GAJAPATI Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb is the Maharaja of Puri, a ruler of the dynasty that is connected with the Kings of Orissa who founded the Shri Jagannath Temple at the start of the 12th century A.D. He likes to say that he is presently performing the role of an “adhyasevak” in the Shri Jagannath Temple. And as Gajapati Maharaja, he is. Because the Maharaja of Puri is also the chairman of the managing committee of the temple that was constituted by the government under the Shri Jagannath Temple Act of 1955. Dibyasingha Deb assumed both these responsibilities in 1970 on the death of his father, Gajapati Maharaja Birkishore Deb.
He is an elegant, handsome man, almost David Niven-like in his looks, and he dresses traditionally in a dhoti-kurta with a shawl wrapped around his shoulders. His home is the Puri Palace, a rambling white one-storeyed structure on the main street of the town, right across the Shri Jagannath Temple. As part of the service he renders to the devotees visiting the temple, the Maharaja has converted part of his palace into a vegetarian restaurant called The Grand. All kinds of vegetarian food is served here in Indian, Chinese and Continental cuisines, but without onion and garlic. “Such a facility did not exist near the temple, I felt it was required for the convenience of the pilgrims,” the Gajapati Maharaja explains.
His palace, like his lifestyle, is not as affluent and as well established as some of the well-known Maharajas of the South, North and of Rajasthan. Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb has no regrets, however. “Some of the 40 or so Maharajas of Orissa were well established and important in their own way, but not like the others in the country,” he said. “Their palaces were not those in Mewar, Jodhpur or Mysore. They had wealth but not opulence.” He is in touch with the other Maharajas of India. Most of them are inter-related, so they are close to each other, if not friends.
He explained his duties as the Maharaja of Puri. “There is no duty of kingship but only traditional duties in the temple which are in line with what was being done by the sovereign rulers of Orissa. We are the heads of the state and the first servants of the Lord. We perform certain services before Lord Jagannath at the time of festivals and the most important one is the Rath Yatra. My work is connected with the management and administration of the Shri Jagannath Temple. I have voluntarily taken up a third service, that is to society!”
Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb said that he was into promoting and taking part in many religious and spiritual activities throughout Orissa. “From spiritual programmes at the village level to programmes in big cities like the founding of a temple or a spiritual discourse programme,” he explained. “Locally and internationally, I am also involved in promoting
the spiritual heritage of India.”
He described the Rath Yatra as an event when the Lords come out of the Shri Jagannath Temple so that everyone who desires to have a darshan of them can have a literal and wonderful opportunity of doing so. “All devotees irrespective of caste, creed, religion can participate in this festival,” the Gajapati Maharaja revealed. “He is Jagannath, Lord of the Universe, he belongs to everyone and everyone belongs to him. Lord Jagannath is not confined to any particular community or culture. And during the Rath Yatra, the Lords go from the present temple to the temple of their birth, which is the Gundecha Temple, where they were consecrated in ancient times.”
This Maharaja’s early life was like anybody else’s in Puri. He studied in a convent, then at Raj Kumar College in Raipur, which is a prince’s school in the east like Mayo is in the north. After that, St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, passing with history honours, then law at the Delhi University, an LLM at Chicago’s North-Western University, practise in Delhi, in the high court and supreme court, for some years. “Thereafter the Lord made it impossible for me to stay out of Orissa,” he smiled. He came back to Puri and took up his responsibilities to the state and the temple. These included getting married, too. And his wife is from Jammu, distinctly related to the Maharaja, Dr. Karan Singh. They have four daughters.
The Maharaja of Puri is also the sovereign ruler of Orissa because Puri is one of the four dhams in India, the major one in the east in fact. “In the 13th century Uttkal or Kalinga (which is what Orissa was called), from the Ganges to the Godavari, the entire east coast, was under the Gajapati Maharaja’s control till the mid-16th century. Orissa was subsequently invaded by the Afghans, the Mughals, the Marathas and the British, finally, in 1803. While the other Maharajas joined hands with the British and collaborated and got recognition, we fought against them and lost! Therefore we were not ruling princes and we did not get a privy purse,” he said, going back into history. “Our tradition and heritage is as glorious and significant as any other’s, but we don’t have much wealth!”
And Gajapati Maharaja Dibyasingha Deb talked about his personal life. He had no political ambitions. It was not that there were restrictions on him joining politics. He had a different perspective and approach to his representatives. “I can serve the Lord and the public better by remaining apolitical,” he explained. “I cannot identify with any one group, everyone has a claim on me.”
And he talked about his eating and drinking habits. He admits to be a gourmet at one time, but now food does not make a difference. “At one time 20 years ago good food made a difference. I ate chicken, fish, meat, there were no restrictions, except on those days when I rendered service before Lord Jagannath and on festive and holy occasions. I abstained then,” he added. But then he met certain spiritual personalities who changed his life. The material desires dropped off. “I didn’t stop eating chicken, chicken left me,” he said seriously.
The Maharaja of Puri entertains occasionally. Though it is not a formal requirement for him to host banquets for VVIPs visiting the Shri Jagannath Temple. “My duty is to see that they have a comfortable darshan and that they feel at home. I organise the mahaprasad for them at home and request the VVIPs and dignitaries to come visit me. Most of them do.”