Gangtok: In a slightly worrying trend, in the past 48 hours, Sikkim has reported 98 COVID-19 cases among monks. Thirty-seven tested positive from Dharma Chakra Centre in Rumtek Monastery, the world heritage Site, 30 kilometres away from Gangtok. The situation is not better in Gangtok either, where 61 tested positive in the Gonjong Monastery in Bojoghari. The spread of COVID-19 among monks is being attributed to the rituals that follow COVID deaths. In May alone, the state has recorded 76 COVID deaths.

The state government has notified that only 20 people are to assemble in congregations such as a funeral. But the notification forgets that after a COVID death, family members still have to perform rituals for the next few weeks, be it 13 days or 49 days as the deceased and their family’s faith may be.

Now, when the rituals extend for days, the monks have to visit these homes and get in touch with the primary contacts of the COVID deceased. After a day’s ritual, not all have the privilege of staying in isolation with the family for 49 days. These monks and pundits have to go back to their place of worship or their families.

Most monasteries in Sikkim are home to monks for life or many years. They begin their learning at these monasteries and cut away from their families. Some are adopted by the monasteries and live as a family of 30-50 in most of the monasteries. When one of these monks test positive, the kitchen, the toilet and the dormitories are the same. That is when the COVID 19 spread tends to happen.

Sikkim is one of the few states in the country to have an Ecclesiastical Department. It looks after the welfare of religious places and people such as monks and pundits and others of various religions.

Most of these monasteries have a sound assembly of monastic learning students, under SHEDA, a devoted Buddhism schooling system in the state. But as part of the COVID protocol, the best that the department has done is to restrict people’s movement to avoid large congregations in places of worship. But not so much for their testing, medicines, social distancing and basic awareness spread in such places of worship.

In the case of Gonjong Monastery, where 61 tested positive, it appears that the Head Monk who succumbed to COVID 19 on May 19 hid his illness for days, as per Ecclesiastical Department Secretary Norgay Dawa Bhutia.

“The head monk in Gonjong Monastery had hidden his illness for days, he had two other monks taking care of him. He eventually succumbed to COVID 19 within 30 minutes of reaching the STNM Hospital on May 19. Now, these two monks who were taking care of him were getting food for him, prepared from the kitchen meant for everyone else. Even if it was different, these two monks were coming out and meeting others in the monastery. Monasteries are full of students of monastic learning SHEDA along with monks, who are under the monastery or the Rinpoche. There is a large congregation with SHEDA also in place and some of these monks being housed for life or many years, they do not have the option of going back to their homes. Schools were definitely shut as per the ruling of the state government, but there are still many monks in a small premise, many of whom sleep in dormitories, use the common kitchen and toilet, so that could be the reason for the spread” Norgay Dawa Bhutia added.

At the world-famous Rumtek monastery and the Dharma Chakra Center, 37 have tested positive from 79 tests on Sunday. “They have a medical team in place, but also they are backed well by their trust and the donations. So, for rations they rely on trust, there has been no situation that they need rations throughout the pandemic since last year. In terms of monks, they do have a very high number of monks in the old and new monastery”, informed Norgay Dawa Bhutia.

Currently, with the Saga Dawa festival on May 26, there is a rush of devotees to the monasteries. “We are trying to reach out to all the monasteries. There have been no cases reported in the most crowded ones such as Phodong and Enchey Monasteries. But some are unreachable, and we are planning on issuing an advisory on Monday, aiming at lesser congregations during the Saga Dawa celebration. We are issuing an advisory that only a few monks can carry out the rituals. Most of these monks have agreed on strict protocols”, stated the Secretary.

The Secretary went on to inform that in rural areas people frequent monasteries and temples even amid the pandemic and the lockdown. Though the crowds are smaller, they travel the village to reach monasteries, which could be one way that the infection is spreading.

There are department officers deployed to look after the monasteries and they give feedback on the COVID scenario in different monasteries. “If that feedback reaches us, we will coordinate with the district officials, especially if they need medical assistance. We will need to take the ecclesiastical minister Sonam Lama also into confidence for the same to reach out to these monasteries. So far there has been no COVID kit being delivered specifying to the monasteries, it has not been earmarked by the Health Department for the monasteries. A correspondence is needed for the monasteries”, stated the Secretary.

Health Secretary Dr Pempa Tshering Bhutia had also faced a tragedy in his family a few months ago. Quoting his own experience of a death in the family, he stated, “We cannot restrict the pundits, monks or people to not go, it becomes anti-social. The best we can do is tell them to maintain COVID protocols. When there is death, you cannot stop people from coming, you do get sentimental about it. There was death in my family, I was mourning and if they come to my home, I cannot refuse them. If there is a chance of COVID spreading, we must stop going to such places. If we make a stricter ruling it hurts the sentiments of the people. The monks thus have to take their precaution. In Sikkim you can’t defeat people’s sentiments on religion and death, we can only appeal to them. A strict ruling is not the solution but RAT testing is a solution, at least for the monastery”.

Backing his claim on RAT Testing, the Health Director-General stated, “The Department has initiated a process of Random Antigen Testing in monasteries across the state. After that, maybe RT PCR will also be possible. After the rapid spread in Gonjong Monastery, there is some form of panic in other monasteries as well. This is a new trend of spread in monasteries, so we will work on it. It is learned that three monks from Rumtek monastery were travelling towards the border, when they were randomly tested, they tested positive. That is how we learned that there was more testing positive from Rumtek Monastery. The issue was brought to the monastery committee and that is how they acted upon it.”

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