‘God is watching us, God is watching us, GOD is watching us from a distance.’ These lyrics from renowned American singer Bette Midler’s famous song From A Distance seem so relevant today. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing became the new normal seven months ago. The coronavirus-induced restrictions led to closure of several places for public, and among these were places of worship. Devotees were compelled to watch their Gods, albeit from a distance.
And, now, after nearly eight months, religious places across Maharashtra, excluding those under containment zones, finally re-opened for devotees on the auspicious day of Diwali Padwa, with strict adherence to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) laid down by the State Government.
Prominent religious establishments like Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai and Sai Baba Temple in Shirdi have taken the digital route to reach out to and stay connected with devotees. For seeking darshan of Siddhivinayak at Prabhadevi, one has to download the ‘Sri Siddhivinayak Temple’ app launched by The Siddhivinayak Temple Trust. Only thousand devotees were allowed to enter per day, which was later increased to 1500 devotees after booking a slot through the app.
“We are extremely delighted to have finally got darshan of Sri Siddhivinayak. Having missed the annual Ganesh Chaturthi festivities, for us it was like a joyous Diwali moment,” says Ambrish Marathe, who along with his wife Bhakti had booked the time slot for darshan using the app. “We weren’t sure if the app would work fast enough, but to our surprise after filling in our details and preferred time, we immediately received a QR code with the time slot of our choice,” opined another delighted visitor Anuja Puranik.
Highlighting the utmost care and safety measures adopted, Aadesh Bandekar, Chairman, The Siddhivinayak Temple Trust, stated that after displaying the QR code under the scanner, devotees are allowed to enter only after undergoing all mandatory checks. “The access barrier lets a devotee in only after his or her body temperature is normal and are wearing proper masks,” informs Bandekar.
“For the last eight months, Ganpati Bappa was on the streets in the form of various personnel providing essential services, now he has gone back to his sanctum sanctorum, which puts onus on each one of us to behave in a responsible manner,” says Bandekar. He also has a word of caution for the devotees and requests them to adhere to set norms while paying a visit to the temple and in their day-to-day life as well.
Sai Baba Temple in Shirdi is also allowing devotees inside the premises after an online booking for a specific time slot. Only 6,000 devotees are allowed to enter on a single day with temple been kept open only for 14 hours every day.
There are also those like the Mahim Dargah and St. Michael Church in Mumbai with their team geared up to ensure proper implementation of the SOPs.
Fr. Lancy Pinto, St. Michael Church, Mahim, states regular mass will not commence anytime soon and the church premises will be kept open for personal prayers between 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and from 4:00 pm to 8:00 pm.
“People have to be cautious and as far as possible pray within the safe confinements of their house attending the online mass made available to them during this pandemic situation,” advices Fr. Pinto. Fr. Pinto further informed, on the first Wednesday after places of worship were set to open, there were people gathered outside the church since early morning. The staff of the church ensured all the SOPs were followed, including social distancing while the devotees had to wait before given entry into the church premises.
“I’m partly happy with opening of church premises, but touching statues, holy books and idols is still prohibited under the guidelines. It does not feel normal as also the Choir is not allowed,” says Perpetua Dias, who hopes for things to improve before Christmas.
“We are checking body temperature at the dargah entry point and only those found with normal temperature and wearing masks are been allowed to enter in,” informs Suhail Y Khandwani, Mahim Dargah Trustee. The Trust has also put up boards with government and Dargah SOPs around dargah premises.
“If you can open up malls and other recreational places, why deprive the devotees of visiting their place of worship by keeping them shut. I totally support this move and I’m certain that devotees will also behave responsibly by following all SOPs,” opines Yatin Borkar, a resident of Prabhadevi.
Looking at the reopening of temples as a positive sign for his business, Rajan (name changed) a sweet shop owner, who has aged parents at home besides a two-year-old daughter, says, “It is a feeling of normalcy returning slowly, but still we have to be careful and take all precautions. By the grace of God we expect to get back into our business one day, but as of now I would still wait and not take undue risks.”
At Mahim Dargah, too, flower vendors seem to be happy and at the same time cautious with the opening up of places of worship. “It had been a tough eight months. But, finally, our prayers have been answered,” says Sayeed Ansari, who besides being a regular at the dargah, also trades into wholesale supply of flowers. He has a word of advice for devotees, he says, “Allah will protect you only and only if you protect others. And you can only protect others by following the norms laid down as safety measures to be followed during the visit to dargah.”
Olympia D’Souza, an Uttan resident, on the other hand does not support the move. “What was the hurry to open up religious establishments? Gradually the winter is setting in and we all know that the virus spreads faster in cold temperature. Opening up of religious places is an open invitation to the spread of virus and nothing else,” she says.