History stands witness to the twists and turns of political fortune the Puri Jagannath temple has been embroiled in over the centuries. The protests voiced recently against West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s entry into the temple to offer puja is in line with the politics the servitors of the deity have always dabbled in. Pre-Mughal Muslim rulers introduced pilgrim tax in India. Emperor Akbar abolished it and Shah Jahan continued this liberal policy. Aurangzeb, however, went back to levying it. Interestingly, the tax continued to be extracted by the Hindu Peshwas who ruled Orissa in the 18th century. Later, the East India Company actually systematised it: a regulation was passed in 1806, classifying pilgrims into four categories, with tax rates varying from Rs 2 to Rs 10 per head. Some Bengali zamindars were known to have visited Puri with a retinue of 2,000 men by paying pilgrim tax.
It was in September 1803 that Wellesley’s army took Orissa—in 14 days flat, without even a shot being fired or a drop of bloodshed. The army marched right up to the outskirts of Puri and camped at Pipili, four miles off the temple town. A delegation of high priests from Puri called on the commanding officer of the victorious army in his camp. Swami Dharma Teertha (1893-1978), whose pre-ascetic name was Parameswara Menon, wrote in History of Hindu Imperialism (1941): “The oracle of the Puri Jagannath Temple proclaimed that it was the desire of the deity that the temple too should be controlled by the Company, and the latter undertook to maintain the temple buildings, pay the Brahmans and do everything for the service of the deity as was customary.” In the very first year, the institution yielded a net profit to the Company of Rs 1,35,000, the swami wrote. Puri was not the only temple town under the British tax net. The Company earned tax of some two to three lakhs from Gaya. Huge tax inflows also came in from other pilgrimage centres like Tirupati, Kashipur, Sarkara, Sambol etc—the net revenue amounted to an average to £75,000 and upwards annually.