Home / Opinion / Democratizing devotion in the digital age

My mauma (maternal grandmother) is a very busy woman with very little to do during the day. This means she’s perennially bored and restless at the same time. Much to the annoyance of my mother, she often disappears without a trace. And we find out three days later that she’s in the armpit of Uttaranchal prostrating before an avatar of Vishnu. She’s not the only grandparent to exhibit such behaviour.

Bharat loves temples. They are more dear to us than life itself. No, really. According to the 2011 census data we have well over 2 million temples. Compare that to India’s 740,000 doctors and you get a real sense of our priorities. As Bollywood put it “Hame dawa ki nahin, dua ki zaroorat hai" (We don’t need medicines, we need prayer). Now before you start thinking that I’m out to berate the general populace for their attachment to divinity, let me disabuse you of that notion.

Speaking purely as an investor, what I see is a gargantuan TAM (total addressable market) that is largely ignored by Start-up India. For all the excitement around food-tech (which has admittedly faded since the fever dream days of 2015), temples outnumber restaurants two to one. My guesstimates from various sources peg the number of restaurants in India at somewhere between 500,000 and a million, less than half of the temple count.

The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) estimates that 11% of all domestic travel is religious in nature. Exact numbers on hundi donations, puja sevas and the like are obviously not publicly available. We might not have the most granular data to size the market, but lord knows (pun unintended) we spend a lot more time, money, and emotion in a temple than we do in a restaurant. I doubt anyone will challenge this assertion.

So, how does one go about building an Internet business around such a large unorganized market? The answer is simple: In order to organize an unorganized market, one must follow the playbook and begin with searchable classifieds. In other words, we need a Zomato for temples.

Imagine an app, where you can simply do the following:

Look for temples around you: This is especially useful when one has travelled to a different part of the country and is looking for the daily dose of salvation.

Search for temples by deity: The concept of an ishtadeva (god of choice) is rather common. Every family has a kuladeva (family god) that is inherited, but individuals tend to choose the god that they relate to the most. My dad, for example is a devout bhakt of Hanuman; I, on the other hand, bow to Bholenath. It’s a deeply personal choice, and is often a key driver of which temple one chooses to go to.

Search by purpose: Ganesh is the vighna-vinashak (destroyer of obstacles), Lakshmi/Kubera bring wealth, fasting for Shiva helps one find her soulmate (marriage is a big deal after all), Surya for fame/glory (and on Sundays). With over 330 million gods (one for every four Indians) it’s no surprise that we have a god for every occasion and every desired outcome.

Seva-booking: Sevas are rituals performed in front of the deity in the believer’s name, usually for a payment. In other words, this is where most of the temple’s revenues come from. Think of them like sponsored events that yield custom blessings directly from the lord. They can range from a simple aarthi to much more elaborate rituals such as the sahasra kalasabhishekam (where 1008 vessels with teertha are placed in front of the deity for the puja). Imagine an app that lists these sevas out and provides a single-click booking facility. Eat that BookMyShow!

Pilgrimage packages: Once I’ve found my deity of choice, it’s only logical that I’d want to pay my respects in person. In his book For God’s Sake, marketer and ad-man Ambi Parameswaran, cites another NCAER statistic that says 50% of all package tours are pilgrimages. What better place to book a tour than immediately after you’ve found the right god for the right occasion?

Darshan Livestream: The pièce de résistance of the app would be the ability to see the deity live, along with whatever puja is being performed, from a phone. We crave to see and be seen by our gods; it is the very essence of worship. Why should anyone be denied this basic spiritual need for want of resources? Besides, it comes with an inbuilt monetization mechanism— during darshan one also comes across a hundi (donation box) to drop in a kanik (spot donation). This experience can easily be digitized with a button on the livestream itself. Press a button and your default kanik amount be it Rs1 or Rs1,001 will immediately be wired to the lord. Instant karma, anyone?

In order to build an app like this, the starting point is data. And much like most things in India, the data on temples is sparse, scattered, and woefully disorganized. But there is one place one might start. Every state government has one department that is charged with overseeing temples and maintaining records (though the extent of record keeping varies widely from state to state). But things get a little complicated when one starts digging deeper. For starters, the department is called by a different name in each state—Karnataka calls it the Muzrai department, Kerala the Devaswom department, Tamil Nadu goes with a more staid Hindu religious and charitable endowments department, and so on.

If a team can create a relatively comprehensive database of all the temples in the country by digitizing these records, that in itself would be a monumental achievement. Then would come the “non-scalable" part, which would be signing agreements with the governing board of each and every temple. Once this is achieved, the software is rather straightforward.

So is monetization. Both sevas and darshan livestreaming are eminently monetizable products. Since seva is a paid service, the app will be able to charge standard platform commission of around 20-30% (Google, Apple all charge 30% for all in-app purchases, so the standard is set) if it gains widespread traction. This way, the app generates revenues, the temples get more devotees donating and engaging with the temple, and devotees get to worship their favourite gods right from the palm of their hand.

After all, Digital India is incomplete without digitizing devotion.

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. This column will run every week.

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