COVID-19 leaves Assam priests praying for survival
The road from Guwahati airport to the city is rather uneventful, except for one small left turn about halfway into the journey. That road leads to Kamakhya temple, one of the most, if not the most popular religious attractions in the city. During certain times of the year, this road sees over hundreds of thousands descend to pay their respects to Ma Kamakhya. However, this year due to COVID-19, people have barely trickled in, let alone flooded the streets. And the priests of Kamakhya, who depend on the devotees for sustenance, have been left to fend for themselves.
And if this is the situation in Kamakhya, one can only imagine how bad the condition is in Guwahati’s other major temples.
Basistha Temple, Sukreshwar Temple, Navagraha Temple and many more religious places in the city see a regular flow of people: from praying for success or speedy recovery from an illness for their loved ones. During peak lockdown, few, if any, rituals were being conducted owing to the pandemic. This forced the priests to consider their life choices.
Recalling the time before the pandemic hit us all, Girindra Mohan Sarma, Doloi (President) of Basistha Temple told EastMojo that the temple used to witness hundreds of devotees every day. Summer is usually a busy time as a lot of marriages take place and auspicious rituals and pujas are performed, he said. This year, however, nothing of that sort happened.
When asked about how the priests took care of their livelihood during the complete lockdown, Sarma said, “I have been performing pujas for more than 35 years and have been fortunate enough to have generous clients who helped me in these months of lockdown. We are around 17 priests here. Not everybody was this fortunate, especially the ones who are new and young in this field faced tremendous hurdles.” During the time of complete lockdown, there were no visitors and/or devotees. Hence, no amount of Dakshina (voluntary offerings/gifts), he added.
Manju Kalita, who owns a flower shop outside Basistha Temple, talked about the difficulties she has been facing due to the pandemic. “This has been the worst phase of my life. Like every other pandemic, coronavirus has mostly affected the poor section. With no visitors and no sale, there was no money left for us at home. We had to sell two of our goats to sustain life during the lockdown.” She used to earn about Rs 700-1,000 every day by selling flowers, but during this lockdown, things fell apart.
Loss during Ambubachi Mela hit the priests hard
Ambubachi Mela, which is one of the most important festivals of Kamakhya Temple, takes place over four days every year. But this year, devotees decided to refrain from any gathering following the coronavirus outbreak. The annual Ambubachi Mela, which noticed a footfall of an estimated 20 lakh devotees from India and abroad last year, did not take place this year on June 22 for the first time in history. After seven months of complete lockdown, the main gate/doors of sanctum sanctorum of Kamakhya temple reopened on October 22, but surprisingly, devotees refrained from visiting the temple fearing the coronavirus outbreak.
During normal days, around 10,000 people used to rush into the temple, whereas now only 5% of devotees turn up, said Kabindra Sarma, Doloi of Kamakya Temple.
In a conversation with EastMojo, Kabindra Sarma said, “We have become jobless as various social functions, rituals and religious festivities have either been cancelled or postponed to prevent public gatherings in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.”
Most of the priests do not have any other steady income and their families solely depend on their earnings from rituals like pujas and weddings. Even the local shop owners outside have faced a major crisis due to the coronavirus outbreak, added Doloi. When asked whether the government provided some help to the priests during the strict lockdown period, Kabindra said, “No. We were not given any help. We have been managing on our own since the lockdown.”
“I would have earned around Rs 3,000-4,500 from 'Annapurna' pujas, wedding rituals etc. on normal days, but not this time,” said another priest from the Shakti Peeth. He also shared, “when the lockdown took place, we never thought that the annual Ambubachi Mela would get cancelled. Our only source of income is the money we receive after performing pujas and rituals in the temple premises, but with the complete lockdown earlier this year we had seen a rough time. We survived on some savings and some amount of donation.”
Subhash Chandra Sarma, a priest of Latasil Ganesh Mandir said with half of the year spent in lockdown, they were hopeful enough about their income during the Shravan (monsoon) month where lots of rituals and pujas are performed under their guidance, but everything came to a halt. “We thought that things will not be that bad during Durga Puja and Lakshmi Puja, but we did not receive as much as we expected. If we do not perform pujas and other religious functions in the next few months, how are we supposed to survive?”
Durga Puja is one of the busiest times for priests to perform pujas all over the city and small-scale businesses to earn profit faced a halt this year. Owning a small shop next to the Lakhi Mandir in Beltola, Prakash Sah talked to EastMojo, sharing how this pandemic has affected his livelihood and forced him to send his family back to Bihar.
"Durga Puja is one time of the year when I get to earn a good amount of money and even provide delicacies to my kids, but this was not the case this time. With fewer pandal hoppers this year, there were fewer visitors in my shop as well, I could not even earn Rs 1,000 in a day since people feared the spread of coronavirus,” he said.