No less critical than the scripting of history in Puri on Tuesday ~ the day of Rathyatra ~ was the remarkable sense of responsibility and consciousness of the people.
The seaside town bore witness to an almost exceptional consensus on the observance of guidelines pertaining to public health and the coronavirus pandemic, indeed a seriousness of purpose that many states would be proud of but few able to claim in the wake of serial lockdowns.
This is as important as the fact that the resplendent chariots of Lord Jagannath, Devi Subhadra, and Lord Balabhadra wended their way without the traditional “sea of humanity”, to summon a cliche.
The rituals were religiously followed without deviating from any aspect of the ceremony at the 12th century Lord Jagannath temple, indeed the nerve-centre of the Rathyatra in particular and Odisha generally.
This justifies Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s proud boast that “the world is watching us balance public health and tradition. It is a challenge that we take up and show how it can be done”. It thus comes about that Puri today showcases that deft balance.
There was a sense of unconcealed glee over the fact that the Supreme Court had lifted its stay order of 18 June barely 24 hours ahead of the festival of a vigorous faith. With respect, the matter need not have gone to court; it could well have been settled by the temple authorities and the administrations in Puri and Bhubaneswar.
On the face of it, the curbs imposed by the apex judiciary were seemingly crippling, chiefly the imposition of curfew in Puri, the stipulation that each chariot would be drawn by not more than 500 people for whom the Covid-19 test would be mandatory.
Furthermore, an hour’s interval between two chariots was intended to ensure social distancing. Small wonder that the equally historical Grand Road was largely deserted, with the route dotted with servitors and security personnel filling the vacuum. It was by all accounts a studiously choreographed Rathyatra in Puri this year.
However, it did not militate against the religious fervour of the occasion. That the chariots inched along Grand Road with minimal grandstanding and without the presence of thousands who throng the route was perhaps unprecedented in the narrative of the Rathyatra and Jagannath temple ~ an architectural wonder.
Bereft of the beating of drums and gongs, the roar of the sea was overwhelming. In a sense, it signified the victory of Nature in the season of the pandemic. This year’s Rathyatra in Puri also marks the victory of faith over the ceremonial pomp and grandeur. This succinctly is the profound message as the waves lash the shore.