Lord! Where will the wood for Jagannath’s chariot come from?

As the forest cover in Odisha decreases, there are apprehensions about the scarcity of wood for making the deity’s chariot for the Rath Yatra

By Priya Ranjan Sahu
Published: Wednesday 26 June 2019
The Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri, Odisha. Photo: Getty Images
The Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri, Odisha. Photo: Getty Images The Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri, Odisha. Photo: Getty Images

The organisers of the famed Jagannath Rath Yatra in Odisha’s Puri are facing a unique problem this year. Wood for making the deity’s chariot is in short supply.

Every year, the chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra are made from wood, to be used in the festival.

The Jagannath Temple authorities require over 1,100 big logs of 12 species of wood. At least 865 logs having a length of eight feet each, of three species — Phasi, Bhaunra and Asana —are the major components of the chariots. The logs are converted to around 4,000 pieces of varying shapes and sizes to construct the chariots.

The Odisha government supplies the wood to the temple authorities free of cost. After the festival, the dismantled wood goes to the Temple kitchen, to be used as firewood to cook prasad for the deities, which is given to at least 30,000 devotees daily. 

But as Odisha’s forest cover decreases, there are apprehensions about the scarcity of wood for making the chariots.

In the first preparatory meeting for the Rath Yatra on June 12, many showed their apprehensions about the scarcity of wood for making the three chariots.

“Last year, 50 devotees of Nayagarh district donated wood for making the chariots of the deities. This year, only 22 devotees could donate. This points to a situation of scarcity,” said a member of the preparatory committee.

This is not the first time that apprehensions are being raised about the scarcity of wood for chariot-making. It has been a nagging question since the past decade.

Traditionally, the wood used to be supplied exclusively from the forests of Nayagarh district, which was a part of the erstwhile undivided Puri district.

According to forest officials, the area under the Nayagarh district forest officer (DFO) had enough Phasi, Bhaunra and Asana trees. “But as the number of the three species dwindled in Nayagarh DFO area, wood from areas under the Boudh DFO started being collected,” said a forest official.    

Forest officials said as supply fell short, the department launched the Jagannath Bana Prakalpa (Jagannath forest project) in 2000, at a cost of Rs 65 lakh. Around 45 lakh saplings of the 13 species including Phasi, Bhaunra and Asana were planted on 2,800 hectares along five districts of the Mahanadi river delta including Nayagarh and Boudh.

The temple administration also urged the devotees to donate the specific trees towards chariot making to encourage community involvement. Many private individuals in Nayagarh have Phasi trees in their backyards.

No success so far

But, forest department sources said the moves have not produced desired results. Except for Daspalla forest area in Nayagarh, the survival rate of the plantation was not up to the mark, they said.

Another problem is about replenishing the specified trees that take around 20 years to mature. The Phasi trees take much longer — over a half century — to mature. It is the stock of Phasi wood that is going out of stock fast.

According to forest officials in Nayagarh, till a few years ago, Phasi trees could be found abundantly inside a natural forest. But now, they come across the species after extensive search.

In the preparatory Rath Yatra meeting, though the top forest officers assured members that there was enough trees in the Jagannath Bana Prakalpa, they could not satisfy the members about the exact number of mature trees grown under the project to be used in chariot-making.

“There is no scarcity at all,” Pradipta Mohapatra, chief administrator of Shree Jagannath Temple Administration told Down To Earth.

“The forest officials have told us that the trees planted in districts along the Mahanadi delta area have grown robustly. However, the principal chief conservator of forests has been asked to give an enumeration report on the status of trees in the Jagannath Bana Prakalpa,” Mohapatra added. 

On their part, temple authorities claim that wood will never come in the way of the Rath Yatra because the wood used in chariot-making is available in another 14 districts apart from Nayagarh and will last a century. 

But will the tree cover in the districts last till that time, considering the rapid denudation of forests due to expanding urbanisation, mining and other development projects?

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