Puri, September 29: At least 351 servitors and 53 employees of Shree Jagannath Temple here have tested positive for COVID-19, Shree Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) administrator Ajay Jena said on Tuesday. With this, a total of 404 persons engaged in the 12th century shrine have tested positive for the virus since August.
Lord Jagannath's rituals, however, are continuing as usual despite the absence of so many servitors. The Jagannath temple is closed for devotees since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The official said as most of the servitors are in home isolation after testing positive for the infection and there is a shortage of knowledgeable people to perform rituals.
At least a group of 13 priests each are required to perform rituals for the sibling deities - Lord Balabhadra, Devi Subhadra and Lord Jagannath. Therefore, the presence of 39 priests apart from other servitors are essential to perform daily rituals of the oldest Lord Vishnu Temple here, who is being worshipped since ages in the form of Lord Jagannath.
The uniqueness of the Puri temple is that rituals are interconnected with each other, they start from early hours till late in the night. If one ritual is not performed, next one could not be performed as per the temple tradition, said Bhaskar Mishra, a researcher in Jagannath culture. If more number of servitors test positive for the virus in the coming days, there might be a problem. The administration is considering a proposal to engage junior servitors, he said.
So far, a total of 9,704 COVID-19 cases have been detected in Puri district of which 1,255 cases are reported from Puri Municipality area alone. Of the 52 deaths reported in the district, nine hail from the Puri Municipality area. At least three of the nine fatalities in Puri town are servitors engaged in the temple rituals, the district health officials said.
The administration had conducted COVID-19 test of all the servitors engaged in the annual Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath. Then only two servitors had tested positive for COVID-19. However, the infection struck Puri about a month after the festival, an official said, adding that the SJTA used to provide homoeopathy preventive medicines to servitors' families to keep them safe.
Meanwhile, the state government in an affidavit informed the Orissa High Court that it is not possible to reopen the temple including Shree Jagannath Temple in Puri for devotees under the prevailing COVID pandemic. The temple remains closed for devotees since March.