Faith, Festivities and Pandemic

As we entered into a national lockdown last year and life was thrown into disarray, we found ourselves in an unprecedented situation that many of us found difficult to deal with. One peculiar area of rethinking was the intersection of faith, festivities and 21st century realities.

Last year, I remember watching Mass streams on YouTube live with my family while celebrating the Holy Week. Our usually sombre Catholic household suddenly had to be rearranged for evening prayers and the local church’s Facebook page was bookmarked on the family desktop. E-Mass and virtual prayer sessions became a daily thing as we settled into a new routine.

Thrissur Pooram and Kumbh

Almost a year has passed and there doesn’t seem to be any respite from the global pandemic. In fact, the second wave has broken all the records with number of cases are rising exponentially. However, on April 19, I read that Kerala’s health minster doesn’t want to cancel the Thrissur Pooram, a large Hindu festival that normally attracts around two million people. It was held symbolically without gatherings last year. Opposition groups such as the Congress and the BJP, as well as temple committees, had also been opposing the cancellation of the event. To our relief, the state government on Monday, April 20, has decided to hold the festival only in a ritualistic manner without any public participation.

However, up north, the Kumbh Mela was held with full fervour, whose visuals created stirs worldwide for the brazen lack of social distancing norms when it was held in Haridwar. Although the prime minister has asked the organisers to hold the event symbolically now, the damage had already been done by then: more than 1,000 devotees tested positive and the number continues to rise.

Festivals, especially those by religious groups, are often seen as a material manifestation of commemorating beliefs, paying homage to deities or ideas and celebrating the communities that follow them. In the past year, when many of us had to retreat into a world of minimum social contact and an altered lifestyle; where then do we stash the culture of community belongingness that festivals brought along with itself? Loneliness, absence of human contact beyond your immediate circle and mental stress have affected people from all age groups in varying capacities. I often reminiscence about the days before the pandemic – the flower-carpet making competitions of Onam, Midnight Mass on Christmas day and the wine and cake, going over to my friends place for the traditional Eid festivities with their delicious biriyanis and visiting the local Gurudwara after classes for buttermilk, more food and celebrating with the community.

Along with these came a sense of being part of a collective, the opportunity to expand one’s social circle and form new bonds. And yet all of this soon came to a – hopefully temporary – halt. In a country like India, famously known as the land of festivals, there are festivals to welcome the seasons of the year, the harvest, the rains or the full moon or the birthdays of divine beings and saints or the advent of the New Year. Most of these festivals have now distilled into our glowing rectangular boxes of WhatsApp forwards, DMs, statuses, Stories and live streams. For those without access to technology, even the latter seem elusive. Yet we strive to link the social value of these festivals to their temporal importance. We are thus in the midst of a time of rethinking these narratives, adjusting to a paradigm where technology bridges the social gap of the physical world.

Plague festivals

Plagues have often impacted festivals, but it has been the opposite in some cases – there are some festivals which were originally born out of plagues. Bonalu, a festival in Telangana, started in 1813 when a plague broke out in the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secundrabad claiming thousands of lives, the military battalion of Hyderabad deployed at Ujjain who had known about the plague outbreak prayed to the mother Goddess in Mahankaal Temple located in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. They vowed that if their people were saved they would install the idol of Mahankali back in their city. Thus it was believed that Mahankali destroyed the disease and kept pestilence at bay and the battalion returned to the city and installed the idol and since that incident, every year a festival takes place in the city commemorating that event.

Halfway around the world in Lyons, France, the Festival of Lights or Fête des lumières pays homage to Mother Mary when in 1643 the city was struck by plague and the municipal councillors promised to pay tribute to Mary if the town was spared. Ever since, a solemn procession makes its way to the Basilica of Fourvière on December 8 (the feast of the Immaculate Conception) to light candles and give offerings in the name of Mary.

As we have vaccines being rolled out, and we hopefully see the light at the end of this tunnel in a few months, perhaps we’ll have to turn to Naples and see how they’ve immortalised the end of the 17th century plague by erecting a spire and celebrated a “Festival of Healing” to move on. The spire of San Domenico — a stone obelisk topped with a statue of the saint — is one of Europe’s “plague columns.”

Neapolitan civic officials of 1656 then put together a grand celebration to mark the containment of the epidemic and help heal a wounded city and perhaps us in the 21st century, dealing with the coronavirus should also look forward to a celebration, both solemn and joyous, once we get this pandemic under wraps and to pay homage to the souls who’ve departed and the lessons we’ve learnt. Until then perhaps, we must hold ourselves to vigilance and not celebrate too early, lest we delay the final “Festival of Healing” that ushers us into a new page in the history books.

Callistine Lewis is a student of Political Science and English Literature at St. Stephens College, Delhi and can be found amidst dusty bookshelves or bingewatching dystopian shows on Netflix with his cats.

Featured image credit: Kumbh Mela 2021/PTI