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Mainstream, VOL LV No 31 New Delhi July 22, 2017

Did Ambedkar Appreciate Puri’s Jagannath?

Ambedkar denied entry into Jagannath Temple

Saturday 22 July 2017, by A K Biswas


The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi’s address to the countrymen styled as ‘Mann ki Baat’ broadcast at 11:28 IST by the All India Radio on June 25, 2017 noted that:

“Those who have studied Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar should have seen that Lord Jagannath Ji’s temple and his traditions were very much appreciated, because it contained social justice, social harmony. Lord Jagannath is the God of the poor.”1

The history of Puri’s Jagannath temple totally precludes any room for Dr Ambedkar to speak or write anything in the connotation the Prime Minister wants us to believe. The speech in Hindi seems more ominous. He stated therein that Dr Ambedkar used to greatly appreciate the Temple of Jagannath because of the “tradition of social justice and social harmony.— Jagannath ji ka mandir our uski paramparaon ka bodi tarif karte the, kyu ki us mein samajik nyay, our samrasta antarnihit the.”2

To be fair to the Prime Minister’s assertion, we may state the historical truth that during his (recent) “visit he (Dr Ambedkar) could have only a distant view of the the famous Jagannath temple at Puri from the terrace of a neigh-bouring house”.3 The fact was that the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, had accompanied Dr Ambedkar on a visit to Puri. Madhu Dandavate, Railway Minister under Morarji Desai and Finance Minister under V.P. Singh, deposed before the Mandal Commission (euphemism for the Backward Classes Commission), that while the British Paramount was accorded a red carpet reception by the priests into the Jagannath temple, Ambedkar was humiliated by denial of entry. This warrants us to take a look into the history of Jagannath at Puri.

The shrine in Puri has a deplorable history. Treachery, betrayal, infidelity and compromises of the priests of Jagannath is so shockingly embarrassing that the intellectual class is yet to bring the chapter into academic discourse or focus. Thus rituals, legends, mysteries, myths, stories of benefits of darshan and mahaprasad, all unverifiable, are dished out for sumptuous public consumption. By design, the masses are blissfully unaware of the disgraceful complicity of the priests with a foreign power for subjugation of the deities of the shrine. In this context, the countrymen in general and the Ambedkarites in particular, who aggregate in millions across the globe, would be deeply obliged to know the precise source of such assertion made by the Prime Minister. Ambedkar’s attitude towards the Hindu temple can best be demonstrated, without any shadow of doubt, by his under-quoted observations in the colonial era.

“Not very long ago there used to be boards on club doors and other social resorts maintained by Europeans in India, which said ‘Dogs and Indians’ are not allowed. The temples of Hindus carry similar boards today, the only difference is that the boards on the Hindu temples practically say: ‘All Hindus and all animals including dogs are admitted, only Untouchables are not admitted’. The situation in both cases is of parity. But Hindus never begged for admission in those places from which the Europeans in their arrogance had excluded them. Why should an Untouchable beg for admission in a place from which he has been excluded by the arrogance of the Hindus? This is the reason why the Depressed Class man, who is interested in material welfare, should be prepared to say to the Hindus, ‘to open or not to open your temples is a question for you to consider and not for me to agitate. If you think, it is bad manners not to respect the sacredness of human personality, open your temple and be a gentleman. If you rather be a Hindu than a gentleman, then shut the doors and damn yourself for I don’t care to come.”4

 Note the emphasis of his observation that “all Hindus and all animals including dogs are admitted, only Untouchables are not admitted”. Puri’s Jagannath temple precisely fits into his description of Hindu orthodoxy and is a grave-yard of human dignity. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s submission before the deity, as claimed by the Prime Minister in Mann ki Baat, therefore, was incomprehensible. A great advocate of the sacredness of human dignity and personality, he at no cost ever allowed the same to be undermined for the sake of gods and goddesses or their temples.

