A Tale of a God who was a British Ally

(Study of the Role of Jagannath of Puri
During Orissa Invasion in 1803)
A. K. Biswas

Former Vice - Chancellor, B.R.Ambedkar University, Bihar.
The Modern Rationalist, March 1998

Forty six (46) years after the battle of Plassey, the East India Company invaded Orissa on September 3, 1803. Lord Wellesley was the then Governor-General. The Province, with the exception of holy city of Puri, fell to them unopposed as the Marathas fled without offering resistance whatsoever. Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell, the Commanding Officer, along with his forces, camped off Puri for rest and relaxation. And an extraordinary thing happened then.

In his work History of Hindu imperialism (ed 1941), Swami Dharma Teertha discloses that a delegation of priests armed with a divine desire of the temple of Lord Jagannath, marched to the victorious British Commanding Officer's camp. According to the same Swam :.

" The oracle of the Puri Jagannath temple proclaimed that it was the desire of the deity (Lord Jagannath) that the temple too be controlled by the (East India) company, and the latter undertook to maintain the temple buildings, pay the Brahmins and do everything for the service of the deity as was customary"

East India Gazatter (ed 1828 of Walter Hamilton, on the other, discloses that "possession was accordingly taken of the town and the temple on 18th September, 1803; the sacred will of the idol having first ascertained through the medium of the officiating priest." William Hunter in his account of Puri (ed 1877) says " a deputation of Brahmins accordingly came into the camp, and placed the temple under his (Commanding Officer's) protection without a blow being struck" (emphasis added). Thus the entire Province was subjugated in fourteen days (3-18 September, 1803). And the sacred shrine, came under the enemy occupation voluntarily and unconditionally on the oracle of Lord Jagannath!

The rest is a spectacular saga of joint management and novel experiment; the mercantile West and spiritual East taxed the pilgrims of Lord Jagannath and earned millions of sterling pounds. Besides, they indulged in caste prejudice, discrimination and inequality. Several Regulations were passed by the Company to degrade people. Swami Dharma Teertha informs that the year the East India Company took control of the temple the tax collection amounted to Rs.135,000. Regulation XII was possed in 1805 whereby tax ranging from Rs.2-10was imposed on pilgrims. By Regulation Iv of 1809, the pilgrims were divided into four classes. Between 1806 and 1831, the tax collection grossed to Rs.2,437,570; the charges on pay of Brahmins, sebaits, devadasis, panda, ceremonies, maintenance of buildings, etc. amounted to Rs.1,154,440, leaving a balance of Rs.1,287,790 which was the profit to the East India Company. The annual profit out of the Jagannath temple thus stood at Rs.61,101! .To wash their hands of the religious affairs, the East India Company finally passed an Act in 1840 and dissociated themselves from the temple. But to ensure adequate financees for the shrine, the Company made huge endowments to Lord Jangannath to yield annually over Rs.56,000 to defray these expenses.

A similar tax, it is pertinent to note, was levied from the Hindus visiting pilgrimage centres at Tirupati, Gaya and Prayag too and millions were exacted by the mandarins there. The jazia imposed during the Muslim rule was replicated in essence and substance in those centres. The preamble to the Regulation IV of 1809 says "A tax shall be levied on the part of the Government as was heretofore done under the late Marhatta Government. The Marhatta Government, on the other hand, followed the footsteps of their predecessors (Muslim rulers) in taxing the Hindu pilgrims. Devout as they were, the Marhatta rulers did not consider it invidious to extract the same tax which the Muslim sovereigns imposed on their Hindu co-religionists! Today it is cited as an epitome of communal policy of Muslim rulers of medieval India. Rarely in history, is an instance where pecuniary benefit has been surrendered on moral qualms or spiritual consideration. Only Akbar did away with the vexatious religious tax. However, Feroz Shah tughlaq (1351-1388 AD), and Aurangazeb (1658-1707) continued to be derided as anti-Hindus.

Neither the British not their "holy"compradores in the shrines were accused of being anti-Hindus or anti-Indian for their action; rather they pretend to be as pure and serene as the morning-lily!

The Puri Temple is the seat of Lord Krishna and Balaram along with their beloved sister Subhadra. A legendary hero in war and diplomacy, Krishna's sudarshan chakra is omniscient and omnipresent and capable of beheading and destroying enemies in no time. Orissa was vanquished, nevertheless the disc remained impotent! It did not even quiver. Boastfully Lord Krishna proclaims in the sacred Gita:

"Whenever (Dharma) righteousness declines And there is an uprise of inequality,

I lose myself forth into birth in the world.

For the protection of the holy men,

The chastisement of the wicked and enthroning

Of Dharma I am born from age to age."

Worshipers of Jesus Christ who overran Orissa were not "the wicked" who merited Lord Krishna's chastisement." "The Holy Men" were unmindful though Jagannath voluntarily and unconditionally surrendered to the invading forces. Nonetheless the Dharma was not in danger or jeopardy! The occupation forces were wamely welcomed and ceremoniously escorted into Puri, the "Mecca of Hindustan" in broad daylight!! A strange historical truth. The Greeks, it may be recalled, entered the city of Troy in a huge wooden horse, attacked and conquered the capital and carried off the princess Hallen in the darkness of night. The Trojans fought valiantly against the clandestine invaders. The Oriya nation was enslaved by deliberate collaboration and submission. In future annexation of India, they used the unique instance of voluntary surrender of Lord Jagannath as trumph card to induce the Hindus elsewhere not to fight the British!

