Pandemic-hit priests pray for devotees

Holy month of Shraavan fails to move believers

Culture

July 22, 2020

/ By / Kolkata

Pandemic-hit priests

Gopal Purohit performing aarti at one of the few prayers that he has conducted so far during Shraavan this year (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

Though most temples have reopened after having stayed closed for over three months, full-time priests find it difficult to make ends meet as most believers stay away.

Bells don’t cease to toll on the first Monday of Shraavan, the fourth month of Hindu calendar,  at the Bhairav Temple, a famous spiritual spot for devotees of Lord Shiva, that is packed with believers that keep streaming into the temple throughout the day. As devotees approach the temple, located at Loha Ghat on the banks of Hooghly, a distributary of the holy River Ganga, before entering the temple, they stop and pick up a wide variety of flowers from dozens of flower vendors, sitting in a riot of colours and fragrance as heaps of several varieties of flowers surround them.

However, this year, weeks after Shraavan began on July 6, the temple has remained almost deserted, with barely a few devotees sitting there as priests conduct individual prayers or poojas, while a whole bunch of other priests eagerly await the arrival of any other devotee so they could perform the prayer and earn their livelihood.

Though not very visible and evident, the closure of temples and the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic has hit the full-time priests really hard, with almost four months gone without them being able to earn much money. ‘‘The pandemic has impacted people in each and every field. Even the priests and astrologers have been affected by it as we have been struggling financially for the past four months. Those who have some savings they might not have to worry about it but those who depend on every day earnings and have to take care of their family are the ones most affected,’’ says Gopal Purohit, who has been a priest for the past 15 years.

Pandemic hit priests

The Shiv Linga being washed with the holy water from River Ganga as part of the prayer

Purohit says while usually Shraavan is the month where priests can earn handsomely enough for them to last rest of the year, this year has been a disaster. ‘‘Normally, we would begin to get bookings for organising special prayers almost 20 days before Shraavan began and our calendars were full by the time the month began. This time not many clients were willing to hold the prayers and we also refrained from contacting the regular clients in view of the pandemic and the danger to us and them as earlier many of our prayers were conducted at the clients’ homes. So this year, they didn’t contact us and neither did we call them up to check if they wanted us to come. Seeing the number of coronavirus cases all around, it just didn’t seem appropriate,’’ he says.

As a result, he says, his income has dropped dramatically. ‘‘For Shraavan this year, my earnings are down by up to 60 pc. Our profession is something where the income keeps on fluctuating. So we normally made about INR 70,000 in this month, but this time, I would be lucky to make even INR 30,000. Even some of those devotees who have made bookings sometimes call and cancel it, citing a case of Covid-19 infection in their building,’’ he says.

Purohit says that there are many of his clients who can’t come physically to the temple for attending the prayers every day. ‘‘So for them, every evening we decorate the idol of Lord Shiva and during aarti we make a video call on through which we connect to several clients who seek the blessings of the Lord from their homes. For this some of them make small donations, depending upon their wish and capacity,’’ he says.

A priest washes and annoints a Shiv Linga as part of the prayers

The priests rue that Shraavan is the not the only key month affected by the pandemic. The first lockdown was imposed in the country on March 22, which was just at the beginning of Navratri, yet another important month on the Hindu calendar when a lot of prayers are held, many of them private. ‘‘Navratri or the Hindu New Year is very important as many people organise prayers to Goddess Durga and call us for that. But this time I didn’t go to anyone’s house to perform the services due to the lockdown. However, there were some clients with whom I have been associated for over 10 years. They asked me to perform the prayer for them at my home, even though they were at their homes. So financially I have been affected very badly. Navratri lasts for nine days and I normally make about INR 50,000, but this year I could only get half that amount,’’ he adds.

Normally, it is difficult to get hold of a priest at the Bhairav Temple at Loha Ghat in Kolkata during Shraavan, but this year in the absence of many clients, several priests wait for the elusive devotee

For their own safety as well as that of the few devotees, courageous enough to make it to the temple these days, Purohit says that he and other priests rigorously follow safety and hygiene guidelines. The priests use masks and hand sanitisers and also sanitise the temple and the places of holding the prayers regularly.

As with most other sections of the society, the priests, too, are very disappointed with the absence of any assistance, financially or otherwise, from the government. Now, as they hold the prayers in Bhairav Temple, it seems that they prefer to pray directly to the Lord for His Divine Intervention in helping them and their devotees out of this unprecedented crisis. “We have no expectations from the government, we only expect from God,” he says, looking forlornly at the freshly anointed idol of Lord Bhairavnath, another name for Shiva.

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