Jagannath-British honeymoon: 

A Disgraceful Chapter of Indian History 

The honeymoon between a corporate house—the British East India Company and Bhagwan Jagannath, who for Hindus was Lord of the Universe—on the shores of the Bay of Bengal furnishes a chapter in the history indelibly marked by deception and betrayal of the people who flocked there generation after generation out of devotion to seek solace, blessings, success and peace. In 1803, Lord Wellesley, the Governor-General, told off the East India Company Army to capture Orissa. In a swift move, Orissa was conquered. In the end, the Army marched right up to the gates of temple town, Puri. A delegation of high priests of Jagannath Temple at this point trooped into the camp of the Lieutenant Colonel Campbell who led the Army to victory.

Swami Dharma Teertha [pre-ascetic Parames-war Menon (1893-1978)] recorded the trickery the the priests of Jagannath Temple employed there in his brilliant History of Hindu Imperialism (1941). An element of unverifiable mystery was introduced in the plot. According to Dharma Teertha, “ of the Puri Jagannath Temple proclaimed that it was the desire of the deity that the temple too should be controlled by the Company, and the latter undertook to maintain the temple buildings, pay the Brahmans and do everything for the service of the deity as was customary.”5 The story woven around the ‘oracle’ was a sonorous music to the British who had long cherished dream to annex the province. The priests nonchalantly mortgaged the deity to the alien power for no noble mission.

Wellesley’s Appeasement led to Surrender of Jagannath Temple


Wellesley’s diplomacy of appeasement of the priests effortlessly brought the Jagannath Temple under British subjugation and control. A month ahead of the campaigns for Orissa began, Wellesley had addressed a long letter on August 3, 1803 to Campbell. The letter, the contents of which were carefully publicised and strate-gically propagated among the masses and the priests of Jagannath, mandated inter alia that “You shall assure the Brahmans at the pagoda of Jagannath that they will not be required to pay any other revenue or tribute to the British Government than that which they have been paying to the Mahratta Government, and they shall be protected in the exercise of their religious duties.” Outlining the Army’s role further, the Governor-General emphatically told the Lieute-nant Colonel that “On your arrival at Jagannath, you will employ every possible precaution to preserve the respect due to the pagoda, and to the religious prejudices of the Brahman and pilgrims.”6 In 14 days Orissa was conquered. No shot was fired; not a drop of blood dropped. The ruling Peshwas, in the teeth of the British offensive, fled Orissa without offering any resistance.

Globally traitors, conspirators and quislings are not unknown to history. But a deity, equated with God, save and except the Lord Jagannath, was unique. He promptly surrendered to the invading power without ado! Jagannath’s embrace of British overlordship without squeamish portrayed a picture of legitimacy to god-fearing Hindus across India. And they forfeited moral ground for ventilating any grievance against the alien power when their Jagannath kow-towed before the mighty East India Company.

East India Company Laws 

 banned Entry of Untouchables into Jagannath Temple 

On April 3, 1806 the East India Company enacted Regulation IV and imposed a tax varying from Rs 2 to Rs 10 on pilgrims, classified into four categories. The tax turned out to be a goldmine for the British as well as priests. An official account said: “During 21 years ending 1831, pilgrim tax yielded a balance of £ 1,39,000 or £ 6619 per annum after deducting £ 5955 from the gross returns for the temple expenses and charges”. Pilgrim tax, it again asserted, formed “an important item of our revenue from Orissa”. A part of the tax was spent on performances of customary rituals, practices, celebrations, besides payment of salaries to the priests, pandas, devadasi, etc. The East India Company also paid a share of the income to raja of Khurda, who was the traditional head of the Puri temple administration. About 50 per cent of the income from pilgrim tax went into the Company exchequer.7

The Peshwa rulers of Orissa, staunch Hindus though, did not spare the Hindu pilgrims of Jagannath. They continued to milk the pilgrims through invidious taxation the predecessor Muslim rulers had imposed on the pilgrims of the Jagannath Temple! Tax from pilgrims visiting Gaya, Tirupati, Prayag etc. by the Company is so extraordinary. Moral consideration or spiritual conviction did not override pecuniary consideration. Devoted Hindu rulers extorted god-fearing Hindus visiting Puri. This is a dark chapter of history even patriotic Indians did not document. Inability of the Hindu intelligentsia to focus on this phase made the nation oblivious of the nefarious deeds jointly authored by the servitors of Jagannath and the British rulers.

