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As places of worship reopen across India, the moot question remains: Is it safe?

With the risk of community transmission looming on the horizon, the fear exists that even a minor blip in the management of crowds could prove to be suicidal.

Written by Vishnu Varma , Ralph Alex Arakal , Darshan Devaiah BP , Tora Agarwala , Sonakshi Awasthi | Agartala, Bengaluru, Guwahati, Kochi, Lucknow | Updated: June 8, 2020 10:28:31 pm
temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express At temples, circles have been painted on the ground to ensure physical distance between the faithful. (Express Photo by Ralph Alex Arakal)

For the last two-and-a-half months, India’s places of worship, deeply intertwined with the lives of the people, have remained out of bounds owing to the Covid-19 pandemic. On Monday, a feeble sense of normalcy returned to many of these places of worship as they reopened to the public in accordance with the Centre’s guidelines. From virtual queues to mandatory use of masks, thermal scanning to standing within circles drawn on the ground to maintain social distancing, a slew of measures are in place to control crowds and check the spread of the infection. Follow coronavirus pandemic LIVE updates

But across states, there has been a mixed reaction on the part of religious groups, managements and the civil society to the guidelines of the Centre and state governments. The prime concern for many of them is whether this is the right time to reopen temples, churches, mosques and synagogues – all of which are associated with large crowds – when the country is witnessing a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases.

With the risk of community transmission looming on the horizon, the fear exists that even a minor blip in the management of crowds could prove to be suicidal.

Read | Unlockdown Day 1: Religious places reopen for worshippers in Delhi; Employees return to govt offices in Bengal

India recorded a daily jump of over 9,000 coronavirus cases for the fifth straight day on Monday, taking the number of total infections to 2,56,611.

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express At mosques, authorities have been advising the faithful to bring their own mats for prayers. (Express Photo by Ralph Alex Arakal)

“The general sentiment is that it is not safe to reopen right now. It can be risky both for the faithful and the clergy. The people themselves have made such a request,” said Geevarghese Mor Coorilose, the Metropolitan of the Niranam diocese of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in Kerala. All churches under the Niranam and Kollam dioceses of the church will remain closed till June 30.

“In other dioceses, permission has been granted to churches to reopen but I’m not sure how many of them will. People are wise and they understand the situation very well,” he added.

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Churches under other major Christian denominations in Kerala such as the Latin Catholic Church and those under the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church have also decided not to reopen until further orders. However, wedding, baptism and funeral ceremonies are allowed to be conducted with adequate safety protocols.

Among Hindu temples, the ones under the ‘devaswom’ or temple administration boards with massive funds at their disposal like Guruvayur and Sabarimala will reopen this month. Both temples will have virtual queue systems to control crowds.

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But for the smaller temples, which have neither the staff nor the financial strength, it’s a choice strained with uncertainty.

Aravindaksha Kurup, secretary of a local Nair Service Society (NSS) unit in Kochi, said, ‘Devaswom boards have enough funds and they can do anything. Our staff is not equipped to deal with large crowds as per government guidelines. Besides, the number of cases is rising every day and we have to be careful. “Two temples, under the unit, will remain closed until further orders,” he said.

Though Kerala was able to flatten the Covid-19 curve successfully in early May, the return of people from abroad and other states in the country in recent weeks has pushed the infection curve up dramatically. From just 16 cases in the first week of May, the state now has over 1,100 active cases, spread evenly across its 14 districts. At a time like this, when everyday new cases are now in three digits, there were expectations from civil society groups that the state government would not buckle under pressure to give the nod for the reopening of places of worship. But those expectations have fallen flat.

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Noted Malayalam writer and commentator Paul Zacharia wrote on Facebook, “It feels like Kerala, which attracted global attention for its responsible handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, has turned onto a suicidal path. Succumbing to political and religious pressures, the decision of the government to reopen places of worship can only be described as a fatal mistake to the people of the state. Because, with the return of expatriates, this move of the government can risk opening the path for daily cases of infection to touch four or five digits…”

‘Bring your own mats for namaz’

In Karnataka too, the fears of infection spread have forced different religious groups to take varied positions. Even as many temples and mosques opened their doors for the first time in over 70 days, others like the ISKCON temple in Bengaluru have pushed the reopening date to June 15 in order to strengthen security measures.

