Even As COVID-19 Cases Continue to Spike, India Observes Massive Religious Gathering

India’s Supreme Court allowed the Rath Yatra in Odisha to proceed, but has banned devotees from attending the festival.
June 24, 2020, 11:17am
Even As COVID-19 Cases Continue to Spike, India Observes Massive Religious Gathering
Ditties of Shree Jagannath temple and Hindu devotees wait to pull the three chariots (L) on the occasion of the annual Shree Jagannath chariot festival in Puri, 65 km from Bhubaneswar, on June 23, 2020. Photo courtesy of STR / AFP

UPDATE 23/06/2020: A previous version of the article said India had reported 15,372 cases on Tuesday, which did not reflect official figures. We have now updated our piece to reflect the latest data, which says 14821 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Monday, June 22.

An Indian state is struggling to enforce social distancing during one of the most high-profile temple festivals in the country after the top court allowed it to take place.

The seven-day Rath Yatra - chariot festival - of the 425-year-old Jagannath temple in Puri, located in the eastern state of Odisha, began on June 23. The annual festival usually sees millions of devotees gather to take the idols that represent Lord Jagannath and his family to various temples across the state in hand-drawn chariots.

The Supreme Court’s Monday order allowing the festival, among other restrictions, banned devotees from attending. It looked easier said than done on Tuesday: a tweet from the Odisha Chief Minister showed him watching the procession on a television, but the screen itself showed a crowded event.

The Chief Justice of India had on June 18 remarked, “Lord Jagannath won’t forgive us if we allow it,” while banning the festival citing possible spread of COVID-19 among the festival’s participants. The court reversed its order on Monday after multiple parties appealed.

“It would indeed be unfortunate if its practices are broken in modern independent India which constitutionally recognises and guarantees freedom of religion,” states the appeal filed by Janardhan Pattajoshi Mohapatra, the chief priest of the temple.

In an indication of how politically fraught the situation was, India’s Home Minister was quick to talk up the Narendra Modi-led government’s role in ensuring the festival took place.

Each of the 14-metre high temple chariots, newly carved each year from Neem trees, are usually pulled by more than 1,000 people. The arduousness of the task is best-described by the fact that the word “juggernaut” has its origins in the name of the presiding deity and the chariot festival of the temple.

Among the Supreme Court’s many instructions for holding the festival was restricting the number of people allowed to pull each of the chariots to 500. On Tuesday, in a sign of how back-breaking the task was, chariot-pullers left their masks hanging around their necks instead of wearing them.

The Supreme Court order only allows for the priests involved in the ritual to take part, and has called for a curfew throughout the state. Odisha’s borders have also been sealed.

Video footage from Tuesday showed the temple premises being sanitised before the event began. This was followed by crowds chanting and dancing to the sound of traditional instruments. In one video, hoards of people pressed together can be seen mounting the chariot.

In his petition before the Supreme Court, chief priest Mohapatra said that the festival has been cancelled only 32 times in 425 years. He said the last time it could not be held was when Mohammed Taqi Khan, the Naib Nazim (deputy governor) of Odisha, attacked the Jagannath temple, first in 1731, then between the years of 1733 and 1735.

Mohapatra’s petition said that the festival had gone forward even when India was faced with the deadly 1918-19 Spanish flu outbreak. An estimated 12 million Indians died during the outbreak, which is said to have killed more than 500 million people globally.

However, a study on the impact of the flu in India states that, “The week of October 13, 1918 shows the early regional peaks in the western province of Bombay, the south-eastern province of Madras, and a small area on the eastern coast of India near the important Hindu pilgrimage site of Puri.” This has prompted some people to believe the festival may have been responsible for the spike at the time.

Puri and the chariot festival were linked to repeated cholera outbreaks in the past. A book titled Local Self-government in British Orissa, 1869-1935, also claims Scottish historian William Hunter called Puri a “valley of death” for the unsanitary way in which the 5,000-odd lodging houses of the town housed 90,000 pilgrims. Hunter’s observations about local administration are apposite: “Since it is a sentimental attachment to Lord Jagannath and may invite public fury, Mr. Greg did not like to enforce discipline in the preparation of food for the pilgrims”

Sujit Mahapatra, an academic and volunteer at Odisha-based educational foundation Bakul, who has written about Puri’s history with Cholera also points out how instances of pilgrimages that accelerate the spread of diseases vilify entire communities. “Hunter’s quotes shows how the British and Europeans viewed Hindu and Muslim pilgrims as rogues and criminals. We saw it happening with the Jews during the Black Death in Europe, and now with Muslims during COVID-19,”

However, Mahapatra feels that the precautions taken on Tuesday strike a fine balance between going ahead with the festival and not hurting religious sentiments.

Mahapatra was referring to the vilification of Indian Muslims by governments, bureaucrats and media after the attendees of a gathering of the Islamic evangelical movement Tablighi Jamaat ended up being the source of 4,000 COVID-19 cases around the country.

On Tuesday, many on social media criticised the absence of social distancing in videos of the Rath Yatra.

According to temple officials, more than 1,000 priests involved in the rituals were tested for COVID-19 to comply with the Supreme Court’s order. One priest tested positive and was placed in quarantine.

The High Court of the Western State of Gujarat however declined permission to Ahmedabad’s Rath Yatra festival, which ends an uninterrupted 143-year run.

This was done since the COVID-19 situation in Gujarat is far riskier than that in Odisha, with the Supreme Court order even stating that Odisha has a “good record of having controlled the pandemic with very little loss of life.” At the time of writing this, Odisha had more than 5,470 confirmed cases and 17 deaths.

The Gujarat court’s order had come at 2 AM; in a sign of how politically important the festival is, the Gujarat Chief Minister reached the temple early morning and performed a ritual.

Saudi Arabia has announced that it would be observing similar precautions and hosting only a limited number of people for Hajj, the holy pilgrimage that people from across the world take to the city of Mecca.

On Monday, India recorded nearly 15,000 new COVID-19 cases. The Indian Council for Medical Research maintains that there is no community transmission in the country, which has reported more than 440,000 cases and 14,000 deaths.

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This article originally appeared on VICE IN.