Treasure hunt at Puri’s Jagannath temple: The mystery of missing keys

Manish Kumar | Jun 4, 2018 | 5 min read

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New Delhi/Puri: Stashed inside the inner chambers of the famous Lord Jagannath temple in Puri, is the safety of the treasure trove of gold, diamond, antique jewellery and other precious gems that could be worth hundreds of crores of rupees compromised?

This is the question haunting not only priests and temple authorities but also the Naveen Patnaik government in Odisha as no one knows who has the keys to open the doors to the holy treasure of the 12th century shrine.

Officially, the doors of the inner chambers of Ratna Bhandar haven’t been opened since 1985, when an inventory was made. It is not yet known when the keys went missing as the matter came to light only on April 4 this year when an inspection team was doing a scrutiny of the health of the temple structure.

While the Odisha government has ordered a judicial inquiry into the case of missing keys, the Shri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) claims that the safety of the treasury has not been compromised as the wax-coated locks and other security system are still intact.

Besides the king of Puri, known as Gajapati Maharaj, Puri Shankaracharya and Bhandar Mekap (official) are the only two other persons who are supposed to have the keys of the Ratna Bhandar with them.

Rama Krushna Das Mohapatra, senior servitor of the temple, has asked the erstwhile king to clarify if he has the keys. After a meeting with the chief minister, he said, “Gajapati Maharaj is the first servitor of Lord Jagannath and also the chairman of the temple committee. He should call a meeting soon and clarify if he has the keys. If he can share information about the missing keys, there is no need of a judicial inquiry”.

What lies hidden behind the walls of the temple
The storehouse contains antique golden and diamond jewellery, precious gems and stones, besides silver utensils and valuable ornaments. Collectively, it is said to have more than 120 kg gold and 221 kg silver, all belonging to the trinity of Lord Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra.

The treasure is also of historical significance as most of the jewellery and ornaments are antique. A scripture inside the temple says that Gajapati Kapilendra Deb had donated a huge amount of gold and ornaments in 1466 AD.

According to a folklore, the mysterious inner chambers of the Ratna Bhandar should never be opened as it will only bring disaster. Lord Jagannath will never forgive the deed, says 65-year-old servitor Narasingha Pujapanda who has been working in the temple for the last 45 years.

Part of the Hindu pilgrimage of ‘Char Dham’, the Jagannath temple, also known as Srimandir, is famous for the annual Rath Yatra when lakhs of Krishna devotees from all over the world crowd the temple town of Puri.

The controversy
On April 4 this year, as per the orders of the High Court of Odisha, a 16-member inspection team, which included the chief administrator of the temple, king of Puri, district officials, police and experts from the Archaeological Survey of India, landed on the temple premises to take stock of the repair work and status of the temple structure. 

During the study, it was found that the keys of the inner chamber were missing and were not in possession with the district treasury as per norms. As the issue gathered storm in the state, chief minister Naveen Patnaik ordered a judicial inquiry, which will be completed within the next three months.

Attacking the BJD government over the issue, Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee chairman Niranjan Patnaik has demanded a probe into the matter either by the CBI or by the crime branch while BJP demanded a response from the CM on the issue, which has led to protests from several quarters.

Who governs Jagannath Puri temple
The administration of the Jagannath temple in Puri is administrated through the Shri Jagannath Temple Act, 1954 (few amendments added later) and other minor related legislations. 

An 18-member temple management committee comprising the king of Puri as its chairman and other officials and nominated members is entrusted with the task of taking care of all affairs of the temple administration and also submits its report to the state legislative assembly.

It has been reported that Puri collector Arvind Agarwal admitted in the April 4 committee meeting that he checked the registers relating to the Ratna Bhandar but did not find anything about transactions on the treasury keys since 1970. Puri Shankaracharya Nischalananda Saraswati has also expressed concern over the issue and demanded a detailed enquiry into the matter. 

Puri still hosts a king
The king of Puri is highly regarded in the temple city. Considered the first servitor of Lord Jagannath, he is called as Gajapati Maharaj. During the famous Rath Yatra he sweeps the chariots of the trinity with a golden broom. The king is also associated with a number of other temple rituals. 

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