MUMBAI – When it comes to religion in India, the numbers of devotees and the money they spend on religious festivals is big business. But not in this year of the plague.

The coronavirus sweeping across the country has crippled the massive industry that caters to religious gatherings for over one billion Hindus, 200 million Muslims and 32 million Christians.

Most Indians are deeply religious and festivals are a time to express their faith – and spend money.

Festivals are also a big business for the organizers, corporate sponsors and logistical suppliers of food, music, lights, transport and security. 

But the pandemic and a lockdown have put a halt to most community festivals, with many now praying at home rather than at shrines for a vaccine or medicine that can stop Covid-19’s lethal march. 

Consider, for instance, Ganesh Chaturthi – the biggest festival in Mumbai which draws thousands of devotees at community celebrations. The elephant-headed God is the son of Lord Shiva and supposed to be the destroyer of all obstacles.

A study by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) in 2015 put spending during the festival at 200 billion rupees (US$2.6 billion) and projected growth at around 30% each year.

Assocham had earlier described the money-spinning festival as “recession-proof.” But apparently it’s not pandemic-proof.

Celebrated just after the monsoon rains in late August or early September, clay idols of Lord Ganesh are  bought for 10 days of prayers and celebrations before they are taken amidst dancing and singing through packed streets for immersion in the sea. 

Hundreds of idols are bought by devotees, some as tall as 25 feet and many weighing several hundred kilograms. Millions of devotees take part in celebrations lasting 10 days. But this year, the festival may not be held with public participation because of contagion concerns.

The celebration usually marks the start of the Hindu festival season that culminates with the main festival of Diwali two months later. Most Indian families make their annual personal and household purchases before Diwali. 

However, Covid-19 and the resultant countrywide lockdown over the past two months put an end to festival plans even before preparations could start. Hundreds of professional idol makers are now out of work, feeling disappointed and helpless.  

“Artisans and workers have migrated back, and so have many buyers,’’ said Bharat Vilankar, who said he sells 500 idols each season in Mumbai. “I am not even hopeful the festival will take place, other than in homes.”

In neighboring Pune town, a family of idol makers has made only half its usual number this year. As their savings get depleted and orders shrink, the family is worried about its survival, said Varsha Bhalerao.

She said the profit margins were better in bigger idols, but admitted they would be happy if they can just sell the smaller ones to families. 

The Assocham report puts the number of Ganesh organizing groups in Mumbai at 15,000 – about 6,000 in Pune and 2,000 each in Ahmedabad and Nagpur – and groups in each city have been growing by up to 10% each year.  

“We have told all organizers to make do with a small idol so that our 126-year-old tradition remains unbroken,” said Naresh Dahibavkar, 70, the president of an umbrella body regulating 11,000 Ganesh festival organizing groups for the past 40 years.

“Artisans haven’t got the raw material, labor has left cities for villages because of the lockdown and the summer will be over in two to three weeks, leaving them no time to make and dry large clay idols.’’ 

Sushil Vaste, who employs physically challenged people, makes eco-friendly, lightweight idols of papier mache. In most years he exports half the number of idols he produces, but exports this year are nil because of the pandemic. Now he says he faces financial ruin and has pledged his house as security for a workshop loan. 

“I am totally blank on the outlook,” said Vaste. “I keep telling myself the festival will happen. I also have a responsibility towards my 45 workers and the bank loan. As per lockdown rules, if I step out, policemen simply cane me like they do to others. We are in a jam.”

Followers of Islam, the second most popular religion in India, have been observing a fast and prayers during the holy month of Ramadan under restrictions. The dawn to dusk fast is normally broken past sunset and celebrated with large family meals and offering prayers at the local mosque. 

The coronavirus has disrupted their ceremonies, too. To contain the virus, all places of worship including mosques have been ordered shut.

That means the Eid festival celebrated at the end of the month-long fasting, an occasion for Muslims to spend freely, exchange gifts, eat, drink and make merry, will likewise be a less lively affair due to the pandemic.

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