Juxtapose Dr. Ambedkar who is currently under fire from certain quarters as being, "anti-national, pro-British...."

He is, we are told, "a false god;" nevertheless worshipped by hundreds and thousands of dalits across the vast Indian subcontinent. They hold that facts of his proclivity towards the British have been erased. The facts of British victory in Orissa, though astounding, is too embarrassing to place it in history book for school children.

Wellesley's master-stroke of diplomacy coupled with appeasement of the Brahmins of the Puri temple brought Orissa along with the temple of Jagannath under the British rule. His orders issued on 3 August, 1803 to the Commanding Officer, quoted below, bear testimony of his strategy:

" The Brahmans are supposed to derive considerable profits from the duties levied on the pilgrims. It will not, therefore , be advisable at the present moment to interrupt the system which prevails for the collection of those duties. Any measures calculated to relieve the exactions to which the pilgrims are subjected by the rapacity of the Brahmans, who necessarily tend to exasperate the persons whom it must be our object to reconciliate."
Rapacity of the class of mandarins became handy in dealing with the destiny of the Oriya nation; it was utilized as a strategy to appease the greedy men. So they were left to do as they liked. Attention was specifically directed to preserve their prejudice. So the Governor-General enjoins:

"On your arrival at Jagannath, you will employ every Possible precautions to preserve the respect due to the pagoda, and to the religious prejudices of the Brahman and pilgrims. You will furnish the Brahmins with such guards as shall afford perfect security to their persons, rites and ceremonies and to the sancity of the religious edifices and you will strictly enjoin those under your command to observe your orders on this important subject, with utmost degree of accuracy and vigilance. (Emphasis added)

The final point he emphasized was with respect to indiscipline and unruly behaviour of victorious forces. To forestall any desecration, Wellesley instructs: You will understand that no part of the property, treasure or valuable articles of any kind, contained in the pagoda of Jagannath, or in the religious office. or possessed by any of the priests and Brahmans, or persons of any description attached to the temples or religious institutions is to be considered prize to the army. All such property must be considered as consecrated to religious use, by the customs or prejudices of the Hindus. No account is to be taken of any such property nor is any person be allowed to enter the pagoda or sacred buildings without the express desire of Brahmans."(emphasis added)

(Finally, the most tantalizing offer was dangled by the Governor-General:
"You shall assure the Brahmans at the pagoda of Jagannath that they will not be required to pay other revenue or tribute to the British Government than that which they have been in the habit of paying to the Marhatta Government, and that they will be protected in the exercise of their religious duties."")

Mir Zafar conspired with Lord Clive in Plassey, eclipsed the independence of India and laid the foundation for British rule in India. In Bengali, Mir Zafar is synonym with perfidy, treachery, treason, fifth column, and quisling. Bidheeshan of the epic Ramayana is remembered in the Hindu world with the disdain he merits for betrayal of his brother leading to the conquest of Lanka. King Ravana was subjugated by the Aryan invader Rama. Both Mir Zafar and Bidheeshan have been thrown into the garbage dumps of history. Notwithstanding his betrayal , Jagannath continues to be worshipped till date, thanks to the studied "Culture of silence" and embarrassment of the intellectuals to place it on record.

Certain foreigners have earned admiration of Indians as friends and Indologists. The orchestra of encomiums on these Indologists and friends is selective. The misdeeds of Jagannath and Wellesley's instructions appeasing a class which undermined national freedom and interest, cited above, have failed to provoke the ire of the so-called anti-British and anti-Ambedkarite brigade. They are conspicuous by their golden silence. Governor-General Linlithgo's observation golden silence. Governor-General Linlinthgo's observation that Ambedkar was "of good quality and a useful colleague, it he could be harnessed" has been found to be anti-Indian. Today Wellesley must be having his last laugh! The Imperial authorities conferred honors—Rai Bahadur, Khan Bahadur, Sit, CIE, OBE, etc. on selected Indians whose loyalty to the throne was conspicuous. They oiften made spectacular e]exhibition of their servile obedience obviously not by opposing or agitating against the alien domination but by promoting its interests. Dr. Ambedkar was never honored by the same rulers though the imperial list of honors included far less illustrations or enlightened people.


It is little known that Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab bequeathed the world famous diamond koh-i-noor to the temple of Jagannath. A Government publication in 1877 says, "Ranjit Singh bequeathed, by will, the celebrated koh-i-noor which now forms one of the crown jewels of England, to Jagannath." On the occasion of the visit of the British Monarch Queen Elizabeth II in October (1997) reports appeared in the media that the precious diamond was taken away by the British through deceit and trickery. The fact is that the diamond was given to the British officials as a gesture of goodwill of Lord Jagannath for the consideration the deity received from the alien officials. We are afraid to tell it to the world and record it in history. Our children do not know how India's precious jewel has become the most coveted gem of the British Crown. They are taught the theory of "trickery" which betrays their intellectual dishonesty.

Dalitstan Journal,
Volume 2, Issue 5, October 2000