In March 2021, Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik tabled a resolution for the early completion of the development project of the world-famous Jagannath Temple in Puri. The ₹3200 crore Jagannath Heritage Corridor project, he claimed, “is not only for the government or the temple administration but also for 4.5 crores Odiyas”. In order to provide much more access and convenience to the pilgrims visiting the Jagannath Puri Temple, the Project is aiming to create a buffer zone around the periphery of the temple. This area would then serve as a multi-level car parking space, integrated command centre and recreational park. Several other famous temples have also been allotted massive budgets to keep up with the trend of beautification of temples, which include but are not limited to the Lingaraj Temple, the Sun Temple and Maa Samaleswari Temple.
It is interesting to note the uncanny resemblance between the plans and resolutions for temple beautification projects in Odisha(that first came up in January 2021) and the Uttar Pradesh government’s 2019-20 Budget Plan for Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi. Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation of this ₹1000 crore project in 2019. The project is spread over 5 lakh square feet and is expected to be completed by August of 2021. It entails the renovation of 63 temples, along with the construction of 24 new buildings. The Kashi Vishwanath Corridor is part of the beautification drive of 14 major religious cities (Varanasi, Mathura, Ayodhya, Allahabad) of Uttar Pradesh by the government. Given the scale of these projects, it’s perhaps important to question the intentions behind the beautification of temples and what role they play in the larger scheme of things.
The 14 major cities beautification project launched by the UP government aligns with BJP’s party tactics to mobilize support by playing the religion card. Moreover, the beautification of these major religious cities especially their temples also follows the unprecedented Ayodhya verdict of 2019. In the Hindu majority state of Uttar Pradesh, (an important state in national politics), a multi-city temple-beautification drive not only guarantees a clear win but also strengthens the support for BJP through religious politics.
Similar actions by CM Patnaik in Odisha, however, raise concern because of lack of his involvement with religion before this incident. Never before has the CM been involved in religious politics. With the growing support for the BJP by the Hindu population all over the country, the current CM Naveen Patnaik aims to mobilize the Hindu population of Odisha in his favour. Patnaik has served as Odisha’s Chief Minister since the 2000s and the temple beautification drive is a way to preserve his seat in the next state elections. Odisha’s Hindu population accounts for 93.6% of the total population, with Christians and Muslims at 2.77% and 2.17% respectively. Thereby, appealing to the Hindu population for votes then becomes a counter tactic against the BJP for Naveen Patnaik and his party.
The temple beautification and development drive primarily is a tool for different political parties to influence votes in their favour to win elections and form a majority government. However, these temples also play other crucial roles, which contribute to the economy of the country. With its diverse range of religions and religious practices India, becomes one of the major religious tourist destinations in the world. Coincidentally or not so coincidentally Uttar Pradesh and Odisha along with Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh attract the most pilgrims on an annual basis.
To facilitate this religious tourism the Government of India, Ministry of Tourism in 2014-15 came up with “National Mission on Pilgrimage Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive” (PRASHAD). It must, however, also be taken into consideration that Religious Tourism entails the process of going on a pilgrimage and does not involve staying overnight. Due to this definition, the statistics related to the number of pilgrims might be skewed, resulting in a flawed analysis.
Another study also shows that out of top the 10 tourism sites in India, eight were pilgrimage sites, attracting a total of 64% of travellers of the total travellers visiting different sites in India (Pg.61). Religious tourism is continuously being chosen by the younger generations of the country, breaking the age-old assumption of only the older population making travel plans to visit pilgrimage sites. This is because pilgrimage sites are no longer constricted to being places of worship and are continuously evolving into recreational spaces for the whole family around the country. For the rising interest of the younger population in religious tourism and pilgrimage sites, temple beautification and development becomes a major move of the government to continue to maintain this involvement. With the pandemic hitting the tourism industry the most, religious tourism for India may prove to be a saving grace for the economy.
Though different governments are attempting to lure in the youth through their temple politics, it becomes imperative to know the youth’s response to the government’s strategies. The government has been promising settlement packages for the residents that own land that is being appropriated for temple development in both Odisha and Uttar Pradesh. Nonetheless, several people living in rental houses, working their business from here are not happy with the evacuation, since they have to bear the brunt of finding new homes with no compensation. Decade-old houses, with much history of different families, also lie at the vulnerable position of being completely washed away due to the rigorous development and beautification taking place in almost every corner of the city.
Places of worship that promise a shelter and roof for one and all have themselves become responsible for the homelessness of a vast number of people. By temple beautification, the government is aiming to create and write history like never before, at its heart lies the clearing and erasure of many individual and familial histories that have been intertwined with these temple spaces for decades.
Picture Credits: Hindustan Times
Author’s Bio: Muskaan Kanodia is a junior at Ashoka University, double majoring in English and Sociology. When she is not drowning in books, you can find her drawing and smiling at strangers on the ghats of Banaras.
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