The Odisha government, which has accepted the Supreme Court's stay on the Rath Yatra in Puri this year in view of the Covid-19 pandemic, has come under pressure amid growing demands from different quarters for holding a "devotee-less" festival, instead of giving it a miss.
Gajapati Maharaj Dibyasingha Deb who is the titular king of Puri and considered the first servitor of Lord Jagannath, Puri Shankaracharya Swai Nischalananda Saraswati and associations of servitors of the Shree Jagannath Temple in the pilgrim town urged the state government to hold the festival sans the presence of devotees.
There was also a suggestion that, to honour the sentiment of the public, the administration bring an ordinance to bypass the apex court's order, as was done by the government to continue with the practice of Jallikattu, a bull-taming sport, in Tamil Nadu.
Opposition political parties attacked the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government on the issue. A senior official said the administration is closely watching the situation and will respond at an appropriate time.
Deb, the chairperson of the Shree Jagannath Temple Managing Committee, claimed that the state government did not properly apprise the Supreme Court of plans to hold a crowd-less festival this year, which attracts lakhs of devotees from across the globe.
The committee had earlier recommended to the state government that a devotee-less Ratha Yatra was possible as was done during the Lord's 'Snan Purnima' (bathing rituals) on June 5.
However, Deb alleged that the state government did not inform the SC of the recommendations, because of which the apex court decided to put a stay on the world-famous festival which is scheduled to start from June 23.
Deb further said the devotees can witness the festival through television as it has been done during the Snan Purnima. Instead of opposing the petition seeking cancellation of the Ratha Yatra, the state government's counsel seemed to have supported it which led to the passing of an order to stay the festival.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde on June 18 said that in the interest of public health and safety of citizens, this year's Rath Yatra at Puri can't be allowed.
Puri Shankaracharya Swai Nischalananda Saraswati welcomed the SC order in the wake of the pandemic but said, "The festival can be held with a limited number of servitors in the absence of devotees who can have darshan of the deities through television."
The Shankaracharya said the age-old tradition in the 12th century shrine should not be stalled.
The Chhattisa Nijog, the apex body of the servitors of the temple, also did not accept the idea of cancelling the Ratha Yatra of the sibling deities - Lord Balabhadra, Lord Jagannath and Devi Subhadra.
Deb said the managing committee and the Chhattisha Nijog have urged the state government to move an application in the Supreme Court for modification of the June 18 order and sought steps to conduct the festival in a restricted way.
Hundreds of servitors on Saturday staged a silent protest in front of the shrine by holding placards urging the Supreme Court to modify its decision and allow the Rath Yatra.
"Even during the British Raj, the Rath Yatra was not stopped," said Ramakrushna Mohapatra, a member of the Daitapati Nijog, a body of servitors.
A delegation of the Daitapati Nijog also met the Shankaracharya and sought his intervention. "We urged the Guruji (Shankaracharya) to mount pressure on the government to hold the festival as stoppage of the tradition will hurt the sentiments of lakhs of devotees across the world," said Daitapati Nijog president Rabinda Dasmohapatra.
Meanwhile, the 'Naba Jouban Darshan', a ritual when the deities give darshan to the devotees 15 days after the Snan Purnima, was performed inside the temple.
With the Ratha Yatra day coming close, the sentiments and emotions among the devotees across the state were running high. Multiple petitions were filed on Friday in the Supreme Court seeking modifications to the original stay order on the festival.
One Aftab Hossen, the Odisha Jagannath Sanskruti Janjagran Manch, Daitapati Nijog and the International Hindu Mahansangha have filed separate petitions in the apex court.
One Laxmidhar Biswal of Puri district also appealed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to bring an ordinance for smooth functioning of the Rath Yatra.
He urged the authorities to bring an ordinance akin to the one made by Tamil Nadu government for allowing Jallikattu in 2017, after the sport was banned by the Supreme Court.
The state also witnessed a political slugfest with opposition parties alleging that lack of inclination on the part of the state government has led to a stay on the festival.
"I think the state government is afraid of the consequences of COVID and therefore it told the court that 10 to 12 lakh people could congregate for the Ratha Yatra. The government did not say a word on the managing committee's proposal of holding a devotee-less festival," said Odisha Congress president Niranjan Patnaik.
BJP leader and Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, however, gave a calculated statement by saying that all have to wait till Monday when the Supreme Court takes up several petitions seeking modification in its June 18 order.
Senior BJD leader Prafulla Ghadai said the Supreme Court will take the final decision and all should abide by it.