With the governments of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana suspending the annual Kanwar yatra this year, Shravan (July) is turning out to be a dry month for those involved in the pilgrimage and sacred tourism industry.
Under normal circumstances, crores of devotees visit the pilgrimage city of Haridwar through the month to carry back with them waters from the Ganga, which is then offered at Shiva temples across western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.
Mahant Narayan Giri, chief priest of the Doodheshwar temple in Ghaziabad, said the holy month used to bring donations and business worth ₹6 lakh to ₹7 lakh that sustained temple staff through the year.
“Now, with the temples shut, donations have reduced to almost nil. Around 200 people, including priests and students, used to stay on the temple premises before the lockdown. That number has come down to 50. This is apart from the ancillary businesses that thrived on the arrival of devotees,” said Mr. Giri.
Social activist Prem Bahukhandi, chairman of ‘Friends of Himalayas’, said, though the Kanwar Yatra was not seen as a great revenue generator in Uttarakhand, it did bring business worth around ₹30 crore-₹35 crore as two to three crore pilgrims reached Haridwar during the month.
“It [the yatra] is a temporary job creator for millions. It’s as if the father has a grocery shop, the unemployed son would set up a table outside and sell flowers or bhutta (corn) during the season. Many also made money from the illicit sale of ganja (hemp),” Mr. Bahukandi said.
And it is not just Hindus, he said, but Muslim families, too, were supported by the pligrimage as many in the Jwalapur area in Haridwar were involved in making the ritual kanwars that the devotees carry on their shoulders.
President of Hotels and Restaurants Association of Uttarakhand Sandeep Sahni likened religious tourism to a chain.
“If one link of the chain is affected, the others feel the pinch too. From the camps set up by the local Kanwar samitis (organisation) to the temporary dhabas to feed the thousands of devotees, the Kanwar Yatra is crucial for the lowest segment of the tourism business in Haridwar and it has completely collapsed this year,” Mr. Sahni said.
The faithful are finding ways to worship their gods during the pandemic. Mr. Giri said this year on the occasion of Shivaratri, Ganga water would be drawn from the Upper Ganga Canal in Muradnagar, popularly called Chhota Haridwar. “The municipal corporation has promised help.”
With even priests now wearing PPE kits while performing the temple rituals, Mr. Giri suggested a new normal where faith meets science. “I have been telling devotees that they have to give this year to the coronavirus. Pray at home.”
Lovedeep Singh, a pharma company executive posted in Haridwar, said it was only people dressed in saffron, as Kanwariyas, and walking to the temples were being stopped at the border of the States.
“I hail from Bulandshahr and many of my relatives and friends come every year to fetch the Ganga water. This Shivratri, I can take the holy water to them,” he said.
Mr. Bahukhandi, was part of a study on the impact of the 2013 Kedarnath floods on devotees, said, “Most of the devotees I spoke to at that time had said pralaya (the myth of a great flood) and Lord Shiva are connected and hence were able to come to terms with the disaster. But, this time, there is a palpable sense of fear.”
This, he said, was reflected in the very small number of people from Uttarakhand who joined the Char Dham Yatra though the authorities opened it for the State’s residents.
The fear of the lockdown regulations have also been used to overcharge the faithful, including those who come to the Ganga to immerse the ashes of their kin.
“After much bargaining, the boatman charged us ₹1,000 to take us to the mainstream even as the police were making an announcement that people should clear the ghats,” said Pushpendra Kumar, who immersed his father’s ashes at Garh Mukteshwar in Hapur district in western U.P., which has always been an alternative site to Haridwar, and has gained more traction with strict travel restrictions.
On the socio-political fallout of the fear due to the pandemic, Mr. Giri said he had spoken to U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and he had promised aid to temples. “Mahantji has said temples should not be crowded during the Shravan month.”
“Government support has come but we need more to find our feet,” said Mr. Sahni. He said early estimates suggest, coronavirus (COVID-19) has resulted in a loss of around ₹200-250 crore to the hotel and restaurant industry in Uttarakhand where tourism contributes around 30% of the State’s GDP. He demanded special packages for those who have recovered from COVID-19 and removal of State GST on tourism-related activities.
Poonam Chand, Joint Director, Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board, said the suspension of the Kanwar Yatra was not much of a dampener as the yatris drew more than they pumped into the Uttarakhand economy.
“But, overall the pilgrimage tourism has suffered,” she said. Till July 16, she said, only 8,280 people had undertaken the Char Dham Yatra.
“We are in discussion with all the stakeholders. In Unlock 2, we have allowed tourists who have a COVID-19 negative report, taken in the last 72 hours, to enter the State. Those who don’t have a test report could also enter, but they should have a seven-day booking at a hotel and should not venture out during that period,” Ms. Chand said.
With the Haridwar Kumbh Mela just six months away, stakeholders in the religious pilgrimage industry are hoping that the virus would be annihilated by then, allowing normal arrival of devotees to the religious sites.