“We are still planning various measures to manage the crowds and ensure social distancing. We have plans to set up sensor taps to clean feet and hands before devotees enter the temple. Devotees may book the time slot online before coming to the temple,” said an ISKCON spokesperson.

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At temples, circles have been painted on the ground to ensure physical distance between the faithful. Thermal screening measures are being undertaken, with those above the age of 65 and kids below the age of 10 advised to remain at home. ‘Theertha’ or ‘prasada’ will not be provided.

At mosques, authorities have been advising the faithful to bring their own mats for prayers. Alternate taps for washing hands and feet have been removed. Carpets have been removed and spots for namaz have been marked inside the mosque.

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“We completed the new tiling work in the last 48 hours after removing the carpets. People will be allowed to enter the mosque only in a staggered manner. While we used to host 500 people at a time, we have reduced the capacity to 140 now,” Imran Solanki, a committee member of Masjid-e-Mamoor in Koramangala, Bengaluru, said. Installing pedal-based sanitisers at entry and exit points is also on the cards.

In Bengaluru and adjoining districts, churches in over 126 parishes under the Archdiocese of Bangalore will remain closed till June 12. “At the beginning of services, not more than 30 per cent of the normal congregational strength will be allowed,” said Bangalore Archbishop Peter Machado.

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express In Bengaluru and adjoining districts, churches in over 126 parishes under the Archdiocese of Bangalore will remain closed till June 12. (Express Photo by Ralph Alex Arakal)

In the next few days, safety measures including placing sanitisers at church doors, ensuring seating arrangements for pews with a gap of 6-ft, LCD screens will be taken. Touching of idols will not be allowed. Instead of the actual reception of Holy Communion, the faithful may receive ‘spiritual communion’ as part of the new normal. Covid-safety committees will be formed to monitor and implement the guidelines.

‘I missed praying together as a community’

In states like Assam and Tripura, religious committees have been given the freedom to make decisions independently keeping in mind the infection scare in the local areas. For example, Assam’s biggest temple, Kamakhya — one of the oldest of the 51 Shakti Peethas in India — released a statement last week that it will not be opening up its premises till June 30 at least.

“What contributed to our decision was the Ambubachi Mela which happens in mid-June every year,” said Kabindra Sarma, a senior temple priest. The mela is an annual affair that attracts lakhs of devotees from around the country. “If we had opened it up, then it would have been impossible to control the crowds,” he said, adding that the temple committee will take a call on June 25 if they will open at the end of the month. “It really depends on the COVID-19 situation at the time. We may even extend it further.”

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express At St Joseph’s Cathedral Church – the biggest in Guwahati established in 1922 – Nicholas Andrews, a 48-year-old businessman was among the few that turned up Monday to offer prayers. (Express Photo by Tora Agarwala)

At the same time, there are temples like Guwahati’s Ganesh Mandir, established in the 1960s, that have decided to reopen with safety measures.

Jagganath Das, the temple committee’s general secretary, said the temple had decided to introduce thermal scanning, jot down names and number of all visitors, as well as make hand sanitisation compulsory. The giant bell, which devotees ring when leaving, was also covered and set aside. “About 30 people have come in today — half the amount of the usual attendees,” he said, adding that even if the temple was closed to visitors for three months, the customary rituals for the idol were done all through the lockdown. “We followed all our rituals dutifully through the last three months — one cannot simply lockdown God,” he said.

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express There are temples like Guwahati’s Ganesh Mandir, established in the 1960s, that have decided to reopen with safety measures. (Express Photo by Tora Agarwala)

Mosques in Assam have also opened up, based on the decision of their respective committees. “There are about 8000-plus mosques in Assam, small and big,” said Syed Muminul Aowal, Assam Minorities Development Board chairman, “So each mosque has its own committee and is taking its own decision — whether they will open, what rules they follow, etc.”

