A temple in India is now a COVID-19 hotspot. The Lord Venkateswara temple, located in the town of Tirumala, in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, is one of the most wealthy Hindu shrines in the world.
On August 10, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) authorities, who manage the temple, revealed that 743 of the temple employees tested positive for COVID-19 between June 11 and August 10. Two employees and a former priest succumbed to the virus in that duration.
The news surfaced as India battles 2.2 million confirmed COVID-19 positive cases—the third highest in the world after Brazil and the United States—as of August 11.
Many temples in India have recently been allowed to reopen. On June 8, the Indian government rolled out their so-called “Unlock 1” guidelines, in which religious institutions were allowed to open with new rules including mandatory use of hand sanitiser, face masks, and enforced physical distancing.
But the TTD came under fire after the media claimed they had reopened to make up for losses during the lockdown. The TTD board argued however, that wasn’t the real reason. AK Singhal, the TTD’s executive officer, told the Bangalore Mirror that they reopened after 80 days of closure “to satisfy the devotees who were longing for darshan”. The temple reportedly earns INR 1,000 Crore to INR 1,200 Crore (USD $134 million to USD $160 million) via offerings from devotees every year.
"We are spending more money on facilities for COVID measures rather than what we are making from pilgrims,” said Singhal.
About 402 temple staffers have recovered from the infection, while 338 are undergoing treatment at various COVID-19 care facilities in the town of Tirupati.
“We are providing the best medication to those infected. We are taking utmost precaution, social distancing norms are followed, devotees and others are wearing masks,” the chairman of TTD’s trust, Y. V. Subba Reddy, told Reuters.
The temple continues to welcome visitors, and has no intention of closing.
VICE News counted around 448,538 visitors to the temple, as documented on TTD’s website, between June 11 and August 9. It is still unknown whether any temple visitors have contracted the virus. If there are any however, temple authorities maintain that they’re not responsible for any further infections.
"The cases have not increased in Tirupati alone, but the entire state as well as the country is facing a similar problem,” TTD’s executive officer Anil Kumar Singh told The New Indian Express.
News outlet News18 quoted an anonymous temple official, who said that the numbers are alarming due to the large number of employees who work across the towns of Tirumala and Tirupati, where TTD has temples. The official added that the percentage of positive cases per 100 people at the temple is 8.1 percent at the moment, which is lower than Andhra Pradesh’s overall average. The temple authorities consider positive cases above 15 percent as dangerous, but the current situation, they say, is manageable.
Outbreaks are being reported in other temples too. In the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) temple was closed on August 11 after 22 people, including priests, tested positive for COVID-19.
As the pandemic intensifies in India, many political leaders have turned to religion, somewhat explaining loosening restrictions on temple openings. Last month, Pragya Thakur, a Member of the Parliament with the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), told the media that people should chant Hanuman Chalisa, a Hindu prayer, as a way to curb infections of COVID-19. In the north Indian city of Ayodhya, where Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a controversial temple over a razed mosque last week, many political leaders said the temple will “kill demons” of COVID-19.
But Hindu temples becoming a hotspot is unlikely to face the same backlash as other religions in India that have seen their places of worship become hotspots.
In March, thousands of members from around the world, of an Islamic missionary movement, Tablighi Jamaat, congregated in New Delhi for a prayer meeting. When Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, effective within four hours of the announcement, the members took refuge in their Markaz (headquarters) in old Delhi.
In the following weeks, 2,346 people were evacuated from the Markaz, immediately leading to a vicious campaign blaming the group for COVID-19 cases in India, arrests and fines. The members were labelled “super spreaders” and led to Islamophobic attacks across the country. Various humanitarian bodies including Human Rights Watch and the World Health Organization raised concerns regarding the discrimination against Muslims. Five months on, members continue to face trials.
The latest Religion Census data (2011) states that Hindus make up about 75 percent and 83 percent of the populations in urban and rural India, respectively. Muslims make up just about 18 percent and 12 percent in urban and rural pockets, respectively.
Modi’s BJP recently passed controversial policies such as the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, which cleared pathways to citizenship for individuals belonging to six religions—except Islam—from neighbouring countries. The same year, the BJP also revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which granted Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, partial autonomy. The two events continue to have ripple effects in the form of prolonged conflict, crackdown on critics of the government’s policies, and deepening Hindu nationalism.
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