The same intellectual class, of course, unfailingly documented the repeated raids on and plunder of the Somnath Temple in Dwarka by foreign invaders. Historians deserve our fulsome appreciation. Their failure to show similar uprightness in the case of Jagannath cannot go without adverse notice. The focus of the intellectual class on the Muslim rulers for exaction of jazia from Hindus is known across India. But they cultivated a culture of silence over subjugation of the Puri Jagannath by the British colonial power in connivance of His priests. Vested interest has stifled the voices of sanity and conscience.

 At some point of time or other many nations had suffered the misfortune of invasion by external forces and loss of independence. There was national ignominy, shame and disgrace in subjugation. Internal forces in the garb of conspirators, traitors and quislings, more often than not, were accessories to such defeat and surrender as in the case of Orissa. Both the invaders and their collaborators are enemies of the nation. The historians as chroniclers of events render a sacred duty here. By their faithful and honest documentation of events for the future generations they play a great role. But the failure of the intellectual class to document with integrity and portray the nation’s disgrace, humiliation and sufferings at the hands of alien powers is tantamount to collaboration with the invading enemies. The priests undermined national interest by their treachery and betrayal; they portrayed the surrender of the temple of Jagannath to the British as well as to the countrymen at large under the pretension of divine intervention. A culture of conspiracy has, therefore, nurtured the same for deflecting attention and inquiry into the shame of the British-priests tango in Puri. In fact, the cataclysmic event stands completely erased from the pages of history.

A nation that does not take lesson out of history is accursed. A nation that shies away to acknowledge its weakness and frailty with solemnity, candour and without squeamishness for national tragedies committed by her blackguards is morally bankrupt. Such a nation must remain prepared for the future disaster also from the same section. A nation is universally greater and more sacred than a small section of conspirators and traitors.

The Company launched further reforms. A Regulation IV was enacted in 1809. In compliance to section VII of the said Regulation, several castes, for example, Lolee or Kasbi, Kallal or Sunri, Machhua, Namasudra or Chandal, Ghuski, Gazur, Bagdi, Jogi, Kahar-Bauri and Dulia, Rajbanshi, Pirali, Chamar, Dom, Pan, Pior, Bhuimali and Hari were barred entry into the Jagannath Temple. The Pirali denotes the family of poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore who, according to Bengali orthodoxy, were degraded Brahmans for alleged consumption of beef by one of his ancestors. A vast range of humanity stood outraged by the Jagannath Temple.

Decades after the British recused themselves from the task of management, control and superintendence of Jagannath, the chronicler of the Empire, William Hunter, drew up “a list of castes, partly from the statements of Brahmans, and partly from those of the low castes themselves, denied entry into the shrine of Jagannath in Puri”. The castes and communities still suffering prohibition were Christians; Muhammandans, Hill or forest races; Bauris, Savars, Pans; Haris (except to clean filth); Chamars; Doms; Chandals; Chirimars (bird killers); Siuals (wine-sellers); Tiyars (fishermen); Nullias (Telinga boatmen); Patras (low cast cloth-makers); Kandra (guards); common prostitutes; persons who have been to jail, but with right of expiation; washermen; and potter (but these two may enter the outer court.8 It was not in British interest to exclude a vast section, who, as potential pilgrims, could swell the tax income but they acquiesced the priestly prejudice and caprice against the untouchables in banning their entry.

