Mumbai: Have no time to get to the temple any more? Just turn to your mobile.
With the press of a button, Hanuman will appear, accompanied by chants of the Hanuman Chalisa. Press 1 for flowers to descend on the deity, 2 for diyas to light up his feet and 3 to garland him.
Christian, Sikh or Muslim? No problem. Most mobiles can worship Jesus or Guru Nanak, too, or receive daily verses from the Koran or the Bible.
Religion is becoming serious business for telecommunications providers in the country.
Such services once meant listing an astrologer in the pre-programmed address book of cellular phones. Now, there are ringtones from bhajans to Christmas carols, shlokas to Sufi songs. Some cellphone firms are even tying up with niche groups, such as the Art of Living Foundation and International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskon) to offer regular content and advice to worshippers. Others are gaining sponsorships from temples and churches to send messages of faith.
In many ways, the marketing tactics cater to the ever busier lives of Indians who still want to be able to pray wherever they are—and, these days, many Indians, at least in cities and towns, are rarely without their mobiles. Users also say they like being able to send meaningful messages to friends, adding that most of them could benefit from digital doses of philosophy and gospel, to deal with the problems of life, work and family.
“Scriptures of every religion have deep meaning behind them and are very relevant in our times,” says Frank Christopher, who works at the Parliament Museum in New Delhi, and actually copies down some of the biblical text messages he receives, sentimentally storing them in his father’s old cigar box.
Even non-religious consumers are signing up, saying they appreciate features like ringtones and caller tunes with a touch of spirituality because callers might be soothed by the sound of the Gayatri Mantra over, say Bunty aur Bubli’s hit song Kajarare, the knock-knock scene from Don or the old Rrrring-rrrring.
“It is not a fad, I assure you,” said Pankaj Sethi, Tata Indicom head of value-added services, the industry term for features of mobiles beyond calling. Tata Indicom, the main brand of Tata Teleservices Ltd, began offering such services 18 months ago and, Sethi adds, there “is no sign of this trend going away.”
If anything, the trend is firming up, say industry watchers.
They believe that religion and related services can play a big role in India’s fast-growing mobile world, which boasted 166 million users as of last month. The Internet and Mobile Association of India says the current value-added services market is set to grow 60% by the end of this year from its current market size of about Rs2,850 crore to Rs4,560 crore.
According to Sethi’s estimates, religious content accounts for 8-10% of value-added services. Demand and customer traffic spikes around religious festivals and dips in between, said Mahesh Prasad, who heads value-added services at Reliance Communications Ltd.
This past Christmas, Reliance offered a new “SMS-a-candle” service where users could send a prayer and a request via SMS (short messaging service) for a candle to be lit at Mount Mary church in the Bandra section of Mumbai.
Thousands of people sent in requests for this service; the proceeds were used to buy the candles, said Prasad.
As part of its marketing efforts, Hutchison-Essar Ltd, in which UK’s Vodafone Group is seeking a majority stake, studied both religion and mobile patterns in rural and urban India. Hutch’s conclusion: religion, beyond a way of life, remains an important form of entertainment, especially in rural India.
Among urban Indians, religion is still important, but denizens were less open to talking about their faith, according to Hutch’s study. “The first thing they will say is, ‘I am not religious’, but if they pass by a temple, they will bow their heads,” said an official at Hutch’s value-added services division, who did not wish to be named because it is against the company policy. “As our study suggests, people are becoming more religious.”
He also declined to provide additional information or data on the survey.
Most cellphone providers now offer a range of basic services such as SMSes for daily horoscopes, Vaastu and Feng-shui living tips, and Panchang and Rahukaal consultations that help ascertain auspicious and inauspicious times, for a fee of about Rs3 per message. Devotees also can sign up for texting services, such as Gurubani, a collection of sayings of Sikh gurus, or excerpts from the Bible or the Gita. Hindu, Muslim and Parsi calendars also send reminders of important holidays.
Worshippers can plan pilgrimages, from room availability to darshan timings and special puja offerings through text messages. Some providers also offer live contact with an astrologer to help with crises, from personal to professional. Hutch charges Rs6 per minute for this service.
Intense competition in the mobile phone market has forced the industry to look at offering distinct features and truly unique content. Reliance has gone so far as to allow customers to directly question god. A virtual god, that is.
