The pandas (priests) who conduct pujas in temples in Mathura have decided to oppose the Uttar Pradesh government’s proposal to constitute a board to manage and develop religious sites in this pilgrim town. The Akhil Bhartiya Teerth Purohit Mahasabha, the apex body of Mathura’s priests, which met a few days ago, has said that the proposed board would interfere in religious rituals and infringe upon the rights of priests. The priests also fear a loss of income and livelihoods.

This is not the first time that Mathura’s priests have locked horns with the state government, which is headed by Adityanath, the chief priest of the Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur. Last month, Adityanath’s statement that Mathura’s pandas were bringing a bad name to the state by extorting money from tourists riled the pandas, who held protests and said that the ruling BJP would have to pay for Adityanath’s arrogance.

Fear for livelihoods

There are nearly 4,000 temples in Mathura, including nearly 40 that are quite famous, like the Banke Bihari Mandir. Nearly 10,000 priests perform puja at these temples for devotees, who are referred to as “yajman”. Members of a particular caste from a state or region in the country tend to visit specific priests in Mathura for their pujas. The priests survive on the payment they receive from their yajmans. This tradition has been followed for generations.

At the meeting of the Mahasabha to discuss the shrine board proposal, it was decided that the priests would oppose any such move. There is fear that any such move would bring priests and temples, who functioned pretty independently so far, under indirect control of the government.

Rakesh Tiwari, executive committee member of the Akhil Bhartiya Teerth Purohit Mahasabha, said: “We are not against development of the temples. They should be developed and devotees should get more benefits and then only their numbers will increase. But what about the purohits [priests]? We are dependent on them [devotees] for our survival. It should not lead to hampering our livelihood.”

Government control

Those in the know in the state government claimed that the proposed shrine board will be constituted along the lines of the Vaishno Devi and Amarnath shrine boards.

Though the government does not have direct control of temples once such boards are constituted, it can get involved in their management and administration in different ways via the board, said Tiwari.

Giving a few instances of how this can happen, he said: “They may put some charges for pilgrims to use a particular lane [such as a fast-track to darshan lane]. They may open a new canteen whose rates will be decided by them. They may even offer a fixed amount to the purohits who conduct the pujas. All these steps involve revenue generation from a temple.”

At present, the only other temple in Uttar Pradesh to be managed by the government is the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi. Though the temple is managed by a trust, the government controls various aspects of its affairs such as the appointment of staff and disbursement of salaries. Pandits deputed inside the temple are appointed by the trust which has government officials on board. The Chief Executive Officer of the temple is a senior government official.

“Once there is government control [in Mathura], any devotee who is their guest will get VIP treatment while our yajmans will stand in queue,” said a priest. “Even the number of pandas will be restricted. It will be a direct attack on our livelihood.”

During the previous Samajwadi Party government, there was a move to take over the Vindhyavasini Dham near Mirzapur and even the Banke Bihari Mandir in Mathura. At that time priests had protested, and the move was put on hold.

A local journalist, Vijay Vidyarthi, claimed said that the priests in Mathura would be at the receiving end if a shrine board was constituted to manage temples in the town. “There have been incidents of devotees being fleeced,” said Vidyarthi. “Any regularisation will affect them [priests].”

A concession?

The development of religious places and the streamlining of religious services offered at these sites is already on the agenda of the new BJP government in Uttar Pradesh. Soon after it took charge in March, the government ordered that Mathura and four other holy cities in the state be provided with continuous power supply.

Last week, principal secretary Avneesh Awasthi visited Mathura (Hindi link) along with other state officials. The visit is believed to be a precursor for the establishment of the shrine board. “We inspected things for the development and improvement of services,” said Mahesh Sharma, district tourism officer, who accompanied Awasthi. “We are not aware about other decisions.”

Tiwari claimed that the priests met Power Minister Shrikant Sharma, who is also their local MLA, during his visit to Mathura on Friday. He said that the priests voiced their concerns and Sharma assured them that their demands would be considered sympathetically.

The Mathura priests have suggested that they would be open to the shrine board proposal if at least half its members were from their community. “If it is a 10-member board then five should be from the panda community so that religious sanctity and traditions are maintained, and our voices will be heard,” said Tiwari.

He added: “[During the meeting with Sharma] we had demanded that purohits should also get representation in the proposed shrine board. Let us see what happens.”