Test of the Covid model at the reopening of the Puri temple

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WHEN THE Shree Jagannath Temple in Odisha’s Puri, one of the four Hindu pilgrimage centers, reopens after four months to worshipers across the country on Monday, it will test a strategy that could eventually be a model for d ‘other religious shrines. in these times of pandemic.

At the heart of the strategy is a comprehensive vaccination campaign for the more than 3,500 temple servants and their families, developing a strict Covid protocol for temple entry, considering all stakeholders and ensuring adapting to temple-specific challenges, according to the senior official responsible for temple administration.

The plan evolved in the months following the Rath Yatra in 2020, when the chariots of Lord Jagannath and his siblings Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra were withdrawn without the participation of worshipers for the first time in recorded history. , Krishan Kumar, chief administrator of Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA), said Indian express.

“The biggest challenge was to eliminate the Rath Yatra from last year, given the circumstances,” he said. The pandemic was new and the fear of the unknown was higher, said the IAS 2002 batch officer, who was appointed to the post about seven months before the pandemic hit.

It was left to the Supreme Court to dispel the uncertainty surrounding the annual yatra, which in pre-Covid times attracted as many as 12 lakh worshipers in a single day.

After the second wave of the pandemic, when the temple was closed on April 24, months after it reopened, the administration began working on the plan. (Photo courtesy: SJTA)

The court cleared the Rath Yatra, which involves at least two months of preparation when the chariots are built, and ends with a nine-day visit by the twelfth-century shrine deities to their aunt’s house, a day before the date, with strict social distancing conditions and no public participation – and a cap on the number of minions pulling the tanks.

The chariots were taken out of the temple by the servants and returned unharmed, giving the officials involved a draft of the strategy. Repeated screening of servants for Covid-19 was the first step, health and administration officials said. The vaccines had not yet arrived.

“Despite the biggest pandemic of the century, the Rath Yatra has not stopped,” Kumar said.

“For the temple, this was the most crucial,” said Janardhan Pattajoshi Mohapatra, the chief priest of Chattisa Nijog, the supreme body of servants, as an important entry into the Panji Mandala could not be missed. The Mandala Panji, the Lord’s daily journal in which every event, big or small, at the temple is noted, has been maintained for over 600 years without interruption.

Before the pandemic struck, the Jagannath Temple had a daily attendance of around 50,000 people, among the highest in India. (Photo courtesy: SJTA)

After the second wave of the pandemic, when the temple was closed on April 24, months after it reopened, the administration began working on the plan. Multiple meetings and communications later, all stakeholders, including health officials, agreed that the virus is here to stay and that a way out must be found to address the religious sensitivities of the faithful. The temple had to reopen.

Before the pandemic struck, the Jagannath Temple had a daily attendance of around 50,000 people, among the highest in India. In Odisha, the Jagannath culture is seen as a basic doctrine of life, which promotes a holistic approach. And “Jay Jagannath” is a form of greeting for the people, which has been used more and more in the political space in recent years.

With vaccines came hope. This year the Rath Yatra went safely – again without public participation, but the administration was better prepared. Prior to the yatra, RT-PCR tests were performed on approximately 12,000 people, including district and temple administration officials, and approximately 5,000 police officers who participated in the exercise. The city was made out of bounds for visitors.

But the problems had to be resolved before the temple could be reopened; people could be exposed, said officials engaged in the exercise for a year. An epidemic could wreak havoc.

During meetings between the temple administration and district officials, several concerns were raised, including a set of challenges specific to the temple and its deity.

Since Lord Jagannath is a “living” deity, daily rituals involve different sets of servants for each task – from waking him up and brushing his teeth to putting him to bed at night. There are 19 mandatory and major rituals each day, and many more on special days.

During meetings between the temple administration and district officials, several concerns were raised, including a set of challenges specific to the temple and its deity. (Photo courtesy: SJTA)

“In total, around 1,200 sevayats are involved in the daily rituals,” said Madhab Chandra Pujapanda, who represents a group of temple management committee servants headed by Gajapati Maharaj Dibyasingh Deb, the titular king, who is considered the highest servant.

Ensuring the safety of the servants was the main concern, especially since they cannot wear face masks while performing the rituals, each of which involves dozens of them. Awareness was key, health officials said.

In May and June of this year, the district of Puri was reporting an average of up to 250 positive Covid cases per day, said Dr Sujata Mishra, chief medical officer for the district. The numbers were high enough and the response had to be adequate for the temple to reopen.

Awareness and vaccination campaigns were carried out at the servants’ doors, Dr Mishra said. The decline in the number of cases in the district is encouraging. “Currently, the daily average [number of cases] is about 25-30 per day in the district, ”she said.

But the fear of a third wave was still there.

“Covid has broken the backbone of Puri’s economy,” Chief Priest Pattajoshi Mohapatra said, referring to the city’s ecosystem that depends on visitors. The servants, who watched the devotees’ offerings to supplement their income, had to fall back on their savings to survive last year.

With the servants on board, an intensive exercise to secure them and their families was deployed in March as a priority. “So far 99% of servants and their family members in the age group 45 and over have taken both doses of the vaccine. In the 18+ category, 91% took the first dose and 66% both, ”said Dr Mishra.

“Covid tests have been carried out on us several times this year,” Senior Servant Rajat Kumar Pratihari said.

Temple officials said securing the servants and their families was the main concern. “Cans of disinfectant were provided free of charge to the families,” said Kumar, for whom the temple administration spent around 2 crore rupees. The servants also had health insurance.

The next step was to maintain the trust of the servants, given their financial difficulties during the lockdown. The temple administration announced aid of Rs 20,000 to each family of servants, increasing aid it gave last year by Rs 5,000, the servants said.

“The servants had stood near the temple for hundreds of years. It was time for the temple to stand by their side, ”Kumar said.

With the servants on board and the number of cases drastically decreasing across the country, the district and temple administrations saw an opportunity to reopen the shrine – with caution – for worshipers. Further consultations followed.

“The idea was clear – all or nothing,” Kumar said, referring to any suggestion to cap the number of worshipers.

It was then decided at a meeting on August 4 to have a phased reopening. For the families of the servants on August 11, for the faithful in the Municipality of Puri on August 16, and for everyone else on August 23 – with strict Covid protocols.

Entry will require a double vaccination certificate or negative RT-PCR report less than 96 hours old, according to a list of SOPs released by the SJTA on Aug. 11. The faithful can only enter between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and only on weekdays. The weekends were devoted to disinfecting the complex.

For the faithful of Puri, the reopening has been phased – 30 municipal wards over five days. Once the temple reopens for worshipers outside Odisha, officials expect attendance to be less than 10,000 per day initially, and around 25,000 in two weeks. The challenges, Kumar said, include managing the servant-devotee interface, without hurting sensitivities.

The servants said the task would be uphill – social distancing may not be possible at all times. “We call on the faithful to maintain social distance and stay safe,” Chief Priest Pattajoshi Mohapatra said.


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