In its dart game called Prashnavali, users can play with god, as they would any other mobile phone game. “A picture of Shri Ram and a dart appear on the screen,” explains Prasad. “You close your eyes and think of a question that is important to you and shoot the dart on the screen. It will hit some point on the picture, which will reveal an answer for your question, or give you some set of predictions about it,” he added. The game was so popular that it became an integral part of the company’s offerings, accessible to every mobile phone customer.
Tata Indicom’s Sethi believes that competition will take the battle for the “faith-market” to the next level: personalization of devotion.
Indicom has already begun to spin off and form mobile “affinity groups” for existing religious groups, such as the non-profit Art of Living Foundation and Iskcon. Both organizations declined to comment for this story.
“The groups act as the content providers for us and we aggregate that content into a mobile-friendly format,” Sethi said. For instance, the sayings, pictures, messages and voice and video clips of the Art of Living-founder, who goes by the name Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and the group’s special bhajans are adapted for mobile usage.
“What we do is tailor his message to fit 161 characters, consult his senior teachers to make sure that his message was not lost in translation, and then we send it out as an SMS to all subscribers every day,” Sethi said.
Sethi says that the financial arrangement between his company and such niche groups follows industry standards, but refused to elaborate further. Such arrangements, according to telecommunications experts, can vary widely, from revenues split 50:50 to other deals more favourable to the cellphone service providers, since religious content is often available freely and some groups are grateful to spread their message.
Now, Tata Indicom is planning a similar alliance with two other religious congregations to form more exclusive partnerships. Sethi said he could not mention any names yet “because we’re working on the deals and it’s a fluid situation.”
Reliance, too, has begun personalizing the practice of devotion. Working with B.R. Films, producer of the highly successful 1980s’ television serials based on the epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, Reliance has created a condensed version of the Mahabharata for its mobile users. “Now, you can watch it on your mobile for Rs15,” said Prasad. “During festivals again, we create a whole gamut of content to help people enjoy the spirit of things.”
For example, last year during Navaratri, Reliance provided information about where Garba and Dandiya events were being held across India. It also gives sunrise and sunset times for Muslims fasting during Ramadan. The company’s other, most popular personalization stems from ringtones, where users can assign different songs for spouses, friends, family and colleagues.
When friends call Ankush Khanna, a Delhi-based content-writer for web-portal Sify, they say they never quite know what music to expect. It could be the bhajan Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, or the Gayatri Mantra, or the J ai Ganesha chant, or the Hanuman Chalisa. “I am not actually a religious guy,” he said. “I don’t go to temples… But then, religious tunes are better than playing item numbers for people who call me.”
Prasad says some people take their ringtones very seriously. “Sometimes, they put in Gayatri Mantra for the morning, another in the afternoon, and some other one in the evening… You see, Indians tend to treat the mobile as an extension of themselves.”
Sonal Pathak, a Mumbai-based homemaker, would agree. Her ringtone is the bhajan Aye Malik because “it reflects who I am and how I try to live my life.”
For others, it is a way to send a subtle message to callers. Sandeep Shenoy, a strategist at brokerage firm Pioneer Intermediaries Pvt. Ltd, plays Shri Ram Chandra as his caller greeting. “But I change it five to six times a year. Around Christmas, I play carols. Around Ganapati (Ganesh Chaturthi), I play Ganesha bhajans.” The idea, he says, is to offer “soothing respite to people during stressful workdays.”
The Gayatri Mantra remains in the top 10 ringtones for most service providers, along with Jai Ganesha and Navkar Mantra. The top 10 charts are compiled on a weekly basis, because they vary so much depending on what songs are popular at the time. While tunes easily soar to the top 10 and then vanish, the Gayatri Mantra has stayed steady, said Sujai Srivastava, a Reliance spokesman.
Customers such as Christopher say their text messages are less about religion than about sharing a beautiful idea with friends. He signed up for the service through the website www.mytodaysms.com. The firm charges Rs2 to start and stop services and the SMS itself is free of cost, sponsored by churches and other religious organizations. Netcore Solutions Pvt. Ltd, which runs the site, declined to give details about its business model.
“I think quotations are beautiful thoughts put together in a few words,” Christopher says, and recites his favourite, from Psalm, Chapter 23.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil;
“For you are with me…”