Shankaracharya justified Ban on Entry of Low Castes

Was there justification to prohibit entry these castes into the shrine despite repeal of the Regulation IV of 1809? Brahmanical prejudice brooks no interference for the sake of the socially underprivileged humanity. Their saints and seers fabricated stories and propagated ideo-logies to enforce their whims and prejudices. Babu Jagjivan Ram, a prominent freedom fighter and political leader of high standing, was denied entry into the Jagannath Temple obviously because of his caste. He was the Deputy Prime Minister of India. With his sad experience in view, Babuji, as he was fondly called, wrote: “Shankaracharya can write an article saying that according to the Vedas, the Vedic Temples get polluted if low castes enter therein.” In this way, he noted, “the evil spirits get into the idols of the temples, and when these idols are worshipped these evil forces become mighty. In turn the evil feelings like strife, anger and hated increase and causes diseases, disaster, disorder, great floods, droughts, famines and earthquakes. Thus the people face destruction.”9

No man with an iota of intelligence would perhaps ever believe in such trash. Propagation of prejudice against ten of millions of people has made India a unique space on earth. Many countries of the world, which do not boast of nor bother for Vedic temples to be polluted by low castes, are nonetheless visited by severe outbreaks of diseases, disaster, disorder, great floods, droughts, famines and earthquakes in the past.

A Buddhist Shrine captured by the Hindus for Jagannath

Edward Washburn Hopkins (1857-1930), an American Sanskrit scholar and Professor of Sanskrit in Yale University, declared that “The Jagannath temple is dedicated to Buddha. Name, temple, and idol-car are now all Vishnu’s!”10 Swami Vivekananda, while intervening into a debate whether Jesus Christ ever visited the Jagannath Temple, on the other hand, observed that “..... the temple of Jagannath is an old Buddhistic temple. We took this and others over and re-Hinduised them.”11 Shankaracharya, we have little doubt, has obfuscated the truth. We are clear that Puri’s Buddhist Vihara was not the solitary one captured by the Hindus. There are other Buddhist temples forcibly encroached upon and usurped by them. A bloody chapter over the capture of Buddhist shrines by the Hindu bigots is buried under the debris of history.

A Shrine of Immorality? 

The proceedings of the Bengal Legislative Council revealed that the Jagannath temple had 100 devadasis who, dedicated by their parents at the tender age, were subjected to immoral abuses and exploitation there. This was public dis-closure of a serious dimension. Information was furnished by the Government of Bengal in response to a question tabled by Bal Krishna Sahay who represented Chota Nagpur (now in the State of Jharkhand) in the Bengal Legislative Council.12

In the columns of The New York Tribune, Karl Marx charged the British: “...did they not, in order to make money out of the pilgrims streaming to the temples of Orissa and Bengal, take up trade in murder and prostitution perpetrated in the temple of Juggernaut?”13 The charge of flesh trade in the Jagannath temple against the East India Company was inde-fensible. Marx was wrong in his accusation against the British. The available evidence suggests that the devadasi was there before the British takeover of Jagannath. A French traveller of Mughal India, Francois Bernier, recorded a candid account of profligacy of the priests inside the temple of Jagannath as part of rituals under the cover of darkness at night.14

The directions contained in the letter of the Governor-General Wellesley aimed only how to induce and win over the priests of Jagannath temple to the side of the Company. He succeeded completely in his goal. However, he did not spare a word, much less a thought, for the people of Orissa in ordering the campaign for annexation of that province. The masses are timid and superstitious because of the blighting influence the priestly class exerted in the name of Jagannath. If a minuscule section is so vulnerable to external inducement, appeasement and temptation to enhance and safeguard selfish interests, the country and its people are per-ennially exposed to the risk of national tragedy and disaster in future.

 Many nations at some point or the other had the misfortune of being invaded by external forces and subjugated with loss of independence. This amounts to national ignominy and disgrace. Defeat and surrender as this, more often than not, was collaborated by internal forces who were conspirators, traitors and quislings. Both the invaders and their collaborators are enemies of the nation. The historians have a sacred duty here. They must faithfully and honestly docu-ment such events for the future generations. But the failure of the intellectual class to faithfully document and portray the nation’s disgrace, humiliation and sufferings at the hands of alien powers is tantamount to collaboration with the invaders; and according sanction to treachery and betrayal in the name of divine intervention. A culture of conspiracy has grown to nurture the same for deflecting attention and inquiry into the shame of British-Hindu priests tango in Puri. In fact, the country’s intellectual class has mindlessly erased this cataclysmic event from the pages of history.

