With temples locked up, Nepalis improvise

A girl worships in a locked up Ganesh temple in Kuleshwor in Kathmandu this week. All photos: Rajani Maharjan

For decades, Dhanamaya Singh concluded each day at Aakash Bhairab Temple in Indrachok in Kathmandu’s historic heart, to sing bhajan hymns.

As an unmarried elder, these evening prayers were her way of engaging with her community and were the centre of her social and ritual life. But, at the end of March, with the first government-mandated lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19, her daily practice was stopped abruptly. 

Dhanamaya has not seen a single one of her relatives since the lockdown began, and even after it was lifted has to be careful. While she previously visited them frequently for feasts and rituals days, her family is strictly adhering to social distancing practices, so she now spends most of her time alone at home. She says the isolation, though protective of her physical health, has been detrimental to her mental wellbeing.  

Numerous studies have shown the connection between religious practice and mental health benefits. The system of beliefs, the structure, and the sense of community inherent in most religions have a largely positive impact on mental wellbeing. Regardless of the belief system, including Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, all involve rituals that help people cope with difficult life events such as the death of a loved one, lessons that arise from challenging situations, as well as regularity and predictability, all of which are highly beneficial during the uncertainty of a pandemic. 

Additionally, religion and spirituality create a group of people who connect over shared beliefs. The benefits of feeling a sense of belonging, a place for trusting public engagement, and social connection have been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental distress.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has affected all aspects of religious practice in Nepal, most people, regardless of their age, gender, or social position, say that it is the change in community engagement that has had the most significant impact on their lives. 

While many report that they are visiting temples less frequently and have reduced the scale of their rituals, people say they are still finding a way to worship and to regain the sense of community that their typical religious practice brings. To do so, more and more residents of Kathmandu are turning to technology, some for the very first time. But can tools like Facebook, messenger apps, and even virtual reality really replace the real experience?

Dhanamaya’s struggle with loneliness and the way in which the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted her mental health is not uncommon in Kathmandu Valley, across Nepal, or around the world. Since the first case of Covid-19 was recorded in Nepal on 23 January, the valley has been in and out of lockdowns with varying degrees of restrictions.

Although restaurants and public offices have been allowed to reopen periodically, most of the city’s temples, particularly the major ones that draw the largest crowds, have remained shuttered for over seven months.

Almost every country in the world has grappled with how to manage the disease burden without causing devastating impacts to the economy, and Nepal is no different in the way it has been forced to bear this struggle. However, because Nepal’s healthcare capacity is already limited, the government of Nepal instituted even more stringent lockdown actions, particularly in Kathmandu Valley, than have been seen in many other countries, including measures such as even/odd days for vehicles, grounding domestic flights, and the complete and long-term closure of businesses. The impacts of these extend far beyond purely the economic.      

For example, when Maya Dangol’s mother died a couple of months ago, she and her family struggled to conduct the death rituals due to the lockdown measures. Market closures, supply shortages, and the even/odd license plate restrictions on vehicles posed a challenge when trying to obtain all the necessary material to conduct the funeral rituals. She says her family visited the temples at four in the morning to burn wick lamps in their mother’s name to enable them to return home by six to avoid vehicle restrictions and contact with other people.

Despite these limitations, coronavirus cases continue to increase daily and hospitals in Kathmandu are reaching capacity, some having to turn away even serious cases due to a lack of beds and other resources. The total confirmed cases in Nepal surpassed 200,000 this week, with nearly half of them just in Kathmandu Valley. The total deaths crossed 1,202 on 13 November, with 456 of them in Kathmandu. For the past weeks, the Valley is recording an average of 60% of the daily cases detected nationwide.

Public health experts say the government has failed to effectively respond to the pandemic because there was little planning or work to improve healthcare facilities before they became overwhelmed. Now some, especially underprivileged families, feel they have few options if they contract the virus. 

There is also concern about how the government’s response to the pandemic has impacted the way religious and cultural events have been carried out. Dhiraj, a Newa environmental scientist is worried about the impact of the lockdown on some of the major festivals and rituals, including Rato Machindranath and Bisket Jatra. 

“The government has prevented these festivals from taking place, but other functions are allowed to continue. Major temples like Pashupati, have been closed since the beginning of the lockdown period, while other activities remain open, like markets and shops,” he explained.

