COVID-19 SPECIAL

New face of worship: Live-stream festivals and more online classes for Hindus, Sikhs

Mosques, churches and temples have shifted many aspects of religious worship online, from the booking of prayers to teaching, support systems and community building. Eddino Abdul Hadi, Chantal Sajan, Jan Lee and Lee Siew Hua report

A devotee praying at Sri Mariamman Temple as a staff member disinfects and cleans the barricades. The temple has boosted online offerings for devotees through the live streaming of daily morning and evening prayers since March.
A devotee praying at Sri Mariamman Temple as a staff member disinfects and cleans the barricades. The temple has boosted online offerings for devotees through the live streaming of daily morning and evening prayers since March. ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID
Giani Gurdeep Singh giving a live-stream sermon at the Central Sikh Temple in Towner Road.
Giani Gurdeep Singh giving a live-stream sermon at the Central Sikh Temple in Towner Road. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

Mr B. Jayakumar and his wife Sentha wanted to bask in the presence of the Hindu goddess Mariamman on the first day of the Aadi month last Thursday, something they felt could not be replicated on the live streams that Sri Mariamman Temple beams daily.

"Especially today, we both wanted to be in the temple to receive the goddess' darshan (blessed view)," says the 49-year-old marine manager, who works in the oil and gas industry.

They believe that the opportunity to see the image of the deity in the temple is a blessing in itself.

The month of Aadi in the Tamil calendar, from last Thursday to Aug 15 this year, is traditionally reserved for religious observances for the Hindu female trinity.

"We wanted to be inside the temple, as we have done since we were young," says Mr Jayakumar.

Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road, built in 1827, has gone high-tech to preserve the continuity of Hinduism's 5,000-year-old rites and religious observances, yet ensure the safety of devotees during the coronavirus pandemic.

The grand dame of Singapore temples has boosted online offerings for devotees through the live streaming of daily morning and evening prayers since March.

And not a moment too soon, as major Hindu festivals, which usually draw crowds of up to 1,000 in the temple, have started since last Thursday.

After Aadi month comes the annual Navaratri, or Nine Nights of the Goddess, and Theemithi, or Firewalking festival, which this year has been shortened from three months to just one, culminating in the firewalking ritual on Nov 1.

The Hindu Endowments Board (HEB), which manages four major temples in Singapore - Sri Mariamman Temple, Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, Sri Vairavimada Kaliamman Temple and Sri Sivan Temple - has put in place a raft of measures to prepare for festival season.

Besides the mandatory SafeEntry check-ins, there are also a barricade system to direct the flow of devotees seeking darshan of the goddess Mariamman, thermal scanners for temperature monitoring and a revamped ticketing system for the booking for prayer slots which include temple offerings.

 
 
 

Besides all these, HEB also maintains a dedicated YouTube channel, which live-streams morning and evening prayers from its four temples for those who want to avoid crowds.

"We want to avoid cancelling temple events," says Mr Raja Segar, 58, HEB's chief executive officer.

"Instead, we plan to do more live streaming so that devotees are able to partake of the ceremonies, but from the safety of their homes. This way, we preserve the continuity of the yearly events without compromising the safety of devotees."

YouTube videos of daily rituals of the four HEB-managed temples get between 200 and 300 views daily. Hindu festivals garner more hits online, upwards of 1,000 viewers. Most popular are the firewalking ceremony videos, which capture up to 100,000 eyeballs.

The HEB channel now has nearly 15,000 subscribers, but Mr Segar expects an uptick in the lead-up to Deepavali in November. Likewise, the four temples combined get between 800 and 2,000 visitors on-site a day, a figure which has been rising since the phase two reopening on June 19.

Looking forward, beyond the coronavirus scourge, Mr Segar and his team are putting in place a "digital dharma" plan for the longer term, which involves increased engagement online and broader outreach beyond Singapore's shores.

"We are looking at how to facilitate faster bookings via our website for temple prayer slots, for not only Hindus residents of Singapore, but also non-resident devotees who have migrated overseas and want to maintain a link with Sri Mariamman Temple," he says.

While the essence of Hindu worship will remain untouched by the march of time, he says the way devotees pray will change radically. There will be more virtual options to pray from home, book tickets online instead of queuing at the temple, and the flexibility to combine virtual with physical visits to the temple.

However, he acknowledges that not all Hindu temples have the resources to go digital. There are 20 privately run Hindu temples, some without a significant online presence.

Privately run Sri Arasakesari Sivan Temple in Sungei Kadut Avenue does not live-stream its prayers sessions, but shares some information predominantly via its website.

It now allows up to 25 devotees into the temple at a time to complete their prayers and discourages lingering on the premises.

"Devotees have only about five minutes to complete their prayers," says its head priest, Mr Praba Gurukkal, 49, in Tamil.

Prior to Covid-19, devotees used to wash their feet at the cleaning station outside the temple, which is equipped with taps, before entering. Now, there is also a SafeEntry check-in system and contactless temperature scanning, and hand sanitisers are placed throughout the temple.

"We explain to devotees that these measures are for their own safety, and that they also need to be considerate to others queueing outside," says Mr Praba.

Over at two of Singapore's gurdwaras (temples), the Central Sikh Temple in Towner Road and the Silat Road Sikh Temple, community spirit - a central pillar of Sikhism - is now facilitated virtually.

This is after a number of religious services, including classes and langgar - catering and serving food in the temples - were suspended in March.

But Mr Baljit Singh, president of the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board (CSGB), says the institution of langgar has continued through the circuit breaker, with packed meals, instead of sit-down meals.

More than 12,000 langgar meals continue to be served every week by the seven gurdwaras in Singapore to both locals and non-locals.

"The Central and Silat Road Sikh temples continue to support the community spirit through ongoing physical prayer within safe practice guidelines," says Mr Singh, 59.

One area that has been ramped up is the virtual streaming of prayers to keep the community connected. CSGB also connects through monthly bulletins, a dedicated website, Facebook and various chat groups.

"More importantly, new programmes involving interactive Zoom discussions on specific religious topics among our congregation have kept the connectivity going," says Mr Singh.

He adds that the number of classes a week has increased threefold, with attendance spiking six-fold since the circuit breaker.

"It was refreshing to see students not only from Singapore, but also from places as far away as Australia and India attending our online sessions," he says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2020, with the headline 'Hindus & Sikhs: Live-stream festivals and more online classes'. Subscribe