People across southern India celebrated their new year, and other occasions, in the middle of April…
“Celebrated” is the wrong word to use in the midst of the rising second wave of the coronavirus, but that was what it looked like. The little temple across the street, for instance, that came up illegally two years ago, had its second anniversary a few days before the new year. The temple committee announced a comprehensive day-long programme of festivities. There were to be six hours of noise and feasting: excruciating bhajans sung into a sound system that could be heard half-a-kilometre away, and a “traditional” lunch and dinner consisting mostly of rice and other starchy foods. Hundreds of people turned up, with vehicles crowding the narrow street, and not a mask in sight. And, of course, there were large piles of the garbage that the temple workers and visitors simply tossed across the wall into the vacant lot to its south.
A few days later came the new year, Ugadi in these parts, celebrated with vigour by crowds of devotees, accompanied by the noise, the feasting, and the garbage that seem to be an integral part of every celebration. Masks and social distancing were forgotten. Following shortly after was a week-long festival at one of the oldest and largest temples in the neighbourhood, involving three daily rounds of crowds and noise and gorging, and, of course, garbage in the aftermath. News emerged during the festival that the head of one of the large akharas involved in the Kumbh died of Covid-19 after getting the disease during the mela. Devotees either didn’t know or didn’t care, for the festivities went right on. The police filed a First Information Report against the temple committee for violating Covid guidelines, to no effect.
In the midst of all this came my wife’s birthday. In the time of the pandemic, she gets Zoom calls and good wishes instead of visitors and presents, and she doesn’t complain. My friend the professor from the business school called on Zoom, as he did last year, and, when he had finished with the greetings, I took the opportunity to pour out my complaints to him, about the crowds and the noise and the waste of food and the garbage.
He heard me out without batting an eyelid. “I have only bad news for you,” he said, when I had finished my rant.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“All this stuff is not going to stop in the near future,” he said. “It’s how business evolves.”
“What do you mean, business?” I asked, mystified. “I thought we were talking about crowds and gluttony and noise and garbage associated with temples and blind faith.”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s what happens when you convert faith into income. It’s called monetisation.”
“Nonsense!” I said.
“Relax,” he said. “Let me explain. Look at the Kumbh. It happens every twelve years, and millions of pilgrims gather for it: it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records, you know, for the largest gathering of people.”
“So?” I asked.
“Think about it. Taking care of several million people for several days means a lot of money. All of them eat and drink and sleep and pray and bathe in the Ganges. So somebody has to arrange travel and lodging and food and security and logistics. It’s a huge, expensive affair. They clean up entire cities, build new roads, arrange for cities of tents, and for hundreds of tons of food. Think of just the food. It means grain and vegetables and spices and oils and fuel and cooks… You know all that. Figure it out for yourself.”
“Right,” I said. “But what does all that have to do with the temples here?”
“Every festival is a smaller version of that,” he said. “Every celebration involves money. Where there’s money there’s business. Where there’s business there’s a business model. And every business model requires growth.”
“But the big temples are rich!” I said, for the faithful can be generous. “They’ve got enough!”
“It’s all part of the business model,” he said. “Every temple wants more visitors. Every big temple collects lots of money. They do a little social service, feeding the poor every now and again, but that’s it. The rest of the money they collect goes into getting more visitors. So they make it easier for people to get there. There are lots of old temples that were hard to get to: you had to walk cross-country to get to them, or climb steep old flights of stairs. All that is changing. They’re building roads so you can get there easily… They’ve built a new road to Mansarovar that goes close to the Chinese border, that cuts three days off a five-day journey.”
That made sense. That big old temple nearby used to have a steep stone staircase to the shrine, and when it rained it got really slippery. They did it up last year, so now you can climb safely up even in the heaviest rainstorm. “Right,” I said.
“There’s more,” he continued. “You have people who happen to be on temple committees organising bus tours on special occasions, or hotel accommodation. Running a temple is now a position of power, you know. It combines business and politics.”
I couldn’t help agreeing. The temple committee had no trouble dealing with that police FIR. “I see,” I said.
“Blind faith leaves you unaware of its ill effects,” he continued. “There’s a profit to be made out of that faith.” He paused. “You know, sometimes it looks like governing people is like growing mushrooms.”
“How so?” I asked, mystified.
“You keep them in the dark and feed them plenty of horses**t!” he replied....