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An Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) team on Monday inspected the condition of the Ratna Bhandara at Puri’s Jagannath Temple from the outside, after their proposal to enter the sealed rooms, believed to contain ancient wealth, triggered a row.

Ratna Bhandara is an extension of the Natamandir or Jagamohana, one of the original twin structures of the temple. “Based on feedback from ASI, the administration decided to check whether Ratna Bhandara is structurally safe,” said IAS officer Pradeep Jena, Chief Administrator, Shree Jagannath Temple Office, on Monday. “We received permission from the (Odisha) High Court for only structural inspection on March 26 and 27. There was no inspection or inventory of valuables inside Ratna Bhandara”.

Reports that the ASI team would enter Ratna Bhandara had triggered a row, with scholars associated with the temple raising concerns. “In Odisha, ASI is a corrupt and mismanaged organisation. The state archaeology department is defunct for the past 10 years and this gives them a free hand,” said well-known researcher Anil Dhir, secretary of Konark Suraksha Manch.

Former Director of Higher Education in Odisha and member of Jagannath Sanskruti Surakhya Mancha, Dr Prafulla Rath, told The Indian Express: “There is a trust deficit when it comes to government officials and ASI. Several priceless artifacts have gone missing during ASI’s excavation and inspection activities in Odisha. Top political leaders have been involved in the smuggling”.

There are believed to be four rooms in Ratna Bhandara. One of them is used regularly, and another contains the Lord’s jewellery used in his Suna Besa (golden attire). The other two sealed rooms are believed to contain treasures of kings brought from conquests of rival kingdoms. “For example, in the 15th Century, King Kapilendra brought treasures on the backs of seven elephants after victories over rival kingdoms. These are believed to be stored in the temple,” said Dr Harihar Kanungo, who has studied the history of the temple for 40 years.
Explaining why he is opposed to ASI’s inspection, he said, “The temple’s valuable copper plate earthing went missing. Some priceless paintings have gone missing. Nobody has opposed opening of Ratna Bhandara. But ASI cannot be allowed to enter alone.”