Like all of Utah’s religious groups, Hindus have been forced by COVID-19 to cut back their various festivals and forms of worship.
It has been especially hard for a faith whose deities are housed in a temple that is now mostly closed on weekdays and whose rituals are part of daily life for believers.
Under normal circumstances, Hindu devotees flock to the Sri Ganesha Temple in South Jordan as a priest typically chants daily before the shrines, sprinkling each with water, and placing fruit, rice and flowers in front.
Many members of the community then would visit daily, weekly or for special blessings before a test, before a big game, before a new project or performance, before a birth or marriage.
Under current circumstances, the priest does the morning service by himself, while the evening service is livestreamed via YouTube. He is flanked by three screens, a tripod for the camera, a carton of Clorox wipes, a bottle of hand sanitizer, and a roll of paper towels.
Devotees can make appointments to have a priest conduct a ceremony for them via a video call. They can arrange for a wedding or other big occasions to be held in the outside pavilion, but must observe guidelines such as restricting guests to six people, says Sandy resident Chaitanya Achan, who is the temple president.
Utah’s Hindu population has surged to more than 8,000, according to temple officials, and last year between 1,200 and 1,500 came to the temple for each of the major holidays.
The temple has become the core of their communal worship so it being mostly closed is a sacrifice for devotees, says Indra Neelameggham, a longtime member of the community.
On weekends, the temple allows worshippers to enter, but they must do so alone or in small family groups, stay safely distanced, and wear a mask to chant, she says, “even if no one [else] is there.”
The sacraments have been discontinued, and no food is served inside.
“Visiting the temple is a cultural experience that has built up over a lifetime,” Achan says. “Suddenly, you have to stop doing that. It’s a challenge.”
Diwali, the festival of lights and one of Hinduism’s main celebrations, is slated for Nov. 14. Last year, more than 1,500 attended, Achan says. Temple officials are not sure they will even hold it this year.
One of the other big festivals is for the Mother Goddess. It’s a time when families get together for nine days, Neelameggham says, and it will not be held this year.
Zoom is taking the place of personal visits, she says. When the pandemic is gone, will Hindus and others stop assembling?
“That will be a big change for society in the next generation,” Neelameggham says. “It will be based on technology, rather than physical closeness.”
And, she says, “they are not the same.”