Swargadwara Dispute: District Administration And Hoteliers Continue To Be At Loggerheads!
Being the abode of Lord Jagannath, Puri has always been revered as the holy land for the religiously inclined in Odisha and across the country. But it is not only Lord Jagannath’s temple that draws people to the Pilgrim City. Among the many other places of religious and spiritual significance located in Puri is the ancient crematory ground ‘Swargadwara’.
It is also considered the most sacred place to be cremated for a Hindu owing to the several legends associated with its origin. However, despite all the importance attached to it, Swargadwara has found itself embroiled in a controversial land dispute that refuses to be steer towards any particular conclusion.
While the administration claims that land has been illegally encroached and hence eviction is inevitable, several hoteliers claim that they have valid documents and removing them from the area would affect their livelihood.
Years ago, given the religious significance of this place, a vast area of land was allotted for cremation activities at this ground. But today, almost 98% of the earlier allotted land has been encroached by numerous hotels, lodges and other small shops. As a consequence of the alleged illegitimate encroachment, there has been an acute shortage of space to carry out crematory activities, at any given point of time with too many people gathered at the ground.
And, it is not only the locals who use this place for cremation purposes; people from the adjoining cities, especially the twin cities come down to this ground on a regular basis to perform the last rites of their loved ones. With the shortage of land now hindering the crematory undertakings on the ground, the state government, recently, took up the issue to probe into the ongoing land dispute and resolve it in the favour of public convenience.
The land allotted as Swargadwara earlier belonged to the Shankaracharya Matha property. However, in 1927, about 30 acres of area owned by the Matha was donated to the Puri Jagannath Temple through property resettlement. Out of the 30 acres, 16.480 acres of land allotted for the cremation ground. Nonetheless, the Shankaracharya Matha continued to be the care taker of the donated property and the erstwhile Adiguru Shankaracharya of that time was the attorney of the land. Over the years, he had passed on the power of attorney to some of his disciples; in the process, the property ended up getting transferred to different people.
Mr. Patra (name changed on request), an advocate in Puri, who was a part of the documentation process of the case, informs MCL, “During those times, transfer of property, lease deed and other property transactions were carried out easily. All the property transactions were made on a red paper available in the court. The process was simple, and the attorney had to only write down the land details and the name of the recipient of the land. That single piece of paper in itself acted as an authentic document of property ownership or lease deeds.”
Explaining further, Patra mentions, “As per the documents, it seems that those holding the power of attorney at that time had formalised some lease deed and sale deed with some Bengalis residing in Puri, besides the local people. In 1951, an Endowment Act was introduced that unauthorised the sale or purchase of the property in possession of the Sri Jagannath Temple. Then in 1974, the Land Reforms Act, vested the state government with the power to take away all illegally occupied land. Hence, those who had taken the lease and sale deed got their manual pattas (handmade written documents) remade on a date earlier than 1951/1974. The forgery was allegedly committed with the help of the tehsildar and other employees of the Revenue Inspector office. Through this process, chunks of land were settled as ‘stithiban’ (homestead) property.”
“In many of these illegal documents, the signature of the former tehsildar was found, clearly showing that manipulation of these documents was rampant. Both the beneficiaries and government officials were fully involved in the malpractice. Thus, the manipulated documents need to be rectified soon to regain the ‘Amrutamani’ property,” claims advocate Mr. Patra.
Having investigated further, the state government recently took immediate action to reclaim the illegally occupied land. Only six months ago, the Puri Municipal Corporation had removed several temporary shops located in the neighbourhood of the Swargadwara cremation ground.
Meanwhile, a nine-member team, headed by District Collector of Puri Arabind Agarwal scanning the controversial documents relating to Swargadwara land scam has found more incriminating records wherein gross forgery has been committed and the valuable land was recorded in favour of many individuals flouting the prescribed norms.
Speaking about the issue, Collector Arabind Agarwal tells MCL, “We have found some people illegally possessing major portions of Puri Jagannath land. Although they do hold some legal documents to validate their rights over the property, the law does not permit this land to be transferred or sold. We will be soon serving a notice to these occupants to evacuate the land. Action will be taken as per the legal provisions and occupants holding a valid document will be compensated/paid depending on the land holding. However, those who fail to furnish any valid documents will be punished under the provisions of our legal system.”
He further informs, “Currently, we need to expand the crematory ground by at least 1.5 acres and in the rest of the place, beautification work has to be carried out.”
However, even as the government is gearing up for the expansion and reconstruction of the cremation ground by removing the encroachments, the existent land owners have a different story to share.
Kashinath Sahoo, owner of hotel ‘Bidesi Ghar’ refutes all claims of manipulation or forgery as he tells us that his ancestors, two generations back, had purchased the land from the land owner then by giving the value for the place. “So, there is no question of any manipulation and today this land is our livelihood. So, the administration should take necessary action but it should be justified,” he points out.
He goes on, ‘Although I am completely in favour of reconstruction and beautification of the cremation ground since it is located within the city and closer to the beach and when there is smoke or bad smell, it not only affects the tourists but also hotels like us located nearby, the entire process should be carried out in a proper manner so that no one faces any problem or issue.”
In fact, many hoteliers and a few locals are of the opinion that the Swargadwara should be shifted to the outskirts of Puri (Baliapanda), as these days, more and more people are coming to Swargadwara crematory from all over the state. As a result, the place is causing a lot of pollution through smoke and wastage. And, since it is close to the beach, it has a negative impact on tourists.
On the contrary, a large number of locals also believe that the crematory should not be shifted since it has strong religious value and shifting it might affect the sentiments of thousands of Hindus.
As the name “Swargadwar” suggests, it is believed that after death, this place acts as the gateway to heaven for the soul. And, there are several stories as to why the place is called the gateway to heaven.
The most common one, however, goes this way. It is believed that long back, a person used to come to the Jagannath temple to worship Lord Jagannath every day. However, he would only visit the temple in the night to worship Lord Jagannath and then leave. His get-up was somewhat different from the rest. One day the particular priest who helped this man conduct his ‘puja’ was not there in the temple and so his son, a little boy, replaced his father. However, once the puja was over, the man left without paying the little boy. The little boy followed him for a distance to ask for money. He finally found the man but the latter had nothing to pay.
Curious, the little boy asked him about his identity and the man replied that he was ‘Indra’ and had come to the temple to worship Lord Jagannath. And, he was travelling back to heaven. Since he had no money to pay the boy, he blessed the little boy and said, “Humans cannot go to heaven but after death, this will be their way to heaven.”
And, since that time, that way, ‘Swargadwar’ became the gateway to heaven for all souls. In fact, such is the sanctity of the place that all friends and relatives who come to participate in the funeral process, take bath in the ‘Mahodadhi’ sea and worship and pray for the peace of the soul.
That apart, even from ‘Vastu’ point of view, the South-East corner of Puri is considered appropriate for the cremation ground, the reason why many believe that the cremation ground should not be shifted.