How a British Tax Scheme at the Jagannath Temple became a Political Controversy
Words by Kaushik Srinivasan
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How a British Tax Scheme at the Jagannath Temple became a Political Controversy by Kaushik Srinivasan
Hindu Temples are enormously historical — their existence transcends lifetimes, centuries, and empires. Some of the earliest temples were built in the 12th century by the Gupta, Cholas, Chalukyas, and countless other dynasties. While empires fade, temples and their traditions endure. Many medieval empires that ruled in the Indian subcontinent originated from within the region or neighbouring regions — they grasped the importance of temples to the community and pilgrims. However, in the 17th century, British East India Company officials, who originated from over 7,000 km away, took control over several provinces in India — did they understand the importance of these shrines in their newly conquered land, and how did they manage these temples?
One of the most renowned and longest-operating Hindu Temples that has weathered multiple dynasties is the Jagannath Temple in Odisha, India. Built in the 12 century, the temple is dedicated to Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and also houses his sister Subhadra and his brother Balabhadra. The temple hosts the annual Ratha Yatra, a grand chariot festival in which the idols are taken on a procession through the streets of Puri, attracting millions of devotees worldwide. Over the centuries, the Temple’s operations have been overseen by the ruling dynasty and funded using donations or taxing visiting pilgrims.
When the British East India Company took control of the Jagannath Temple, historical records show the significant financial gain accrued by the Company on enforcing the pilgrim tax and the unexpected political challenges they faced managing the Temple. The records reveal a substantial revenue stream flowing into the Company's coffers, with some citing profits of over 2 million pounds sterling in 1840 (around 260 million pounds sterling today).