Mumbai: With strict protocols, religious places reopen

Updated: 18 November, 2020 07:59 IST | Gaurav Sarkar, Prajakta Kasale, Arita Sarkar, Ranjeet Jadhav, Chetna Sadadekar | Mumbai

Devotees cutting across religions resort to caution as shrines reopen on Monday after eight months; stakeholders say peripheral economy will take more time to get back on its feet

Devotees at Babulnath temple on Tuesday.Pic/Bipin Kokate
Devotees at Babulnath temple on Tuesday.Pic/Bipin Kokate

Ever since Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray gave the green light for the reopening of all religious institutions on November 14 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, mosques, temples, churches, and gurudwaras across the city were a busy lot. The weekend saw a rush to implement safety measures for Monday's reopening, with most places capping the number of visitors at a time and cutting down on certain rituals. Devotees on the other hand, were a peaceful lot, elated to be finally allowed to visit god, even if amid a slew of protocols.

A staffer at Mahim dargah screens devotees. Pic/Shadab Khan
A staffer at Mahim dargah screens devotees. Pic/Shadab Khan

Religious leaders reported that people, too, are being cautious and not hurrying to visit. However, peripheral businesses set up in and around religious places are seeing a slump in business as no offerings are allowed. Read on for mid-day's ground report from across the city.

Babulnath Temple, Girgaon Chowpatty

Devotees inside the temple. Pic/Bipin Kokate
Devotees inside the temple. Pic/Bipin Kokate

At Babulnath, around 1,200 devotees visited on the first day. This was primarily because the day is dedicated to lord Shiva. "Before the lockdown, 4,000 to 5,000 devotees would come daily. On Monday, the number was much less but security was beefed up as it was Shivratri," said Mukesh Kanojia, a trustee. The trust deploys 10 volunteers in each of the three shifts. On Monday, there were 50.

"The devotees can't make any offerings. The last aarti starts at 8 pm. We don't allow people after 7.30 pm so there is no issue of crowd control," another trustee said. Earlier, there were four security personnel at the main gate and one security guard at the temple. Now police have been deployed, even though the crowd is quite manageable.

Shops selling flowers and prasad were shut. Shalini Sangare, who runs a garland shop at the main gate, said, "The shop opened a week ago. Some people buy garlands though they are not allowed inside. But they are very few." Parth Sarvaiya, another shopkeeper, who sells decorative pooja items, said, "As compared to earlier, there was 60 per cent business on Monday. But on Tuesday, hardly anyone came."

St Michael's Church, Mahim

Kissing of statues is no longer allowed inside the church; devotees inside St Michael's church in Mahim; devotees pray at St Michael's church in Mahim on Tuesday. Pics/Shadab Khan
Kissing of statues is no longer allowed inside the church; devotees inside St Michael's church in Mahim; devotees pray at St Michael's church in Mahim on Tuesday. Pics/Shadab Khan

Following the staggered reopening guidelines issued by the Archdiocese of Bombay on Sunday, St Michael's Church, Mahim, opened its doors to parishioners and non-devotees from 10 am to 1 pm and 4 pm to 8 pm.

In a video released on social media, priests are seen opening the doors of the church. In a Whatsapp message, Parish priest Father Lancy Pinto informed parishioners of guidelines, including no kissing of statues or any frames inside the church. Recreational activities on stage have been stopped too.

Father Ashwin Castellino, 35, assistant parish priest at St Michael's, said, "People have been trickling in since Monday but there are no crowds as such. But at no point was the church empty. At least 10-15 people were seated on benches at any given time."

He added, "Now that people know that churches are open, they won't rush on the first day itself. There was better response on Tuesday. Many non-Catholics devoted to Mother Mary also came."

Father Ashwin explained that the low footfall has a lot to do with the guidelines issued by Archbishop Cardinal Oswal Gracias.

"Since churches are open only for silent prayers — and not for mass or the Holy Eucharist — the footfall is less. People come to the church primarily to participate in services."

Mahalakshmi Temple, Mahalaxmi

Mahalakshmi temple has no limit on visitors currently. Pics/Bipin Kokate
Mahalakshmi temple has no limit on visitors currently. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Mahalakshmi temple saw drastically reduced footfall despite it being Diwali Padwa. Its manager, B S Walavalkar, said there is no limit on the number of people allowed at a certain time. "There is no need for a limit since there's anyway no crowd," he said. "On Monday, there was a queue at 6 am but the total number of visitors was around 2,000. How will devotees travel without local trains?" On Tuesday too, Walavalkar said that barely any people came. "Apart from the safety protocols of hygiene, we have asked people to maintain a six-foot distance at all times," he said.

Siddhivinayak Temple, Prabhadevi

Devotees at Siddhivinayak temple on Tuesday. Pic/Suresh Karkera
Devotees at Siddhivinayak temple on Tuesday. Pic/Suresh Karkera

One of the largest and most popular, the Siddhivinayak temple at Prabhadevi, has been allowing only 100 devotees every hour through only online booking. Apart from using sanitisers, devotees are asked to wash their hands and feet before entering. Yellow markings throughout the temple hallway guide devotees in social distancing.

Temple authorities have allowed offline darshan without online booking for those coming from far-off places via coupons. There was brief chaos outside the temple on Monday morning as visitors without bookings queued up for coupons. Many who waited for a couple of hours returned without lord Ganpati's darshan as slots became full.

