Jagannath temple in Puri and the Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneswar, the Naveen Patnaik government has continued to inject massive funds for the facelift of Hindu religious places across Odisha, a decision widely seen as beating the BJP at its own game.
Mr Patnaik inaugurated the new Tara Tarini temple on the bank of the Rushikulya River in his home district of Ganjam on May 18, the fifth and final day of the special pujas.
Redeveloped at an estimated expense of ₹115 crore, the old temple received several tourist amenities such as drinking water facilities, toilets, state-of-the-art lighting systems, and new roads and cable cars.
President Surjya Narayan Patro and Minister of Forests and Environment Bikram Keshari Arukha and a group of MPs accompanied the Chief Minister to the scene.
“Odisha is the land of gods. The tradition of Shakti Puja in Odisha is very old. In the villages of Odisha, worship of deities has existed since time immemorial,” Mr. Patnaik said.
Upon returning to the state capital, the Odisha CM wasted no time in approving the Chandi Temple development in Cuttack at an estimated expense of ₹70 crore.
The project is part of the “Integrated Development of Heritage, Monuments and Tourist Destinations” supported by the 5T Department (Transparency, Technology, Teamwork, Time and Transformation) led by VK Pandian, Lieutenant of confidence of the CM.
On April 27, Mr Patnaik gave the go-ahead for the ₹100 crore development of Nilamadhav Temple, Kantilo in Cuttack district. Nilamadhav Temple, Rahasbihari Mandap, Raghunath Mutt and Batamangala Temple will also be developed.
The day before, April 26, Mr. Pandian visited Sarala Temple in Jagatsinghpur district and reviewed the scope of development around the temple. In all likelihood, the government could announce a temple development project worth millions of rupees.
At present, the state government has spearheaded the ₹200 crore Samaleswari temple development expedition in Sambalpur district. Simultaneous temple renovations were undertaken in Mayurbhanj, Puri and Khordha districts. According to a senior leader of Biju Janata Dal (BJD), at least one temple from each district would be taken over for redevelopment.
Setbacks of projects
The BJD government led by Mr. Patnaik has, however, experienced setbacks in its flagship projects – the 12th century Jagannath temple, Puri and the 11th century Lingaraj temple.
The ₹800 crore Shree Mandir Parikrama project in Puri and the ₹700 crore peripheral redevelopment of the Lingaraj temple had sparked controversy when the BJD government was criticized for trampling on archaeological treasures in its unwavering determination to give the temples a facelift .
Work around the Lingaraj temple has almost ceased after the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) came across ancient temple structures under the land identified for redevelopment around the 900-year-old temple.
When massive pillars were erected just meters from the Jagannath temple in Puri, experts and political leaders expressed fears about its possible impact on the main temple. After a public interest plea was filed in the Orissa High Court, ASI informed the court that the state government had not obtained the required permission for the construction, which is located less than 100 meters from the non-development area of Puri Temple.
In both cases, the ASI, the central agency and custodian of the monuments, was seen putting up roadblocks to the development. In fact, there was a growing suspicion among the regional party base that the BJP was waging a fight from behind the scenes by bringing the ASI to the fore.
In the domestic political scenario, the BJP is perceived to be way ahead of other parties in the competitive temples politics. The BJP-led NDA is now looking forward to the ongoing construction of the Ayodhya temple and the completion of the Kashi-Viswanath corridor project. The BJD complains that when such large-scale projects have not encountered ASI obstacles, why the two projects in Odisha alone have been entangled in restrictive monument laws.
However, the regional party is in no mood to give weight to the saffron party. We see that the BJD has started to hijack the Hindutva model of the BJP.
The BJP found themselves on a sticky wicket. The party wants to be seen as blocking temple development projects and at the same time it cannot let the BJD run with credit for temple development, which has been its forte.
While the BJP state unit maintains a studied silence on the allegation that the Naveen Patnaik government imposed laws to redevelop the temples, Bhubaneswar MP and national spokesperson Aparajita Sarangi and her colleague Sambit Patra are at the forefront of criticism of temple projects. Political observers said the BJP, through the two leaders, was testing the waters.
The Odisha BJP had only announced the “Save Jagannath Temple” campaign on social media. Sri Mandira Surakshya Abhijan, an organization with links to the Sangh Parivar, had said it would move the Supreme Court with a plea to stop construction in Puri.
Meanwhile, Puri’s BJP MLA Jayanta Sarangi has broken ranks and insisted on the speedy completion of the Puri project.
Although the Orissa High Court heard a public interest plea and the ASI submitted a damaging report, the controversial construction around the Jagannath temple continues. Naveen Patnaik’s government has announced that it will modify its detailed project report to meet ASI’s reservations, but will not deviate from its redevelopment plan.
The BJD leadership realized it would be difficult to match its “womb-to-grave” welfare programs and women’s empowerment campaign, but the BJP could make inroads into the political space by stoking religious issues. By undertaking massive temple development projects, the regional party has apparently blocked this possibility as well.