Demolition of Mutts in Puri : Work by the modern day Iconoclasts

By Shri. Anil Dhir

The iconic structure has bitten the dust. In just two days, it was barbarically leveled. The thick stone and brick walls were pulverized by bulldozers and sledgehammers, turning them into a field of dust. Given their way, they would have probably also used explosives too. The shocking speed and scale of the destruction of the Emar Mutt was heartbreaking. For nearly eight centuries, it had been a sentinel, guarding the gates of the Lord’s temple.

The Mutts of Puri have traditionally served as a primary locus for the generation and preservation of Jagannath culture, both material and intellectual. They were not only centers of scholasticism; they were also centers for the study of painting, sculpture, music, dance, chant and ritual. They were the repositories of the treasures of Hindu art and had libraries of palm leaf manuscripts and books. As centres of learning, there was an unbroken lineage of Gurushiksya parampara that could be traced back to the twelfth century India. If cultures are a tradition, something that is passed on, the role of the Mutts was very important. You have to go to Puri to understand the reverence ordinary people hold for the Mutts.

The government’s plans appear to be more about re-jigging the area for tourism and economic activity. In wanting to develop the area, the huge and irreparable cost in terms of undermining cultural heritage seems to be something that the officials do not fully appreciate. To the officials, the negative impact by the destruction of this age old Mutts appears incidental. For the administration, the old customs of the Mutts were too stubborn, they were a hindrance for the new generation ideas. So they needed to be broken. It is an outright wiping out of the Mutt’s ancient practices. The gross injustice is that, prior to the demolition drives; their voices had apparently not been given a fair and considered hearing by the officials.

The primary function and responsibility of the Mutts was to maintain a daily cycle of prayer.  The monks would live in spartan conditions and led humble lives, devoting themselves to the worship of Jagannath and to the care of the sick and poor. Monastic life is bound by ascetical practices expressed typically in the vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. Although individual monks took a vow of poverty, the Mutts were usually very wealthy because rich patrons bestowed upon them land and endowments. They were also given royal patronage.

The rules and regulations of the monastery were set by the head of the monastery and his chosen council. The life of a monk was mainly devoted to prayers; however they were also given job titles for their day to day activities. They would often act as teachers to boys from local families. Many would farm the land, the cowsheds and orchards. They would also be engaged in copying out palm leaf manuscripts and books. Librarians cared for the manuscripts; others were put in charge of feeding and clothing the fellow monks and to look after the ill and poor who turned up at the gates. In an inventory taken in 1966, the Raghunandan Library had a collection of 44,000 books and 3000 palm leaf manuscripts. Scholars from across the country, especially Sanskrit researchers, would come to Puri for this library.  What was recovered by the State Archives  prior to the demolition of the library was a measly 4500 books and around two hundred palm leaf manuscripts, all in advanced state of decay. Many of these valuable books are termite ridden, book-wormed and beyond repair. Irretrievable heritage has been lost.

In medieval times, the pilgrim town of Puri had very few inns, most of which were too expensive for travelers and the poor to stay in. The Mutts offered these poor people a few nights stay for free.  The Mutts also had infirmaries which were used as hospitals for the sick pilgrims and the townsmen as well. Monks often experimented with herbs and plants which they made into medicines.

The present building which was demolished was built sometime in 1790-1800 during the Maratha occupation of Puri. It was built on the foundation of the earlier building, which had been destroyed by the marauding iconoclasts. The present Mutt had all features of Kalingan architecture. There were no external decorative features except for the carved   doorjambs which depicted four sakhas of naga-nagi, puspa, naras and lata. At the Lalatbimba there was a Grahalaxmi image seated in lotus.  The doorjambs had been extensively carved with cult icons and Nayika images. How many of these valuable pieces were saved from destruction is not known. The walls had faded murals; which had been painted over a multitude of times. The perfectly arched entrances were decorated with animal, bird and vegetative motifs. Wooden palkis, also known as Vimanas were kept in the corners, their curved bamboo poles struck high up near the roof.  These and other furniture were made of the dark and hardy Rosewood, locally knows as Sissoo, which lasted for centuries.

The sanctum sanctorum of the Mutt had many Asthadhatu images of varying sizes. There were a multitude of Shalagrams, kept in an sequential order that had been followed for centuries. Ancient wooden chests were used to store the various habiliments and ornaments of the deities.

The Mutt had huge collection of artifacts, vestiges of the various rituals and ceremonies. They has  large cooking  vessels, made of copper and brass, passed on from generations, in which food for hundreds of devotees was cooked during the Rath Yatra and other festivals. One wonders what happened to all of these, how many could be saved and how many were let to crumble under the debris.

The fate of the Mutts of Puri is difficult to predict. In the wake of this wanton destruction, their future remains darkly obscure. Something very valuable is being lost, no one is talking about it and nothing is being done about it.

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