Anil Badgujar, a devotee, said, "I am very happy to have finally got the darshan after a break of several months. There are good arrangements and safety precautions, devotees are wearing masks too."

While all shops inside the temple closed, those outside are having a hard time generating business. Madhukar Parte, who runs a sweet shop outside, said, "Since the lockdown, we have been struggling owing to very little business. Earlier, our sales used to amount to R100, now they are only R25."
The temple's trustee, Aadesh Bandekar, said, "We are allowing only 1,000 people per day through bookings on the mobile app. We will increase capacity only if we feel the crowd is manageable."

Iskcon, Juhu

The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) at Juhu saw a huge crowd of around 1,200 visitors on the first day of reopening owing to Diwali, according to the temple authorities. The second day saw much less people. The temple has put markings for social distancing and is urging people to wash hands and feet before entering. Known for letting people spend time in peace, the temple is asking people to take blessings and leave immediately. Devotee Deviyani Trivedi said, "I had last visited the temple in March. It was a completely safe visit." Sangeeta Vora said, "The temple gives me peace. We were not allowed to sit anywhere so there is no question of touching anything."

Mt Carmel Church, Bandra

Mt Carmel church at Bandra has not opened its doors yet. Parish priest Father Reuben Tellis, said, "We have a meeting with the Cardinal and all the deans of different areas. Once this is done, I will have a better idea of the dos and don'ts. There is also renovation work going on for which we will have to remove the benches. We will have a better idea after the meeting this week."

St Peter's Church, Bandra

St Peter's, Bandra, issued a slew of protocols including no sprinkling of holy water and no hymn books, collection boxes at the entrance and exit and two people per pew. Parish priest Father Frazer Mascarenhas' guidelines also said that whenever masses are allowed, only one-third of the church's capacity of 280 people, would be allowed on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Sri Ghanteshwar Hanuman Mandir, Khar

Sri Ghanteshwar Hanuman mandir in Khar
Sri Ghanteshwar Hanuman mandir in Khar

There was a steady stream of a few devotees at Sri Ghanteshwar Hanuman Mandir in Khar. A maximum of five people were allowed at a time. Khar resident Mukesh Kriplani, 56, used to visit one a week. "I would take a walk before visiting the temple once a week. I missed coming here all these months. With adequate precautions, it feels good to be able to come here again. It is a place to cry out your sorrows apart from home," he said.

Mount Mary, Bandra

Devotees outside Mount Mary church. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi
Devotees outside Mount Mary church. Pic/Sayyed Sameer Abedi

At Mount Mary church, people preferred to visit in the evening. The queue got quite long as everyone got screened. Premi Vaz, 66, said, "I was unsure of the reopening and thought I'd check it out on the first day. I was overwhelmed and I cried when I entered the church after so long. It was very fulfilling," she said.

People were let in in small numbers and made to observe social distance on the benches. Shopkeepers selling candles greeted regulars and were elated to have customers. Luis Peris, 45, a shopkeeper said that many were tearful as they entered the church. Bishop John Rodrigues said the church is open only for two hours in the morning and three hours in the evening.

Haji Ali Dargah, Worli

A relatively empty Haji Ali dargah on Tuesday. Pic/Shadab Khan
A relatively empty Haji Ali dargah on Tuesday. Pic/Shadab Khan

Haji Ali dargah had stringent social distancing rules. Staffers at various locations appealed to people to follow social distancing norms and wear masks. The number of devotees was much less, though shopkeepers selling flowers said they expect an increase. Devotee Mohammad Yasin, said, "I waited for months. When the decision came, I resolved to visit in the first week itself."

Mahim Dargah, Mahim

Mahim Dargah, Mahim

Mahim dargah, saw a moderately high footfall in the initial hours when it opened its doors at Sunday midnight. Later, the crowds were much less than pre-pandemic days. Over 50 staffers from the dargah's trust enforced rules and screen visitors. Circles on the floor made at a distance of a few metres helped people in social distancing.

Sayyed Misbah, a devotee, said, "I am impressed with the precautions and the crowd management." "Everything went smoothly and the footfall we saw on Monday was moderately high — 700-800 people in a day at both Mahim and Haji Ali dargah. Our biggest challenge will be the crowds on Thursdays and Sundays, which are usually the busiest," said Sohel Khandwani, trustee, Mahim Dargah Trust and Haji Ali Dargah Trust, adding that he expects the footfall to gradually increase.

Sunni Jama Masjid, Bandra

The Sunni Jama Masjid in Bandra. Pic/Shadab Khan
The Sunni Jama Masjid in Bandra. Pic/Shadab Khan

While Sunni Jama Masjid near Bandra railway station saw a lukewarm response, devotees were relieved to be able to pray at the mosque.

The ritual of washing before prayers can no longer be done at the mosque. Haji Zameer Ali Shaikh, trustee, Bombay and Bandra Bakr Kasai Jamaat mosque on SV Road, said that a large number of people turned up for the early morning prayers on Monday. "People were jubilant and both, the masjid and the school building were full. We have alcohol-free sanitisers and have asked people to do wazu at home. People bring their own prayer mats."

The Sunni Jama Masjid in Bandra. Pic/Shadab Khan

"Praying at home is not the same as praying in Allah's home. I have been coming to this mosque at least four times for namaaz for 40 years," said Ismail Kadar, devotee.

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First Published: 18 November, 2020 07:10 IST

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