A nation that does not take lessons from history is accursed. A nation that shies away from acknowledging its weakness and frailty with candour and without squeamishness under pressure of her blackguards, who are perpe-trators of national tragedy, is morally bankrupt. Such nation must remain prepared for future disaster also from the same corner. A nation is greater and more sacred than a small section of conspirators and traitors. An uncom-promising defender of human dignity and sacredness of human personality, Babasaheb Ambedkar could never be expected to discover social justice and harmony in Puri Jagannath. In the nineties of the last century, Arun Shourie had created ripples with allegations that Dr Ambedkar was a British stooge.15 Sadly Shourie’s myopia obstructed him from seeing the aforesaid dark role of Jagannath and his priests to record correct appreciation of Indian quislings of the colonial rulers. There were many who kept company of the prolific writer and former journalist.


1 Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme on All India Radio on June 25, 2017.

2 “ftu yksxksa us MkW0 ckck lkgsc vkEcsMdj dk vè;;u fd;k gksxk] mUgksaus ns[kk gksxk fd Hkxoku txUukFk th dk efUnj vkSj mldh ijaijkvksa dh oks cM+h rkjhQ djrs Fks] D;ksafd mlesa lkekftd U;k;] lkekftd lejlrk varfuZfgr FksA” Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Mann ki Baat’ programme on All India Radio on June 25, 2017.

3 Keer, Dhananjay, Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission, Bombay, Popular Prakashan (First published, May 1954), p. 375.

4 Quoted by Biswas, A.K., in an article Ban on Temple Entry for Dalit, Mainstream, Vol. XLIX, no. 30, July

16, 2011.

5 Swami Dharma Teertha, History of Hindu Imperialism, 1941, pp 150-151.

6 Col. Laurie, op. cit., p. 238.

7 Col. Laurie, ‘Puri and the temple of Jagannath’, Calcutta High Review, vol. X, September 1848, p. 218.

8 Hunter, W. W., Orissa, vol. I, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1872, p. 136.

9 Ram, Jagjivan, Caste Challenge in India, Vision Books, New Delhi, 1980, p. 24.

10 Quoted by O’Malley, L. L. S., Bengal District Gazetteers, Puri, Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1908, Calcutta, p. 94.

11 Swami Vivekananda in ‘The Sages of India’ in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 3, p. 264, published by Advaita Ashram, Calcutta.

12 The first part of the question Babu Bal Krishna Sahay tabled was as follows: “Has the attention of the Government of Bengal been drawn to the open letter published in a Calcutta paper named Satya Sanatan Dharma on the 14th November 1910 and again on the 16th April 1911, addressed to the Government of Bengal and to the Imperial Government, respectively, bringing to light the custom of dedicating female children to the temple of Jagannath in Puri, who when grown up, lead immoral life and requesting the government to abolish the said custom?” On behalf of the Government, C. J. Stevenson-Moore, ICS replied in the Council, “The answer is in the affirmative.” He highlighted that there were 100 girls attached to the temple and there was no other temple in the Province with devadasi. The questioner wanted the government to take steps for stopping “this immoral custom.” In reply, Moore further stated,

“The Government would view with favour and lend its support to any organised attempt made by Hindu society at large to eradicate the evils which have grown up round this system at Puri.[..........] it does not propose to initiate reforms on its own motion in a matter closely connected with religious obser-vances.” Proceedings of The Bengal Legislative Council, Vol. XLIV (January-March, 1912, Calcutta, Bengal Secretariat Press, 1913, p. 19. of Jagannath.

13 Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. I, Moscow, 1962, p. 357.

14 Francois Bernier, Travels in Mughal Empire, S. Chand & Co., New Delhi, first edition in 1891, second edition, 1968, pp. 305-306.

15 Shourie, Arun, Worshipping False God: Ambedkar and the Facts that have Been Erased, 1997, Harper India, Delhi.

A retired IAS officer and former Vice-Chancellor of the B.R. Ambedkar University Muzaffarpur (Bihar), Dr A.K. Biswas can be reached at biswasatulk[at]

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