“Previously, the Newa community of Kathmandu Valley was especially strong in its religious beliefs, these days this is breaking down. For the first time in a very long time, people are not observing the rituals,” said Dhiraj, adding that this was partly due to fears about disease transmission, but also partially due to government regulation.  

While most of the major religious events have been canceled or carried out with highly reduced numbers, residents of Kathmandu and people across Nepal have found ways to adapt and maintain spiritual and social connections despite the difficulty the pandemic poses. 

Dhanamaya, the bhajan singer, exemplifies this. Although she could no longer play bhajan at the temple, Dhanamaya realised she had another outlet to share her songs and worship with the community: through social media platforms such as Facebook. 

It was difficult for her to embrace the technology at first, she admits, and she needed help from her young nieces and nephews to navigate the platform. But Dhanamaya says: “Now, when I have leisure time, I get dressed up as if I am going out. I then position my mobile to record myself singing and if the video is nice, I post it.” When her friends and family give positive feedback, she feels less disconnected, and inspired to continue learning and sharing. 

Similarly, Gyani Maharjan says she spends a most of her days on video calls and other social media platforms. Because she has high blood pressure and is therefore at a greater risk for a more serious infection if she contracts the virus, she too is limiting physical contact with others, including family. 

To stay healthy physically as well as mentally, she participates in a yoga class through a messenger application on her mobile. Like Dhanamaya, she says this has helped her regain a sense of community when she would otherwise be almost completely isolated. 

Gyani and her nine siblings changed the way they celebrated the festival season this year, but she says, this did not make them feel any less connected as a family. During recent festivals, each sibling would participate in group video calls where they would show what they had prepared for that particular day and joke with each other and laugh. Gyani said she feels less anxious and stressed when she gets to connect using these platforms and watch videos of her grandchildren. 

In India, virtual reality (VR) platforms are being marketed as a way to enable people to do darshan even when they cannot physically get to the temples. This began even before the beginning of the pandemic for people who have moved out of their home state or to a foreign country, because they are elderly or ill, and for those who the major traffic jams of the Indian metropolises prevented them from visiting the temples regularly. 

Smartphone application downloads for VR temple experiences have increased exponentially since temples were closed in response to the spread of Covid-19. VR apps enable priests to continue to perform the rituals and maintain their livelihoods while devotees can continue to engage, though from afar.

Likewise, many Americans have adopted the habit of attending virtual church from their laptops every Sunday. Even after the virus is managed and in-person worship can resume, many churches report that they will continue live streaming weekly services to accommodate those who are unable to attend the service or who prefer to worship from home.

However, not everyone has embraced these changing forms of worshiping and socialising though. Baburaja Bajracharya, a priest, says he has heard that some of the Brahmin priests  are instructing people to perform puja through video calls, however, he and other Newa priests that he knows have not adopted this practice. 

For Baburaja and many others who are hesitant to involve technology in religious practice or who reject it outright, the experience and perceived benefits of being at a temple or in the presence of a priest during puja cannot be replicated virtually. The sense of community afforded through religious practice is not felt to the same degree when those experiences are happening on a mobile phone.

 Research has shown that social media can be effective in addressing loneliness when it is used to enhance existing relationships, like in the case of Dhanamaya and Gyani, but is counterproductive when it is relied upon to replace in-person interaction. Therefore, the benefits of this technology are largely dependent on the way they are integrated into daily lives.

However, during a pandemic, many feel as though there are few other options for socialisation other than to engage on virtual platforms. This suggests that for some, the perceived benefits may end up being short-lived or unsustainable if social distancing remains necessary far into the future.  

For some, though, the use of technology to conduct and share ritual, religious, and community experiences has been essential. Alok Siddhi Tuladhar, a cultural activist, says his birthday would have been a lonely and isolating day for both him and his parents if not for platforms that enable virtual connection. 

Because he tested Covid-19 positive, though asymptomatic, he chose to celebrate his birthday at home with only his wife and son. His elderly parents watched his wife perform the birthday puja from their house across the city over video chat. 

Tuladhar says he thinks “technology helped us to fill the gap that comes with social distancing when we are unable to visit each other physically.”  Although technology has helped fill that gap for some, its impact in a post-pandemic world is yet to be seen. 

Rajani Maharjan is an environmental anthropologist affiliated with the Small Earth Nepal (SEN), an environmental research group.

Madison Wrobley is a 2019-2020 Fulbright-National Geographic Storytelling Fellow who studies water insecurity, primarily in Kathmandu Valley, and is now based in Colorado.