Optimism and caution as places of worship get ready to reopen

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Several states are fine-tuning their plans to open places of worship on Monday in line with the central government’s guidelines while others are willing to wait and watch before taking a final call amid the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) outbreak.

The states’ response on the issue has been layered. States such as Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have followed the central directive and decided to open religious sites on June 8 after two-and-a-half months, laying down stringent guidelines.

Others such as Delhi, Maharashtra and Odisha have preferred to wait, though the authorities in the national capital say they will hold a review meeting before Monday. Uttar Pradesh has said it will follow the central guidelines, albeit with area-specific restrictions.

Government officials and the managements of religious places HT spoke to across the country on Saturday sounded cautiously optimistic, while detailing the safety measures being planned and giving a glimpse of how experiences at places of worship will change in the aftermath of the pandemic.

The Amarnath Yatra, an annual pilgrimage to the cave shrine of Lord Shiva in South Kashmir that generally takes place in July-August, might take the shorter Baltal route this year, according to officials aware of the development.

As reported by HT, the pilgrimage to the shrine at an altitude of 3,880 metre is likely to begin on July 21 and continue till August 3 with the one-and-a-half month ritual cut short to a fortnight. According to the original schedule, it was to begin on June 23 and end on August 3.

Authorities in Ganderbal — of which Baltal is a part — have already deployed men and machinery for clearing the tracks by removing snow and debris, while the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board (SASB) — which manages the temple — will start sending teams beginning on Monday to clear the 16-km Baltal track.

“Pilgrims will be screened for Covid-19 before they are allowed to undertake the yatra,” an official said on the condition of anonymity. In a first, the official said, the shrine board is trying to telecast live aartis.

However, Bipul Pathak, the Jammu and Kashmir lieutenant governor’s principal secretary and the chief executive officer (CEO) of the shrine board, said a final decision is awaited. “When it’s decided, media will come to know,” he said.

In Uttarakhand, another Himalayan state, the government is preparing for the Char Dham Yatra after June 8, but a section of priests and traders is apprehensive of the move.

Ravinath Raman, CEO of Chardham Devasthanam Management Board (a government body managing 51 shrines in the state), said preparations to maintain social distancing and limiting the number of pilgrims have started.

The four Himalayan pilgrimage sites —Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri — are collectively called Char Dham. Traditionally, the pilgrimage begins from the west from Yamunotri, then proceeds to Gangotri and finally reaches Kedarnath and Badrinath in the east. Last year, a record 2.9 million pilgrims visited Char Dham.

The portals of Gangotri and Yamunotri shrines opened on April 26. While the Kedarnath shrine opened on April 29, Badrinath opened on May 15. No devotees were allowed.

“We have started preparing from our end as to how many pilgrims will be allowed for darshan at the shrines...,” Raman said, adding that pilgrims who want to visit the shrines will have to register themselves online first and may be given a time slot.

But Deepak Semwal, the secretary of the Gangotri Dham Committee, said priests and traders’ bodies int Gangotri and Yamunotri are not in favour of the pilgrimage at this moment.

“No preparations have been done...be it opening of hotels or shops; nothing is open here...we request the state government to postpone the Yatra till the Covid-19 situation normalises,” Semwal said.

Vinod Prasad Shukla, the president of a Kedarnath priests’ body, pointed out in a letter to the state government that “the shrines are in hilly and remote regions of the state where health infrastructure is not strong”.

“If (Covid-19) cases increase in the remote areas because of pilgrims, coming to these shrines then it will be difficult to control the outbreak...,” the letter said.

Madan Kaushik, a cabinet minister and a government spokesperson, said authorities are analysing the Centre’s standard operating procedures (SOPs) for opening of religious places. “When we will be assured that we are in a position to follow the SOP, we will gradually open religious places,” he said.

In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, chief minister Yogi Adityanath has said not more than five people will be allowed inside a religious site at one point of time.

“We have issued specific instructions to all temples (management) not to allow crowding inside the temple. Devotees will be allowed to enter temple premises only in batches,” Neelkanth Tewari, state culture and religious affairs minister, said on Thursday.

But late Saturday night, Varanasi district magistrate Kaushalraj Sharma said religious places, hotels and malls in the temple town will not open on Monday.

Sharma said officials managing religious places, hotels and malls, which have completed the arrangements according to the state’s guidelines, should fill up a checklist and submit it to the police station in their area which will ensure all steps mentioned in the list are being are being implemented.

In Goa, the government said though it has allowed religious places to open, groups and congregations are not allowed. “No functions can be held in religious places. We have said if temples, churches and mosques open, then groups of people coming and performing prayers or aarti is not allowed; it should be limited to routine pooja for individuals or individuals taking darshan,” chief minister Pramod Sawant said.

This effectively means mass services at churches with large gatherings will not commence immediately. “We will not begin the celebration of mass with the people unless the Goa government gives us guidance and the SOPs, and until it is safe to do so. Safety is the key word,” Father Joaquim Loiola Pereira, Secretary to the Archbishop of Goa, said.

In Rajasthan, a representative of the Ajmer Sharif Dargah said the shrine of revered Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti will not open to public from Monday. In West Bengal too, Muslim religious leaders favoured a wait-and-watch approach. Though the eastern state announced it will allow religious places to resume from June 1, authorities at Nakhoda Masjid — Kolkata’s biggest mosque where as many as 10,000 people can offer prayers — said they were not allowing religious gatherings.

“We did not have gatherings even on Fridays although relaxation was allowed by the state from June 1. We will observe what happens in the rest of the country on June 8, and follow the advisory of the government and the health department,” Maulana Md Safi, the imam of Nakhoda Masjid, said on Saturday.

Authorities at Hyderabad’s Mecca Masjid have taken steps to resume operations from Monday, but said they are awaiting a final word from the government. “We have made arrangements for following Covid-19 guidelines such as asking the devotees to use sanitizers, bring their own prayer mats, have ablutions at home, but we have no information from the government as to how many people we can allow into the mosque for prayers,” Mecca Masjid superintendent Abdul Khadeer Siddiqui said.

Two prominent mosques in Kerala — Palayam Juma Masjid in Thiruvananthapuram and Palayam Muhiyuddin Mosque in Kozhikkode — too have decided to wait for now. “Our prime concern is safety of people,” said Palayam Masjid imam VP Suhaib.

At places that are set to open, stringent restrictions have been put in place. The Guruvayur temple in Kerala’s Thrissur district has prohibited the entry of people above 65 and children below 10.

“My grandson promised to take me (to the temple) in his car on the opening day (June 9), but that’s not going to happen...If God is willing, I can see Lord Krishna again,” said 74-year-old Viswanathan Nair, a retired central government employee.

The Golden Temple in Amritsar is expecting a rush of devotees. “Since the lockdown started, only around 2,500 devotees on an average, most of them locals, have been visiting the shrine daily. Now that the government has allowed the religious places (to open) from June 8, we are expecting a huge increase in the footfalsl,” said Mukhitar Singh, manager of the shrine.

“We are increasing the deployment of our employees from June 8, especially to maintain social distancing among the devotees,” he said.

(With inputs from Ravi Krishan Khajuria in Jammu, Suparna Roy in Dehradun, Pawan Dixit in Lucknow, Sudhir Kumar in Varanasi, Gerard de Souza in Panaji, Urvashi Dev Rawal in Jaipur, Srinivasa Rao Apparasu in Hyderabad, Ramesh Babu in Thiruvananthapuram and Anil Sharma in Amritsar)

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