Priya, a strong Devotee of Lord Murugan, was thrilled about the possibility of visiting her temple after the Chennai Corona Lockdown Lift. But when she got there, nothing was the same as they used to be. The pandemic dread had changed the way the sacred place operated.
From the time immemorial, Temple Poojas, Mosque Namas, and Christian Worship Services have been an integral part of Chennai’s religious traditions. Visits to holy places were, however, was wholly stalled with the 100 day Lockdown imposed due to the Corona Pandemic.
The doors of all religious places were shut to their believers. People had no opportunity to visit their diety in-person. All the shrines and sacrad places bore a deserted look. The Online ceremonies, which initially thrilled the believers of all faith, soon emerged as dull and uninspiring for those viewing them. Chennai people were eagerly looking forward to a lockdown lift so that they may be able to visit the holy shrines in-person just like they always did before the Pandemic.
The lift did come by, and the Lockdown 4.0 of September 2020 was announced.
However, the two-page T.N. Government draft of Unlock 4.0 had a carefully thought set of rules for religious institutions and its visitors to follow. Guidelines of Personal Hygiene and social distancing were clearly given out.
Twenty days from the time the Pandemic lockdown restrictions were lifted, the religious gathering trends have remarkably changed in Temples, Mosques, and Churches in the city.
The way people are allowed to seek God in-person has changed after the pandemic lockdown.
Temple Dharshans with new Devotee Rules:
The Sri Swamy Ayyappan Temple Dhrimasatha Temple in Anna Nagar welcomed its devotees as it always has, but with tons of new protocols. The devotees, who had left their slippers in the stand outside the temple, were made to enter the temple in batches of 15 – 20 devotees at a time. The rest standing in ques outside the temple gates waited for their turns to have their Dharshans (seeing the Deity).
At the entrance of Ayyappan Temple, the Security Gaurd told us that previously before the Pandemic, the temple had close to 1500 visitors over the weekend and half those numbers during the week. But, after the pandemic episode, he sees only 500 over the weekend and a portion of that during the week. “Friday and Saturday evenings is when the temple has most of its visitors,” the guard says, while still handing out the uniquely numbered I.D. cards to the devotees waiting in line for their turns to enter the shrine. The devotees were all expected to log their name, contact numbers, and I.D. card number details received from the security in the visitor log book placed on the table near the entrance.
Temples now have a temporary curfew of Prashad, Vipoothi, and Kumkum Distribution
Devotees, as they were allowed to go inside the temple premises, were made to get their hands sanitized from the foot-pedal stand, and have their temperatures checked from the mounted thermal scanner. While the distancing norms were clearly flouted outside in the waiting area, there was adherence to the temple administrative rules inside the premises. Only one to five people from the batch that entered the temple were allowed to pay their respects directly to the Deity. There were no prashads’ (a portion of the food offered to Gods’) or Vipoothi-Kumkum dot (vermillion applied on the forehead), offered by the priests.
Anandhi, a Flower-seller outside the Ayyappan temple gates, notes that the temple had visitors even during Lockdown. Though not as much as it is after Unlock 4.0, few ardent pious devotees did make it to the temple to offer prayers. “I do see people fearing Corona Infection, but nevertheless they visit God, to offer prayers,” she says with a pinch of satire when asked if devotees who come by are fearful of any possible Corona Viral Transmissions. Her flower sales have not been much affected, either, she notes with a smile. “During Lockdown, there was an apparent dip in my flower sales. But, now, with lockdown lift, temple visitors have resumed to buy my Jasmine, Rose, Tulsi, and Bermuda Grass (Arugampul), just like the pre-pandemic times,” she says with a smile.
Prayers with Safe Distance at the Mosque:
Things were different at Masjid Allah Mosque, also known famously by the name Taramani Mosque. Muslims known for their strict adherence for their five-time prayers from Mosque, for the first time, had to change their way they performed their Holy Nammas (Holy Prayers).
Before the Pandemic, the Mosque had close to 500 to 600 visitors every day. But after the Lockdown, the numbers have reduced to as low as 40 to 50 people at a time. “The Morning prayers at 5:30 is when most of the people come. There are not many who come for the consecutive prayers offered at 12:45 p.m, 4:00 p.m, 6:20 p.m, and 8:00 p.m,” says Mr. Naseer Ahamed, the vice-president of the Majid Allah Mosque administration. Friday, the most sacred day for Prayers, is also the day of extra visitors at the Mosque, Mr. Ahamed notes.
Rahmathulla, the president of the Majid Allah Mosque administration, says, “Our religious tradition calls for the practice of wuzu (Cleaning face, feet, and hands with water), and we were doing these hygiene protocols even before the pandemic days. But, with the Corona Pandemic Spread, the ritual of wuzu just got even more stringent.” There are hand sanitizers, soaps, and Disinfectant liquids everywhere within the common areas of Mosque, and the followers were expected to take extra time in sanitizing themselves.
Nammas at the Mosque were now offered with a distance of 1-meter between followers.
The sense of brotherhood and togetherness that was evident among Muslim men when they offered prayers has changed, though. Followers cannot be seated close to each other, from now on. Prayers need to be performed by maintaining an arm’s distance (1 Meter) between each brother. Friday prayers will have particular floor markings to indicate the safe distance between brothers. After every prayer, the entire Mosque and common areas are scrubbed clean and disinfected with liquid sanitizers.
Multiple Church Services to accommodate the Sunday Worship Crowd:
The Church, centrally controlled by the Diocese, had even stricter rules for their church believers. Apart from the Government Unlock 4.0 directives, the C.S. I churches of Chennai had to follow Diocese rules for better safety precautions.
Only up to 100 believers were allowed to attend for Sunday Worship Services. Three-morning services were being conducted in few places in Chennai, though.
Thermal Temperature Scanner, foot-pedal hand sanitizers, and disposable surgical masks were kept near the Church entrance for the members to sanitize and protect themselves. Members were also expected to enter their name and contact details in a visitor logbook before entering the Church.
The church choir was replaced with pre-recorded audio songs. The hardcover paper-pack songbooks were replaced with digitally projected lyric copies. Believers were not allowed to congregate for social talks after the church services. More importantly, Children below ten years and elderly above sixty years were not allowed inside the church premises, owing to their risk vulnerability.
There was a blanket ban on Children and the Elderly in Sunday worship services.
The premises benches that usually accommodate three to four people is now only meant for One. Yellow tape markings stuck on the Church Benches helps the member be seated at a safe distance from each other.
“Our Church youth volunteers patrol the members attending the Sunday Services. We ensure people maintain a minimum 6-feet distancing between each other while within the Church,” says Pushparaj Manohar, the lead, Youth Wing of the Good Shepherd Church, Velachery.
The online worship services and Sunday School programs were aired online for those who were unable to attend the Chruch. All believers were expected to wear the masks and maintain social distance with each other throughout the worship services.
After the Sunday Services, the Church was thoroughly sanitized using disinfectant sprays. The church seats were also cleaned using hand towels.
The crowds quickly disseminated after the church services and abided fully by the new pandemic rules.
Religious places are never going to be the same post-Corna Pandemic. New rules will now dictate our Ceremonial traditions. The way we physically move around or sit to offer our prayers to God will change. How we socialize in community gatherings in religious places will forever be different. The time spent in places of worship will be clearly defined. Safety and Hygiene will precurse Ceremonial Worship. Prayers and time spent inside the holy places will be expected to be more succinct.
Prayers and time spent inside the holy places will be expected to be more succinct.
Gearing to the new normal, religious places in Chennai have clearly changed the way they host their devotees. Will these new Pandemic precautional rules be forever? Only time can tell!