As one of the major landmarks of Hindu faith, the Tirupati Balaji temple was in the news recently when a portion of the southern Indian city where the historic shrine is located was declared a COVID-19 “containment zone” amid a sharp rise in the number of coronavirus cases.
“Community outbreak is confirmed in the city and we appeal to the public to impose self-lockdown and not venture out of their homes unless it is absolutely essential,” Tirupati Municipal Commissioner P.S. Girisha told The Times of India in June.
However, at Tirupati Balaji, considered the world’s most popular Hindu shrine, worshippers continued to pay obeisance to Venkateshwara, the widely adored Lord of Seven Hills. Dating back to 300 A.D., the temple in the state of Andhra Pradesh attracts more than 35 million pilgrims every year.
So it’s not hard to imagine how fervent followers of Lord Venkateshwara were awaiting the shrine’s reopening on June 11 amid rigorously enforced social distancing, hygiene and random screening protocols, which followed an 80-day closure that was part of a nationwide pandemic lockdown in March.
Elsewhere in India, one of the world’s most observant countries, temples are cautiously reopening in the wake of the pandemic that claimed at least 26,273 lives as of July 18, with a total 1,039,084 reported cases, making India the world’s third most affected country after the United States and Brazil, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
Regardless of these grim statistics, India Today reports Indian devotees continue to commune with the divine. At Tirupati Balaji, for example, a restricted number of 3,000 special darshan (beholding of a holy object) tickets were sold out online. An additional 3,000 tickets were available for devotees who show up directly at the shrine, expecting to be let in.
No more than 500 visitors are allowed to enter the temple every hour, from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. On days when visitors outnumber the maximum daily limit of 5,500 people permitted to enter the temple, devotees wait for their chance for an entire day—or longer—at the base of a hill in the holy temple city. Devotees can ride up the hill—in vehicles that are sanitized before entering the temple complex—from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Pilgrims who wish to hike can do so along a footpath that is open for a lesser amount of time.
New “standard operating protocols” require temple managers to regularly sanitize the premises and enforce social distancing rules, according to the news report. Devotees younger than 10 or over 65 are barred from entering. Everyone must be masked and have their body temperature checked.
As many as 200 samples from pilgrims are randomly collected for testing at a nearby medical facility—the Sri Venkateswara Institute of Medical Sciences. Temple staff members are also randomly checked for the novel coronavirus that has unleashed the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Similar restrictions are in place at the Sri Lakshminarasimha Swamy temple. Also located on a hill in Andhra Pradesh, the shrine is being “refurbished to rival the Tirumala temple,” India Today reports, adding that “all devotees have to trek the hill and bring hand sanitizers with them.”
In the neighboring state of Kerala, an organization that administers 1,250 temples is regulating visitors’ entry via a virtual queue system, according to the news magazine. After devotees register online, only 50 at a time are permitted into the premises to prevent overcrowding and spreading of the virus.
At the Sree Krishna temple in the town of Guruvayur in Kerala, which opened briefly on June 14 before shutting its doors in the aftermath of a rise in COVID-19 cases in the district, just 600 devotees were allowed into the premises in four hours, according to India Today. At that time, the sudden closure dashed the “hopes of those who prefer to get married in the temple town and take their first vows as newlyweds,” the magazine reports. The temple announced that as of July 10, it would once more perform wedding ceremonies.
“Fewer rituals and smaller numbers of devotees are the new norm everywhere,” according to India Today. The new rules apply to Islamic places of worship too: In Uttar Pradesh, the Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband, a prominent Muslim seminary, issued rules in May for the faithful, aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. The organization asked Muslims to celebrate that month’s Eid festival at home instead of gathering in mosques.
At one of India’s oldest Islamic seminaries, Jamia Nizamia, in Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, clerics have issued two directives (fatwas) for daily prayers at mosques: “You can pray wearing masks. There is no need to stand shoulder to shoulder in congregational prayers,” Maulana Mufti Mohammad Azeemuddin told India Today.
“The fatwa was issued after confusion emerged over whether maintaining physical distancing norms during prayers was permitted,” says the news report. “The other fatwa said that although Islam discourages face coverings while praying, given the present circumstances, it is being allowed.”
In several Indian states, churches have opposed reopening for worship, although parishes have been permitted “by superior clergy to take their own decisions on the matter,” as long as they don’t clash with government restrictions. Many devotees are relying on webcasts of religious rituals as an alternative to visiting holy places.
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