Last week, the world was stunned to watch videos and images of the famed black stone mosque in Holy Kaaba, appearing starkly barren, resembling a strange landscape, devoid of any Muslim faithful.
Situated in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the Holy Ka’aba is the most revered and crowded religious places in the Islamic world where literally millions of Muslims daily circumambulate seven times in the ‘Mataf’ around the black stone, and the crowds surge massively during the Haj season, this year scheduled in July.
“After the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic, you can virtually count the faithful there now… The Holy Ka’aba mosque has never been witnessed as barren before,” an aghast Mumbai journo Aejaz A. Ansari, who has prayed there, told IANS.
With Italy marooned by the pandemic, the crowds have practically disappeared or reduced to a trickle even at the Holy See’s Papal Blessings, on Sundays at the St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican.
On March 8, a shocked world watched Pope Francis’s blessings live-streamed on giant screens from his library inside the Vatican unlike his familiar divine presence in the balcony, overawing the sea of humanity below him in the Square.
In his blessings, Pope Francis confessed he felt “caged”, but added that he was praying for all the coronavirus victims and those taking care of them, and the world will watch for his blessings even tomorrow and henceforth.
“This is considered unprecedented… I have been bestowed with Papal Blessings four times in the Square, but never ever witnessed it on TV screens,” a perturbed Bro. George T. Verghese, of Seva Sadan, Bengalaru, who studied at the Vatican told IANS.
India, famed for massive gatherings or congregations at various religious places or festivals or fairs at top holy spots, the low turnout with many sporting protective masks, has shocked even television viewers hundreds or thousands of kms away.
The numbers of devotees have dropped drastically even at top Budhist religious and tourist centres in Asia and India, at various Shakti Peethas, Jyotirlings and Ashtavinayak, sending alarm bells ringing among various stakeholders.
Particularly hit are the ‘Buddhist Circuits’ of Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, besides pagoda-temples and other prominent landmarks around the country, officials admit.
“We are largely unaffected, but we have installed sanitisers in the Saibaba Temple precincts, check temperatures of all devotees coming here, regularly fumigate the premises inside and outside, reserved a few beds to tackle any coronavirus emergency,” Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust, Shirdi spokesperson Mohan Yadav said told IANS.
Mumbai pilgrim tour operators have reported practically zero bookings for various round-the year religious tourism hotspots like Mata Vaishnodevi Shrine in Jammu, Tirumala Tirupati Temple in Andhra Pradesh, Shreenathji Temple in Rajasthan, Kalighat, Dakshineshwar, Mayapur, Nava-Dvipa temples in West Bengal, Kamakhya Temple in Assam or even the Lord Jagannath Rath Yatra scheduled for June 23.
Closer in Mumbai, devotees or tourists barely throng the Siddhivinayak Temple in Dadar, the Haji Ali sea mausoleum in Worli or the St. Michael’s Church in Mahim and the Mt. Mary Church in Bandra.
“I have been visiting the Siddhivinayak Temple since the past three decades… This is the first time after the 1992-1993 Mumbai riots that I have seen such a poor crowd,” claimed a diehard Lord Ganesha devotee Rajesh Parulekar.
In Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad, Nagpur and other towns, several traditional, religious processions, fairs and celebrations have been cancelled while temples, mosques and churches are largely abandoned; there’s a crestfallen look on the faces of poor locals selling flowers, garlands, sweetmeats, candles, memorabilia, trinkets, pictures, et al.
“Pleasure and pilgrimage tourism is at its lowest ebb currently with shut-downs and lock-downs everywhere… The only consolation would be if India develops a reliable cure for CoronaVirus, we may find succor in ‘medical tourism’ which can save us,” a Borivali-based travel consultant Clifford Borges said wryly.
With the ongoing summer season considered a ‘wash-out’ due to coronavirus scourge, all players are keeping their fingers crossed – and pray – for a revival in their fortunes during Diwali and winter season.-IANS/QUAID NAJMI