Devotees are at present allowed by the 'pandas' to mount the chariots of the three deities of Lord Balabhadra, Lord Jagannath and Devi Subhadra, often resulting in chaos. The controversy surfaced in 2011 following a clash between priests and the police over allowing people on top of the chariots. It intensified when in 2012, an American national was allegedly beaten up by the temple police and a noted Odissi dancer Illena Citaristi was allegedly humiliated by priests the next year.
Taking up the incident seriously, the temple administration sought the views of Shankaracharya, who is considered the chief of the decision-making body of the 12th century shrine, said Sri Jagannath Temple Administration (SJTA) administrator Aravind Padhee.
The seer was asked to suggest to the SJTA whether non-Hindus can also climb the chariots and touch the deities. The practice has been decried by the Puri Shankaracharya Swami Nischalananda Saraswati and king Divyasingha Deb, who described it as "Mahapap" (sin).
The Sri Jagannath Temple Managing Committee, headed by Gajapati king Divyasingha Deb, has endorsed the ban recommended by the Puri seer. Citing religious scriptures and puranas, the Puri Shankaracharya in his recommendation has made it clear that none other than designated priests and temple administration officials can climb the chariots.
"While a maximum of 48 priests and officials having specific rituals to perform can climb 'Taladwaja', the chariot of Lord Balabhadra, 72 persons can be on 'Darpadalan', the chariot of Devi Subhadra. A maximum of 96 people can climb 'Nandighosh', chariot of Lord Jagannath," he said. Before forming views, the seer held consultation with different religious experts and mutt heads, said an official of Govardhan peeth, the seat of Puri Shankaracharya.
Deb said the Sankaracharya's opinion was conclusive and that the government should not overrule it.