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Odisha is on temple renovation drive, experts say it’s Naveen Patnaik’s answer to BJP’s rise

A host of temples is being renovated at a cost of Rs 2,000 crore. PWD says it’s a development & tourism-related project, but some experts see political undertones.

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Bhubaneswar: The intricate stone architecture of Bhubaneswar’s Lingaraj Temple gleams at night after a shower of rainfall. Dedicated to Shiva, the temple was completed in the 11th century CE, but it looks brand new. Modern pathways with ample space wind their way around the medieval structure.

Much of this contemporary look is attributed to a renovation carried out in 2019-20. The temple was renovated at a cost of approximately Rs 700 crore under the Ekamra Plan, which “represents an integrated approach towards acknowledging and reviving the heritage and cultural value of the ‘Temple City’”.

The Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal government in Odisha has made elaborate plans to redevelop temple complexes and perimeters across the length and breadth of the state, in a drive that many term “temple politics” — argued to be an effort to steal the wind from the sails of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

Experts say that while most of these renovations are aimed at better governance and attracting more tourists, their political undertone can’t be denied. 

Some of the temples that are undergoing or have undergone renovation are the Samaleswari Temple in Sambalpur, Bariprada Temple, Maa Tarini Temple in Ghatgaon, Konark Heritage Corridor, Maa Bhadrakali Temple in Bhadrak, Akhandalamani Temple in Aradi, Tara Tarini Temple in Ganjam, Baldevjew Temple in Keonjhar, Jagannath Temple in Puri and the Sri Gupteswar Temple in Koraput. 

Also read: Hunger deaths to ‘rice bowl’: How Odisha’s Kalahandi-Balangir-Koraput corridor turned a corner

Costs of temple renovation

Among this plethora of projects, the most spoken about and most ambitious is the  redevelopment of the parikrama of the Jagannath temple in Puri. A 75-metre-wide corridor — with a clocktower, information kiosk, restrooms and a garden area — is being created around the two-km-long perimeter of the temple at a cost of Rs 800 crore. 

The renovation of the Lingaraj Temple includes extensions to the complex that are in keeping with the Kalinga style of temple architecture, say officials of Odisha’s Public Works Department (PWD). 

Other temples are getting their own upgrades, but these are mostly restricted to the periphery. For example, the Samaleswari Temple in Sambalpur is being renovated at a cost of Rs 15 crore, the Konark Heritage Corridor at Rs 375 crore, Akhandalamani Temple at Rs 6 crore, and the Tara Tarini Temple at Rs 15 crore.

According to government data, the total cost of redeveloping temples in Odisha is approximately Rs 2,000 crore.

Speaking to ThePrint, Odisha PWD Secretary Dr Krishan Kumar, who is in charge of all temple renovation, said the redevelopment projects were not being undertaken in isolation but as part of larger projects. 

For example, the Jagannath Temple redevelopment was conducted under the larger ABHADA (Augmentation of Basic Amenities and Development of Heritage and Architecture) scheme for Puri, while the Lingaraj Temple was renovated under the Ekamra Plan for Bhubaneswar, and the Samaleswari Temple under the SAMALE (Samaleswari Temple Area Management and Local Economy Initiatives) scheme. 

“These are aimed to develop the cities in the state and encourage tourism as well,” explained Kumar.

‘Priorities misplaced’

However, some experts argue that the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD government — which has been in power for 21 years — is taking such measures to counter the BJP and arrest its rise in Odisha.

In the 2014 assembly elections, the Congress was the main Opposition party in the state, with the BJP winning a mere 10 seats. However, the political dynamics changed when the BJP won the second-largest number of seats in the 2017 panchayat polls, increasing its tally to 297 in 2017 from 36 in 2012.

In 2019, the BJP doubled its tally from 2014 and won 23 seats in the state legislature, emerging as the main Opposition party.

Congress veteran Lalatendu Mohapatra has said that the rise of the BJP is a cause of concern and that “Patnaik’s party” cannot afford to take the BJP lightly.

Dr Rita Ray, a sociologist and adjunct professor at the National Law University Odisha, said that Patnaik’s priorities were completely misplaced as so much money was being spent on temples in the middle of the pandemic, especially with a new coronavirus variant in circulation. 

She attributed this ‘temple politics’ to socio-psychological factors, saying that the BJD was not entirely sure of coming back to power in the state in the 2024 assembly elections. 

“Naveen Patnaik is trying to imitate the central government’s temple politics in India, where no one thinks about anything else but temples. Jagannath Mandir is too much of a weakness for Odiyas, therefore this is a safe and easy way to win points among the electorate,” she said. 

Ray added that this style of politics was very popular among the middle class as they were made happy by the development of temples, and too complacent to question anything else. 

“It is very unfortunate that no one is speaking about developing schools or hospitals instead, not worried about environmental degradation,” she said.

Ray also noted that formerly, Patnaik was extremely “low-key” about his visits and darshan at the Jagannath temple. Now they were much more in the eye of the media, she said. 

Also read: Did Modi give Hindus closure? A PIL against the Places of Worship Act will decide the answer

‘We don’t play politics with religion’

Speaking to ThePrint, BJD national spokesperson and Puri MP Pinaki Misra said comments about the redevelopment of temples having a political undertone were completely unfounded. The BJP “plays politics with religion, we do not”, he said. 

“These development works are just Naveen Patnaik’s innate bhakti towards Odisha’s composite culture. He has a deep affinity with the Jagannath culture. It is his higher calling. We (BJD) do not need to do all of this for political reasons,” Misra said.

He added that the funds for temple redevelopment, whether at Puri, Konark or the Lingaraj temple, were all allocated from state budgetary resources. 

Some political experts also conceded that many of the temples did require renovation and that this would benefit tourism in the state — which had come to a near halt. These experts argued that ‘temple politics’ may not benefit the BJD to a great extent, as 40 per cent of the vote in the state comes from tribal people and Dalits, to whom this brand of politics would not appeal. 

Odisha Congress leader Srikant Jena said that the BJD had no agenda to follow the model of the BJP or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and that the current administration was only trying to further beautify tourist attractions, as many tourists flock to places like Puri and Konark. 

“This is not a religious issue, but a matter of protecting ancient buildings. I am also thinking of writing to Naveen Patnaik to develop Buddhist monuments in the state such as in Ratnagiri and Udayagiri, which also see many tourists,” Jena said.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: No income bar, free OPD — why Odisha says its health insurance scheme trumps Ayushman Bharat


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