Phasi wood for Jagannath chariot this year entirely from private lands; forest loss, climate change affecting natural supply

Phasi and Dhaura trees take 50-100 years to mature; this poses a challenge to the annual construction of chariots in the Puri Jagannath Yatra
Wood for Jagannath Temple. Credit: Shree Jagannatha Temple, Puri
Wood for Jagannath Temple. Credit: Shree Jagannatha Temple, Puri

Odisha marked the day of Basant Panchami February 5, 2022, with a prayer ceremony to consecrate the logs used in the chariot of the deity Jagannath. But this year, most of the Phasi (Anogeissus acuminata) wood came from private land rather than forests, according to the state forest department.

This is significant as recent years have shown a decline in the growth of the trees such as Phasi whose wood is harvested for the chariot. The reason: excessive forest loss sans regeneration as well as climate change.

The chariot is used in the Jagannath Yatra of Puri later in the year.

Sisir Kumar Ratho, the principal chief conservator of forests, tweeted February 4: “Forest Department is privileged to serve Lord Jagannath since immemorial. However, earlier, all logs used to be from forest. Now, a good portion is offered by people from their private land.”

Around 99 per cent of Phasi logs came from private land owners this year, Manoj Kr Mohapatra IFS, regional chief conservator of forest, Bhubaneswar circle, told Down To Earth. This year, these trees were harvested from Nayagarh and Khordha districts of Odisha.

“Around 72 logs of Phasi, 14 feet in length and 6 feet in girth are used for making the wheels of the chariots. These logs mostly came from private land owners. They donated the logs to the temple committee for the chariot,” he said.

Around 865 logs of Phasi, Dhaura (Anogeissus latifolia), Asan (Terminalia elliptica) and Simal (Bombax ceiba), along with a few others, are the tree species majorly used for the construction of chariots of Jagannath, Balabhadra and Subhadra every year.

Climate change and the Yatra

The Phasi trees used in the chariots, have been dwindling due to loss of forests as well as climate change in recent decades, forest department officials said.

Phasi trees grow are mostly found in the alluvial floodplain of the Mahanadi.

“Phasi trees take 50-60 years to mature. The trees for the chariot have to be pencil straight, six feet in girth and 12-14 feet in height. If the girth is less, they cannot be used. The Jagannath Temple Committee sends its members to earmark such trees from forest and private land that can be used for the chariot,” Mohapatra added.

“Since the trees are being felled for decades now, their regeneration has been affected. There were a few Phasi trees in the forest area, but they were not selected this year as they did not fit the bill for the chariot. Also, there were younger trees which cannot be harvested as yet. We also left a few adult trees as mother trees to generate more saplings,” he added.

The forest department is also worried about rapid climate change leading to erratic rainfall and cyclones in the region interfering with the growth of the trees being used for the construction of the chariots.

“We need around 426 logs of Dhaura trees, of three-four feet girth for the axels and the body of the chariot. The Dhaura tree takes 80 years to attain a girth of six feet. As climate has taken hold, we have observed that their growth is slowing down since the last two decades. It may now take Dhaura trees 100 years to attain six feet girth. Similarly, Phasi matures in 50 years. It may also take longer to attain the six feet girth in future, so we need to start planning from now,” Mohapatra said.

The forest department has said the tree species used for the chariot are found in 14 districts of Odisha. However, they will focus on planting these species right away so that there may not be a crisis in future.

“As part of the Green Mahanadi Mission, we are spreading awareness among the masses and requesting them to start growing Dhaura trees on their land along with fruit trees,” he said.

Mohapatra told DTE that as part of the Jagannath Bana Prakalpa, launched in 2000, they had not been successful in growing Dhaura trees.

“The Phasi trees planted as part of the Jagannath Bana Prakalp have attained a height of 25 feet, Neem (Azadirachta indica) trees have grown to 12-14 feet and Asan to two-three feet. But we have not been able to grow Dhaura,” he said.

“As it mostly plays a load-bearing role in the chariot, it is indispensable and irreplaceable. So, the CAR timber working circle, along with the forest department, have mandated its conservation on private land. The species is also being planted consciously in block plantations and as part of the Green Mahanadi Mission,” Mohapatra said.

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