When it reopened Monday, much was different. Devotees approached the temple by the hundreds each hour, rather than by the thousands. The shrine’s employees wore full-body protective gear. Certain rituals were prohibited — no touching a sacred bell, no drinking of holy water.
The careful opening of the Tirupati temple is part of a broader move by India’s government to withdraw the restrictions that made up the world’s largest lockdown — even as new cases in the country surge. Faced with an economy in ruins, the government has relaxed curbs on flights, retail stores and public transportation in recent weeks. On Monday, it allowed malls, hotels, restaurants and places of worship to open.
India is home to some of the world’s largest and most distinctive religious places, representing nearly every major faith. They include temples, mosques, churches, shrines, ashrams and synagogues. All were ordered to close in late March. Now each is adapting in its own way to the pandemic — discarding certain rituals, requiring people to wear masks, limiting the number of visitors and making copious use of sanitizer.
The reopening of places of worship came as India reported its biggest one-day jump in new cases. The country is now adding roughly 10,000 fresh cases a day, the third highest in the world, behind only the United States and Brazil.
India has recorded more than 250,000 cases, up from 100,000 in mid-May, straining the ability of its medical system to cope. Health officials point to India’s comparatively low mortality rate — 7,200 people have died here from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to government figures — as an indication that the country can handle increasing numbers of infections.
Now India is taking the risk of reopening more spots where people congregate, including places of worship, with the hope that added precautions will prevent infections. But some experts are skeptical.
Even with steps to reduce the number of people and maintain physical distance, the worry is what could happen if worshipers flout the guidelines, said Anant Bhan, a health-policy and bioethics researcher. “It is better to be careful right now,” he said. Early in India’s outbreak, a gathering of an Islamic missionary group was linked to hundreds of coronavirus cases.
Jugal Kishore, head of community medicine at Delhi’s Safdarjung Hospital and a member of a government committee that assessed preparations for the pandemic, called the move to reopen places of worship premature. Opening religious institutions “can wait,” he said. “God is not going to help us in this case.”
The devotees who flock to Tirupati temple in the town of Tirumala might disagree. The shrine receives up to 100,000 devotees a day for important festivals. It has detailed records of daily attendance going back to 1843.
The temple was shut once in 1892, but only for two days, because of a dispute between religious officials, said Anil Kumar Singhal, executive officer of the organization that oversees the shrine. The temple’s annual revenue is more than $400 million, and it is considered the wealthiest religious institution in the country.
Millions of devotees “across the world are all eagerly awaiting this day,” Singhal said. “Nobody would have visualized in their dreams” that the temple could be closed for this long.
The limited number of people who enter the temple this week can still participate in some cherished rituals. They will be able to get their heads shaved like millions before them, but the barbers will now wear protective equipment. (Cutting one’s hair at the shrine marks a fulfillment of a vow.) They can also buy the temple’s sanctified sweets, albeit from only one counter at a time, to allow regular disinfection.
Some visitors will be asked to undergo voluntary coronavirus tests, Singhal said. The approach to the temple has also been altered to enforce physical distancing. Before the pandemic, there was a “lot of jostling and pushing and pulling among pilgrims,” he said. Today’s devotees will have “a very peaceful experience.”
Some Indians say they are craving a return to their regular spiritual lives after long months shut inside or praying in private. At Delhi’s Jama Masjid, a majestic red sandstone mosque built in the 17th century by the same ruler who constructed the Taj Mahal, worshipers gathered Monday for the first time since March. They brought their own prayer mats and knelt at spots designated with yellow stickers on the white marble floor
“I am happy, but I am scared also,” said Shaban Bukhari, the vice imam of the mosque. “We need to take precautions.” He said the mosque had appealed to people older than 60 and younger than 15 to pray at home. The mosque was closed only once before, he said, in the 1970s, but just for a few days.
In central Delhi, a temple devoted to the Hindu god Hanuman marked Monday’s reopening with a pair of celebratory drummers and a person-size booth that sprayed all visitors with jets of sanitizer. Among them was Pavan Sharma, a 52-year-old builder wearing a T-shirt, shorts and an expression of deep contentment.
Sharma lives just behind the temple and came there every morning for more than three decades until the lockdown. With joined hands, he bowed before each of the statues in the temple. “It feels like my life is back on track,” he said.
Not all places of worship in India reopened Monday. Some Indian states decided it was too soon, including Maharashtra, the state that is home to the highest number of cases in India. Other religious institutions elsewhere made their own choice to stay shut for now.
In Kerala state, a large ashram founded by a guru simply called “Amma,” or mother, who is renowned as India’s “hugging saint,” said that it would remain closed to visitors. There are more than 3,000 people living at the ashram, some of whom are elderly or sick, said Swami Amritaswarupananda, the vice chairman of Amma’s religious organization.
“When you combine that with the fact that Amma’s tradition is to embrace everyone who comes to her, the ashram may require some more time before it is safe for it to be open to the public,” he said.
The north Indian city of Amritsar is home to the Golden Temple, a gilded shrine set in a pool and surrounded by ethereal white marble that is the holiest site in Sikhism. Now visitors are required to wear masks and will undergo temperature checks as they circumambulate the shrine.
A hugely popular temple that was the scene of a bloody chapter in Indian history in 1984, the shrine did not quite close to the public during the lockdown.
“Our religion and traditions do not allow us to close the temple for anyone, no matter what,” said Gobind Singh Longowal, the president of the committee that manages Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, in India. But they stopped volunteers from coming and the number of devotees visiting the Golden Temple dropped from 150,000 a day to 3,000.
“We are thrilled that the government is opening religious places,” Longowal said. Prayer will “boost the morale and confidence of devotees to fight the disease — but we are going to be careful.”
Tania Dutta and Niha Masih contributed to this report.