NEW DELHI: At 8am every day, 60-yearold Durga
Prasad Das Mohapatra goes to the Jagannath Temple
to offer prayers. This has been his routine for the last 45 years. Mohapatra is the daitapati nijog or the general secretary of the group of 185 servitors who are engaged in the Rath Yatra in Puri every year. If the 12th century temple is at the centre of Mohapatra’s existence, his life’s desire is to be cremated at Swargadwar — the crematorium in Puri that many Hindus believe to be ‘the gateway to heaven’. Mohapatra is among the countless who harbour this wish.
But now, coronavirus has come in the way of faith. The local administration has prohibited cremation
of Covid-19 victims at Swargadwar. And this ban has given rise to an extraordinary situation. The stigma attached with the disease and the fear of spending lonely days in a hospital, added to the apprehension of not getting a cremation at Swargadwar is said to be making people — especially the elderly — risk their lives. People are avoiding getting tested and not approaching doctors when symptoms of Covid show up, say residents of this seaside town in Odisha.
During the lockdown, the Puri administration had barred outsiders, even those who hadn’t died of Covid, from being cremated at Swargadwar. Earlier, people not only from across Odisha but also Jharkhand, Bihar
, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh travelled to Puri to cremate their kin. Over 100 funeral pyres used to be lit here daily before the pandemic, which dipped to 20-25 with the curb on non-locals, according to sub-collector Bhabataran Sahoo, also the secretary of Swargadwar Seva Samiti. Currently, Swargadwar sees 40-50 cremations a day. The restriction on non-Puri people didn’t go down well with the public and the ban was relaxed in October.
For those dying of Covid-19 in Puri, Odisha government has created a separate crematorium. “People who cremate the Covid dead are trained and steps are taken as per protocol,” says Saroj Kumar Swain, additional executive officer of Puri municipality
. “We are more concerned about the safety of the living than the wishes of those who want to attain heaven after death,” he says.
Sub-collector Sahoo says the cremation ground staff quiz those accompanying a hearse and ascertain the cause of death if a medical certificate isn’t provided. “Some people have been turned back after the details they provided raised suspicion of a Covid death,” adds Sahoo. Swain says corpses aren’t tested for Covid but neighbours inform them if they suspect that a death is related to the disease.
But there is no answer as to why separate arrangements can’t be made for Covid victims at Swargadwar like in many other crematoriums. Repeated calls and messages sent by TOI drew no response from Puri collector Balwant Singh and municipality executive officer Bijaya Kumar Dash.
On the ground, there’s a running battle between faith and reality. Shibasis Tripathy hails from Bhubaneswar and works in Bengaluru, where he has lived 11 years. “But I still desire to get the final send-off from Swargadwar,” he says. The urge is stronger among the servitors at Puri’s Jagannath temple. “Servitors’ mukhagni (lighting of the funeral pyre) is done with Vaishnavagni or fire from the grand kitchen at Jagannath temple,” says Das Mohapatra. Servitors believe that their lifelong service would come to nothing if their final rites aren’t performed at Swargadwar with the sacred fire.
“Over 600 servitors and their family members have tested positive for Covid and around 25 have died,” says a senior servitor and temple official who didn’t want to be named. He further says, “The numbers must be higher as many are hiding symptoms. It is especially true for the elderly who fear that they would be packed off to hospitals in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack and denied final rites at Swargadwar.” Dr JP Das, a government doctor in Puri, says people were not only dodging tests but also hiding Covid symptoms. “The fear of being isolated in hospitals and denied cremation at Swargadwar were major deterrents,” he says.
How many elderly people have made Puri their home in the wish for a cremation at Swargadwar? “It is difficult to say as no survey has been done,” states sub-collector Sahoo. According to Das Mohapatra, over 1,000 retirees have bought land and built houses in Puri. Then there are hundreds of widows and widowers who stay at various mutts and lead a religious life with the sole goal of attaining heaven through Swargadwar.
Dr Das says that fear and stigma attached to Covid have ebbed. And with Covid cases dipping, it seems the worst is behind for this temple town. “Since October, reported cases of infection among the servitors of Jagannath temple too have come down,” says Das Mohapatra, who himself was Covid-positive and emerged victorious “with blessings of Lord Jagannath and modern medical care at a Covid quarantine centre.”