Covid-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on various aspects of the society and temple priests in Tamil Nadu are among the most affected. The situation in temples is so dire that several temple authorities even requested the government to waive off the electricity bill citing low revenue due to the lockdown.
Though the government had announced cash support of 1,000 rupees, it is reportedly restricted to pujaris who are registered under the village temple pujaris welfare board of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department (HR & CE).
The priest across the state are carrying out the daily rituals in the morning and evening as per agamas without any devotees. In Madurai, for the first time, the most famous – Chithirai Thiruvizha, a month-long festival was performed in a minimalistic manner. Events like flag hoisting ceremony, coronation, and car festival were canceled. The celestial wedding of Lord Sundareswarar and Meenakshi Amman – the temples’ presiding deity, was performed with just four priests on May 4. It was live-streamed for the devotees on the temple’s website.
Close to lakh devotees from the near districts and towns used to flock the temple during this time to take part in the cultural extravaganza but due to the lockdown restrictions, the temple maintained a low key profile. This also had a significant impact on the livelihood of the temple priests.
Speaking to Indianexpress.com, Ashok Sastrigal, one of the Sivachariyars who work in Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple, says special pujas are done to fight the pandemic virus. “It’s been prescribed in Agamas that Nithya puja’s (to the deity) which include Naivedyam, Alankaram, Abishekam, shouldn’t be stopped at any situation so we are carrying out that every day. We usually do special pujas during a crisis situation and now we also are performing ‘PanchaKavyam’ jepam (recitation) and doing Abishekam. Apart from this, ‘Mrityunjaya mantra’ (a verse of the Rigveda) is recited every day in the temple. All these are done to provide strength for people to fight the unknown enemy,” he said.
Talking about the Chithirai Thiruvizha, Ashok Sastrigal said he has never seen this kind of a muted celebration in his life.
“The festival is the flagship event of the city. People even from abroad take part in the festival, the 120 archakars who work in Meenakshi Amman temple were all prepared like every year to host the festival but unfortunately due to Covid-19 everything including the Panguni festival had to be canceled. We are going to find a way to make atonement for all these festivals we missed because of the lockdown,” he added.
When asked how he is managing during this lockdown period, he said it has been difficult without contribution from the devotees. “It has been difficult because the Sivachariyars depend on these festivals to manage their expenses like paying the rent or school fees of their children, house expenditures, etc. The government gave relief but it is enough for managing day to day expenses, for the long run it won’t be sufficient.”
Priests who work in surrounding hamlets in Madurai, Kanchipuram, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur heavily depend on the donation from the devotees. The festivals scheduled in these temples in the last two-three months have been canceled. Usually, the money earned through these festivals will see them through the next couple of months.
“More than us, people who do puja kaingaryam in small temples are the most affected. Though some seva trusts are helping them, the majority of priests are suffering.”
Tamil Nadu Poosarigal Peramaipu (Pujaris association) state secretary Raja says since 2009, HR & CE hasn’t taken any initiative to provide financial aid to pujaris in the village shrines.
“They have been worst hit due to the lockdown. Between April-May, there will be lots of temple festivals, all of them are completely suspended now.
The majority of these pujaris are uneducated when they approach the HR & CE, they are not given any respect. If they approach the authorities for any assistance, they are shunned citing some reasons. The government allocated funds to reach the bigger temples and it slowly spreads out to other temples in the districts. These pujaris in rural villages get nothing. Even today, our members in Coimbatore have given petitions to the district collector to take some initiatives; we are just hoping the government will do something about it,” he said.
He further added that there are close 27,000 members in their association and close to 50 per cent of them are aged above 50 who are struggling to meet their daily expenses.
“The government even increased the retirement pension of village temple priests to 3,000 from 1,000 rupees, but even that hasn’t reached out members properly. They don’t know other jobs, they won’t go for a carpenter work or anything because they do this job as a service to the god; they had been doing this for ages. Revenue is not their top priority; even today many of them doing all the rituals to the god by selling whatever they possess,” he added.
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