The treasure trove was last opened in 1985 and the keys were later supposed to be deposited with the district treasury. But nobody knows how the keys found their way into the Record Room of the District Collector. Now a judicial commission is probing the matter while Orissa High Court is hearing two cases filed on the issue.

 

When the monsoon session of the Odisha Legislative Assembly commences on 4 September, one issue is surely going to generate immense heat in the House—the missing key of the “Ratna Bhandar” (treasure trove) of the Jagannath Temple in Puri. The Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government in the state has been under constant attack from the Opposition parties and general public over the issue ever since it came to light in April this year.

Following an order of the Orissa High Court, a 16-member team was sent for inspection of the Ratna Bhandar of the world famous shrine on 4 April this year to know if it needs any repair or renovation. As per official records, the Ratna Bhandar is located on Plot No. 5 within the temple premises. It stores the deities’ prized possessions and ornaments made in rare and precious stones.

One has to pass through the Jagmohan to gain entry into the treasury chambers. The inspection team, following an incontrovertible protocol under high security, conducted a critical observation of the maintenance and the condition of the treasury chambers. Opened after more than 33 years, the scrutiny, however, led to startling revelation—the 12th century key of the inner chambers has gone missing.

A sevayat (temple servitor) privy to the matters, speaking over phone from Puri on the condition of anonymity, told The Sunday Guardian that though a lot of hype has been created by the media over the shape and structure of the Ratna Bhandar, it’s not exactly a treasure trove. Nor the value of the possessions is as high as that of some of the famous temples in the country, he claimed.

“It’s more like a ‘store room’ partitioned into a few chambers by iron grills for keeping the jewellery according to the frequency of their usage, as a lady usually does in a household,” he explained. As the Lord has not adorned the attires meant for His “Raghunath Besha” since 1905, the jewellery needed for the ritual has been stored in the farthest corner of the treasury, he added citing an example.

The Ratna Bhandar has a total of five chambers, of which two rooms form the outer chamber, while the remaining three form the inner chamber. There originally existed three keys to the inner chamber: one was granted to the Puri Gajapati (king), another was supposed to remain with Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA); while the third key was to be rested with Bhandar Mekapa (treasure servitor).

According to the servitor, the royal family had, however, earlier deposited the key with Puri district treasury way back in 1963 after they lost the case that challenged state ownership of the temple properties. But neither the temple administration nor the district treasury had any of the three keys to the inner chambers when the inspection team wanted it. So, the inspection of the inner chambers was done through the iron grills with the help of searchlights.

Though the matter was kept under wraps, the incident came to public knowledge during a meeting of the administration on 1 June this year. No sooner the word spread, scores of conspiracy theories started floating and there was a huge public outcry. Consequently, the state government ordered a judicial probe on 6 June to ascertain the circumstances leading to the disappearance of the three keys.

The judicial commission, headed by retired High Court judge Justice Raghubir Das, was asked to submit a report within three months. Under public pressure, the government shunted out temple chief administrator P.K. Jena and appointed P.K. Mohapatra in his place. The issue has also strained the relationship between the administration and the temple servitors further and brought them face to face yet again.

While frantic searches were on for the lost keys, then Puri Collector Aravind Agarwal, who was also the deputy chief administrator of the temple, kicked up another controversy when he claimed on 13 June that a set of keys was found in his office. His subordinates are said to have retrieved the keys from a stack of official records kept in the Record Room. Agarwal denied any prior knowledge of the existence of the keys there and said he was ready to face any probe.

However, what made the issue more complicated was that the sealed brown envelope in which the keys were kept was marked “duplicate key”. This triggered fresh debates on the whereabouts of the original keys. Agarwal deposited the duplicate keys with the district treasury before handing over charge to Jyoti Prakash Das following his transfer on 3 August.

An inventory of the valuables kept in the Ratna Bhandar was made in 1978 and the details were reported in the media then. The treasure was however last opened in 1985 for maintenance work. As per the temple management Act, the keys should have been kept in the district treasury after that. Now the moot question is: how did the keys find their way to the Record Room of the District  Collector?

“We were puzzled when the Collector announced that he had found a sealed envelope with the ‘duplicate keys of inner Ratna Bhandar’ written on it. In my 30 years of service in the Jagannath temple’s office, I have never heard about the presence of any duplicate keys to the treasury,” said a SJTA official who didn’t want to be named.

POLITICAL FIGHT

The Opposition seized the opportunity and launched a scathing attack on the ruling dispensation, targeting Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in particular. Leading the charge, senior BJP leader Biswabhusan Harichandan claimed that the Collector’s version was not acceptable as nowhere in the temple’s official records was there any reference to existence of any such duplicate keys that led to the inner chambers of the treasury.

Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, Harichandan said, “I closely followed the Jagannath Temple’s affairs by virtue of my position as Law Minister between 2000 and 2009 (during the BJD-BJP coalition government). In all that time, I never heard of there being any duplicate key to the Ratna Bhandar. Now, where are the original keys then? We will certainly raise the issue on the floor of the House and demand a definite answer from none other than the Chief Minister himself.”

“The Ratna Bhandar should be opened immediately and the list of jewellery should be matched with the inventory prepared in 1978. Opening the treasure and preparing a fresh inventory should be the top priority of the state government,” said Harichandan. Congress’ state president Niranjan Patnaik has also demanded a fresh audit of the treasure trove.

According to media reports, the inventory prepared in 1978 had recorded 31 varieties of jewellery being kept in the outer chamber of the Ratna Bhandar, while 34 gold crowns and Ramanandi Chita, Markatkanthi, Markat Chuni, 124 types of Kalinga diamond, 234 Manikya Chuni, 26 Baidurjya, 123 bhari gold necklace, 15 bhari gold magar munha khadu, 37 bhari Padma Pakhuda and many precious stones are preserved in the inner chamber.

BJP spokesperson Pitambar Acharaya said: “The present government has brought a bad name to the entire state. The sorry state of affairs in the temple has clearly been exposed.” He also questioned the functioning of the judicial commission appointed on the issue. “Appointment of the judicial commission is an effort to hoodwink the people as nothing significant has happened since its constitution,” he said.

What initially started as a whisper has now snowballed into a full-blown controversy. Puri Shankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati also squarely blamed the state government for the laxity on its part and demanded a thorough probe and strict action against the guilty. CM Patnaik, however, true to his nature, refuted to be dragged into the imbroglio and has maintained a stoic silence all through.

Former Puri Collector Aswini Das has opined that it would have been expedient to make an inventory of the Ratna Bhandar by breaking open its two other locks by the Collector in his magisterial capacity on the very same day. If the outer doors were opened, then an audit of the valuables could have been done, which would have set at rest all speculation, he added.

The issue has now reached the courts with a public interest litigation (PIL) being filed in the Orissa High Court seeking CBI probe into the whole episode. The state government, the Centre, the CBI and even the RBI has been made parties in the PIL filed by Mrunalini Padhi.

That apart, some aggrieved servitors had filed a case (No. 649/2018) in the Supreme Court on 8 June in this regard, but the apex court, in its order on 5 July, forwarded it to the Orissa High Court. Meanwhile, the BJP lodged an FIR on 13 June, hours before Agarwal’s revelation, but the Singhadwar police are yet to register a case in this connection.

The issue has also gone international with the New York Times recently carrying a detailed report on it. As the Assembly goes into session on Tuesday, the Opposition BJP and Congress are all prepared to corner the BJD government in the House over the matter, along with a host of other issues.

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