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From flowers to incense, India's temple economy hit by coronavirus

by Anuradha Nagaraj | @anuranagaraj | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 25 March 2020 01:00 GMT

A vendor checks his notes after selling marigold garlands, which are used to decorate temples and homes during the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, in Kolkata, India October 6, 2016. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

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COVID-19 shutdown jeopardises livelihoods of tens of thousands of people selling everything from oil lamps to images of Hindu gods

By Anuradha Nagaraj

CHENNAI, India, March 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian shopkeeper Purab Gathani should be gearing up for his busiest time of year selling incense for the spring festival season, when crowds of worshippers usually throng Hindu temples.

Instead Gathani, whose family has sold Hindu prayer items for three generations, is looking at major losses as the coronavirus outbreak forces the country of 1.3 billion people into lockdown and places of worship shut down.

"I never imagined we would close our shop on the eve of a festival," said Gathani, owner of a store in the western city of Mumbai, which on Wednesday celebrates the Gudi Padwa festival that marks the start of the Hindu year in the area.

"For the first time, there will be no rush at my store before Gudi Padwa and I am so shocked that I have not been able to even comprehend how it will impact my business in the coming months." Tens of thousands of people work at the bottom of India's so-called temple economy, which is worth an estimated $40 billion and includes people selling everything from flowers to oil lamps to images of Hindu gods.

The vast majority form part of the informal sector that makes up about 90% of India's total workforce, meaning they are not protected by labour laws.

Their livelihoods are at risk from a complete three-week shutdown imposed by the government on Tuesday to stem the spread of the coronavirus after the deaths of nine people.

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Pradeep Chakravarthi conducts heritage tours in the southern India state of Tamil Nadu, home to 44,000 temples, many of them centuries old and at the heart of local communities.

He said the economies that surround them had grown in recent decades, warning of a major hit to people's livelihoods as they were closed.

"Even the number of flower sellers have increased, besides more eateries, hotels offering rooms to pilgrims, trinket sellers and of course prayer stores," Chakravarthi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Most of them are in the informal sector and will bear the brunt of this lockdown."


V Subramanian, secretary of Jankalyan, a spiritual group that organises prayers and provides aid in disasters, said the shutdown could not have come at a worse time as millions prepare for the spring festival season that begins with new year.

"You know the people working outside temples, particularly the smaller ones, are not millionaires," he said.

"Certain families depend only on the temple for their livelihood. For many women, in particular, who sell flowers and oil lamps outside temples, the lockdown means no income. And the timing is terrible because festivals are around the corner."

Pranali Ravindra Ubale, 29, who works in a technology firm in Mumbai, was gearing up for a quieter celebration of Gudi Padwa than usual.

In other years she would buy colours for the traditional rangoli decorations and sweets to wrap in a red sari and hang at the door along with mango leaves, but this year none of that was possible.

"Some of us even participate in bike rallies that are taken out in the evening, but there won't be rallies this year," she added.

Priests at the Sri Madhava Perumal temple in Tamil Nadu's capital Chennai now use a side entrance to quietly slip in twice a day and perform rituals, accompanied by the cook who makes the religious offering.

The temple's manager V P Srinivasan said that for now, devotees must worship from home - something Mumbai shop owner Gathani is already doing as he prays for a better future.

"This will pass and then we will celebrate with fervour and business will pick up again," he said. "We have to keep the faith."

(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Additional reporting by Roli Srivastava; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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