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God goes online as places of worship shut doors to save people

All major religious institutions are opening up online channels to stay connected with their devotees.

, ET Bureau|
Last Updated: Apr 02, 2020, 07.08 AM IST
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“We’re under complete lockdown for some days now, but we’re trying to pass out food packets, masks and hand sanitizers to police staff manning the neighbourhood, Covid volunteers and several poor and needy people,” says Aadesh Bandekar, chairman of the Siddhivinayak Temple Trust in Mumbai.
The muezzin calls out the faithful to prayer five times a day. But nobody comes to the mosque. These days, devotees spread out janamaz in the confines of their homes to pray. This, perhaps, is happening for the first time in 1391 years of Cheraman Juma Masjid in Kerala, where an azaan has not beckoned believers to the mosque.

“We’ve told people to pray in their homes. These are tough times, and it is not right for people to congregate in one place,” says Faisal, an office-bearer at Cheraman Juma Masjid, the oldest mosque in Indian sub-continent.

Places of worship - cutting across religion, gods and saints have barred public entry in totality post the Covid-related lockdown announced by the Government. While daily rituals and prayers are conducted by a select group of priests and clerics, devotees are desisted from thronging in.

All major religious institutions are opening up online channels to stay connected with their devotees. Online live darshans, donations and pooja booking options are made available for public by many institutions. A few cash-rich religious trusts are also reaching out to the lockdown-afflicted people with relief materials and financial assistance.

“We’re under complete lockdown for some days now, but we’re trying to pass out food packets, masks and hand sanitizers to police staff manning the neighbourhood, Covid volunteers and several poor and needy people,” says Aadesh Bandekar, chairman of the Siddhivinayak Temple Trust in Mumbai.

“That apart, we’re live streaming the daily rituals on Facebook for our devotees… These bits are getting a lot of view these days – especially from devotees residing abroad,” he adds.

The trustees of Ajmer Sharif Dargah, the shrine of revered sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, is contemplating whether to live telecast the daily proceedings to their devotees. On an average, the shrine attracts over 20,000 visitors; on Fridays and other important days, the tally counters cross 50,000 worshippers.

“Visitors may want to come, but saving lives is more important now,” says Syed Sameer Chishti Shah, who serves at the Dargah.

“The Dargah committee will decide about our online outreach programme very soon. Our payment channels are open, but offerings such as flowers and chaadhar are not taken in from outside now. We’ve also asked shopkeepers who sell these items near the Dargah to down shutters till the time the lockdown is in place,” he adds.

The Our Lady of Good Health Basilica at Velankanni (Tamil Nadu) attracts over 2 crore visitors every year. The church, which remained open even in the aftermath of 2004 tsunami (which caused the death of over 500 pilgrims), is shut for the first time in 50 years. The authorities have decided to conduct the ‘Mass’ indoors, and stopped ‘baptism’ and ‘confirmation’ rituals.

“The priests are conducting Mass two times a day… The morning Mass – at 6AM – is live telecast on the Church website and on Youtube. We’re witnessing a lot of visitors on our Youtube channel these days,” affirms Fr. A. Anto Jesuraj of the Velankanni church.

Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD), the trustees of Tirumala Venkateswara Temple, makes use of its dedicated television channel to reach out to devotees. Daily rituals at the temple are also uploaded on the temple’s mobile app. On a normal day, the pilgrimage centre attracts over 60,000 visitors – and a wee bit short of one lakh on important days, according to TTD officials.

“We’ve a studio with sets that replicate the sanctum santorum… the proceedings are enacted there too for a video-shoot and live telecasting on our TV channel. The mobile app also has live videos and photographs,” a TTD JEO office staff tells ET.

The Saibaba Sansthan Trust, which oversees the Shirdi Saibaba Temple, has announced a donation of Rs 51 crore to the Maharashtra CM’s relief fund to fight the Covid outbreak. Likewise, the Kolhapur Mahalaxmi Temple trust has signed a cheque of Rs 2 crore favouring the state government to deal with the epidemic. The Shirdi Saibaba Temple live-streams daily rituals on TataSky and also through the temple’s dedicated mobile app. The temple hosts 50,000 visitors every day.

“The lockdown has impacted a lot of people in this temple-town,” says Mohan Yadav, a Saibaba Sansthan Trust official.

“There are 600 hotels here, employing thousands of people; all are shut now… The flower and fruit-sellers are not open anymore; this putting pressure on farmers who are sitting on piles of perishable stock. There are roughly 1000 beggars who live on alms given by devotees who come here… Now they don’t even get food to eat,” says Yadav.

The lockdown to prevent the spread of Coronavirus is almost total in all towns that huddle around important religious centres. Poor locals who earn their livelihood selling flowers, fruits, chaadars and incense sticks are now a worried lot. With no devotees around, only prayers may help them tide over.
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