First time in 284 years, pandemic halts a Hindu god’s festival

Migrant workers in India waiting for transportation to go home. Photo: Reuters.

Lord Jagannath, the favorite deity of millions of Indians including central bank Governor Shaktikanta Das, won’t have his annual ceremonial procession for the first time in almost three centuries amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Supreme Court on Thursday prohibited the festival, which goes on for about 10 days, citing risks to public health and safety. Hundreds of thousands of devotees flock to the eastern city of Puri every year to pull Jagannath’s giant 45-foot rath or chariot, which gives us the English term ‘juggernaut.’

“Rath Yatra and related activities will result in huge gathering,” Chief Justice S.A. Bobde said during the hearing. “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow it.”

The pandemic, which has sickened more than 350,000 people in India and killed about 12,000, has prevented religious celebrations including the Catholic Easter and Islam’s Eid al-Fitr. Hindu-majority India is now heading into a series of festivals — such as the birthday of the elephant-headed god Ganesha — which typically spur consumption, the bedrock of the economy that is set for a rare contraction.

“Covid-19, a virus of the size of 0.12 microns, has crippled the global economy,” Das said in a speech last month, while unveiling stimulus measures. Soon after taking over as governor of the Reserve Bank of India in 2018, Das decorated his office with two statues of Lord Jagannath, a form of the Hindu god Vishnu depicted with round, lidless eyes that are believed to be always watching over the welfare of devotees.

The festival was set to start this year on June 23. The yatra — Sanskrit word for ‘trip’ — marks Lord Jagannath and his siblings leaving the sanctum of the temple to mingle with devotees. Local belief holds that the deities are emerging from their home following a 14-day quarantine as Jagannath developed a fever after a cold bath.

The government had invoked this ritual, called ‘anasara’ or isolation, to convince people of the state to follow lockdown rules and contain the coronavirus.

“In wake of the pandemic situation, it has been decided to conduct all the Rath yatra rituals including the Lord’s return car festival, inside the temple premises going by the government guidelines,” the Mint newspaper reported citing temple officials. Krishan Kumar, chief administrator of Shree Jagannath Temple Administration, was unavailable for comment, according to an official who answered the phone at his office.

The last time the festival could not be held was between 1733 and 1735, when Taqi Khan attacked the Jagannath temple, forcing the shifting of the idols.

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