Home / News / India /  How science guides religion in corona-hit Kerala

ERNAKULAM : Nearly thousands of devotees came down to visit a grand elephant race, sort of an Indian version of the Spanish bull run, in one of Kerala’s most famous places of worship, the Guruvayur temple on 6 March. The race marks the start of temple festivities for the next ten days. But two days later, Kerala reported five coronavirus cases.

What happened next would have been deemed as simply impossible by outsiders in the past. With so much at stake, science eclipsed religion. Risky mass gatherings must end, decided the temple authorities. For probably the first time in its history, the temple scaled down its festival and went down into a partial shut-down mode during its most important days in the calendar.

Devotees were asked to abandon visits. Marriages to be held in the temple were requested to be postponed. Thermal scanning was installed for those who came. At the end of the festival this week, the temple resembled an abandoned place. The few devotees who came were banned from taking a dip in Rudratheertha, the temple pond, as they otherwise do to purge their sins. A sumptuous feast that followed a ritual called ‘Utsava Bali’ on the eighth day of the festival, was cancelled. Tons of vegetables like pumpkin and tender jackfruits offered by the devotees for the feast were auctioned off.

Similar stories are emerging from acrosd the state on how the coronavirus is changing the daily life of Gods and believers. For its part, Kerala’s communist government also seemed to have realised that they cannot curb the virus spread until they figure out a way to balance deeply held religious beliefs and obligations to those living in the society.

Kerala witnesses most of its religious festivals in the first half of the year, before the rains start to pour in the monsoon county, all participated by large sections of the society and celebrated with a great deal of zeal and enthusiasm. These festivals could be potentially dangerous. Kerala has 24 active Covid-19 patients, and the government is trying to slow down the spread by quarantining over 25000 people. But the virus is known to be highly contagious. Anyone who touches a droplet of saliva from a patient who has not yet started showing symptoms has a high risk of contracting the disease.

With the bitter experience of weighing over women’s entry Sabarimala temple, which slipped into violence on the streets and massive election defeat, the communist government had earlier given permission to hold the on 9 March’s Attukal Pongala. It is an annual gathering of over 30 lakh women who boil sweet porridge in earthen pots in front of Attukal Devi temple in the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram, wishing for prosperity. Temple Affairs Minister Kadakamppaly Surendran had then simply said, “the society is not conducive for cancelling Pongala."

But as virus levels peaked in the society, the religious leaders needed little convincing to alter traditional ceremonies. Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan met with several major religious leaders on Wednesday, where he urged places of worship to prevent crowding. Imams, pastors and priests have readily agreed.

The biggest mosque that attracts the most devotees in Muslim-populated north-Kerala, the Pattalam mosque in Kozhikode district, has cancelled the Friday prayers until further notice. Kozhikode also reeled under the Nipah virus, which also has no proper vaccine like the coronavirus, in 2018 and 2019.

“The Waqf board (an Islamic decision-making body) met on Wednesday and decided to cooperate with the government on every action to prevent the spread. The most important decision was to tell maximum people to not come," said Fasal Gafoor, a leader of the Muslim community in Kerala and President of Muslim Educational Society.

“All mosques have largely decided to not admit more than ten people at a time and keep the prayer time maximum of 15 minutes. Mass prayers during funerals will be avoided. Marriages will be asked to be restricted to below 50 people. We are still in doubt over what to do with Ramadan season (April-May), when devotees flood to the mosques," he said.

Christian Churches have either suspended Sunday Masses or asked believers to not attend them. The Marthoma Church and Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council (KCBC), two of the major community organisations, have issued circulars to pay heed to public safety regulations. Churches are asked to restrict attendance to a maximum of 50 people, keep a one-meter distance between devotees, suspend holy rituals that would need to touch people. KCBC has even asked people to watch offerings of Sunday mass through local television channels or online.

The Kurisumala pilgrimage, one of the most prominent Latin Christian pilgrimages where devotees climb up a monastery in greeny hill station Vagamon, carrying small wooden crosses in this week, has been called off. Nearly all religious bodies have ordered against people who returned from foreign trips recently, children and elderly people from attending prayers.

Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and Cochin Devaswom Board (CDB), two of the biggest public-run trusts that run thousands of Hindu temples, have announced scaling down seasonal festivities, locally known as ‘Utsavams’, or important monthly events. It started with the most-famous Sabarimala temple, where pilgrims were urged to abstain themselves from the monthly pujas in March. Believers readily complied, said TDB president N Vasu, as the place that received lakhs of visitors remained almost empty. The decision, however, had a practical fallout, as it has impacted the revenue downfall of about 2 crore, said Vasu.

In Kodungalloor Bhagavathy Temple, run by CDB, the annual ‘Bharani’ festival on 2 April is supposed to be the world's largest congregation of oracles, where they dance in a trance clad fully in red clothes and dangle swords over their foreheads to draw blood. This time, however, the board will ask them to cover their faces with shawls and stay at a one-meter distance from one another.

Private temples are taking similar measures. “We have asked all private temples to scale down festivals and stick to the safety regulations provided by the government," said Akheeraman Kalidasa Bhattathiripad, president of private temple-body ‘Yogakshema Sabha’ and who himself head the tantric rituals of some 9000 temples. “Gods are for people. Gods will understand."

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