During the lockdown, three people per mosque were allowed to offer namaz. However, now mosque committees are customising their rules in accordance to their requirements. For example, while a mosque in Bongaigaon has decided to stick to the three-person rule even now, Guwahati’s oldest mosque, Burha Jame Masjid, are allowing people to come in batches of 20 to offer namaz in keeping the Centre’s guidelines. “We have a sanitization centre right at the entrance,” said Hafiz Anwar Hussain, the imam of the mosque. “When the namaz is offered, it will be done following proper norms,” he said, adding they will keep the mosque closed on Fridays. “Since it is an important day, there might be thousands of visitors, which we won’t be able to handle.”

At St Joseph’s Cathedral Church – the biggest in Guwahati established in 1922 – Nicholas Andrews, a 48-year-old businessman was among the few that turned up Monday to offer prayers.

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express There are temples like Guwahati’s Ganesh Mandir, established in the 1960s, that have decided to reopen with safety measures. (Express Photo by Tora Agarwala)

“Of course I can pray at home but what I missed was praying together as a community, in a group. It feels good to be back. Now I hope mass starts soon too.”

Fa. Vincent, the parish priest, added, “We have kept the church open but we will not carry out our Sunday mass. At least 200 people come to attend mass on Sundays and our service is a minimum of one hour. So doing it for batches of 20 (as per Centre’s guidelines) makes little sense for us since it will take one hour for each batch.”

In Tripura, while temples and mosques opened doors on Monday in conjunction with Home Ministry’s guidelines, Catholic churches will wait for the SOPs to arrive from the state government.

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express While temples and mosques opened doors on Monday in conjunction with Home Ministry’s guidelines, Catholic churches will wait for the SOPs to arrive from the state government. (Express Photo by Tora Agarwala)

Pandit Chandan Chakraborty, head-priest of Tripura’s 519-year-old Tripurasundari Temple at Udaipur, said the local administration has allowed devotees to offer prayers from 9 am till 5 pm from Monday, subject to safety guidelines.

“All devotees have to maintain social distancing by standing in circles equidistantly marked on the road leading to temple. They have to wear masks, hand sanitizer and hand wash systems are in place and mass gathering events like Aarati, Anna Bhog continue to be cancelled”, the head priest said.

Meanwhile, Bishop Lumen Monterio of the Catholic Diocese in Tripura said, “We shall wait for full guidelines and standard operating procedure of the state government before we reopen the churches”, he said.

‘Covid will not affect God, but it will affect us’

In Uttar Pradesh’s capital Lucknow, major temples including the Sankat Mochan Hanuman Mandir (popularly known as the Hanuman Setu temple) reopened today by allowing staggered number of devotees. At the Hanuman temple, people are not allowed inside. With a road being blocked for traffic, a tent has been put up in front of the temple for people to offer prayers.

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express The Hanuman Setu temple was deserted during the Bada Mangal festival early June. (Express Photo by Sonakshi Awasthi)

Though Monday was not expected to be crowded, Tuesday (June 9) is a big day for the temple management. Bada Mangal, which is every Tuesday of Jeshtha month under the Hindu calendar coinciding with May-June every year, is devoted to Lord Hanuman and celebrated on a large scale in the city. Customarily, celebrations are held at every Hanuman temple in Lucknow but grand-scale commemorations take place in the city’s oldest temples located at Aliganj.

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express Devotees pray across the temple road before phase 1 of lockdown 5.0 was enforced. (Express Photo by Sonakshi Awasthi)

“We are expecting at least 35,000-40,000 people to visit the temple. Devotees weren’t able to offer their prayers during any of the four Bada Mangals last month. June 9 will be the first Tuesday after lockdown ended,” said Chandrakant Dwivedi of the temple trust.

Like other places, there will be thermal screening and mandatory usage of masks and sanitisers. Devotees won’t be able to make their routine offerings at the temple.

temples open, Unlock 1, lockdown 5, lockdown 5 guidelines, lockdown 5 temples open, places of worship, places of worship open, India news, Indian Express Devotees maintain social distance while offering prayers. The temple had put up a notice informing the temple will be shut. (Express Photo by Sonakshi Awasthi)

“No priest would want to touch the prasad from another person. It’s risky. Coronavirus will not affect God, but it will affect us,” Dwivedi added.

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