Saturday, July 21, 2018

Meenakshi Amman Temple Cell Phone Ban

Will more temples introduce ban on Cell Phones? 
(My Thanks to NS Ramnath, former IT Correspondent, The Economic Times and now an Enterpreneur and a Book Writer for having initiated me into blogging a dozen years ago)

In June 2016, I had written a story on the phone menace inside temples ( and  how technological development and the emergence of smart phones and cameras were becoming a big distraction to devotees seeking peaceful darshan inside the temple.

Following a Public Interest Litigation that cited safety issues, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court had in February this year directed the prohibition of carrying and using cell phones inside the Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai. The ban, a first of its kind in temples in Tamil Nadu, comes at a time when the use of mobile phones inside the temple is on an upward trend. The implementation of the ban - though the primary purpose was from a safety and security point of view- has done wonders for the Meenakshi Amman temple and brought about a transformation that is almost unthinkable in modern times.

The Existing Scenario prior to the ban
Over the last few years, since the proliferation of camera phones, it had become common practice for devotees to take photographs at all places inside the temple including of the Deepaarathanai. And within a few minutes such photographs were circulated all over the world via social media platforms. The hands that rose to take such shots proved a great hindrance to devotees especially at important sacred moments. 
The phone menace had reached such unbearable levels that devotees were seen talking even while going around the prakaram on a pradakshinam. Even sacred of occasions like Pradhosham were not spared and the loud talk on cell phones clearly disturbed peace darshan at the temple. Taking of Photographs and talking over the mobile always ended in confrontations with the more traditional devotees seeing this as an intrusion into their prayers.

Othuvar Somasundaram, who has been presenting the Thevaram Verses for the last seven years at the Meenkashi Amman temple, talks about the issues he had to endure patiently “Selfies near the Tank and the Kodi Maram had taken out the sanctity of the temple. In recent times, the electrical and electronic equipments with their flash lights had taken away the ancient ways of devotion. The nonstop Hello-Hello on the phone was quite a distraction to our presentation. Since it had become a way of life for most, we could not do anything about it.” 
The Othuvar, who has 10 festive days of presentation in a month at this temple, is very vocal about the negative impact of using cell phones “When a phone rings, not just the receiver of the call but the concentration of all others is also immediately affected in a negative way. Our mind goes away from God in those few seconds.”

K Balakumar, former Editor of an evening daily who spent his entire childhood and college days in Madurai in the 1970s and 80s has nostalgic memories of those decades of visiting the Meenakshi Amman Temple.“In those decades, with no mobile or technological intrusion, people focused on the purpose of their visit - to pray and enjoy some peace of mind.”

Even after the transition to a smart phone, his mobile has always been on silent when inside the temple. He is quite saddened by the turn of events in the past decade “People using mobiles in places where you would expect some quietness is irritating. While each one of us has our own way of worshipping and making some spiritual connection, cell phones have been a major put-off. People have to maintain certain etiquette in mobile usage at temples. But sadly many don't.”

New System in place
With the imposition of the ban, anyone entering the Meenakshi Amman temple has to now deposit the phone in the vault provided at the counter outside. There are a total of 10000 such vaults at the different entry points to the temple. A Self Help Group has been assigned the task of servicing this new process. The temple has also gone in for insurance.

Joint Commissioner N. Natarajan who has been at the temple for the last four years finds it a risky proposition “The administration of the ban is fraught with risk and initially there was a sense of fear as a lot of these are high end expensive phones. However, we have created a foolproof system and it has been working well.  We are charging a token sum of Rs.10 for each deposit. The devotees are happy and comfortable with this process.”

He is delighted at the outcome of the ban and is of the view that it has take one back to the good old devotional days “The biggest outcome from the ban is that we are witnessing devotion like it was in the 80s and 90s.  In the last few years, devotees had started taking photographs with their cell phones of even the Aradhanai. Previously, there was an urge to look at the phone every few minutes. Now, there is absolutely no distraction. For the first time in many years, I see a special bond between the parents and their children with the doing away of the phone. And that is a real good sign.”

Othuvar Somasundaram is ecstatic at this unexpected ban, which did not look likely at the beginning of the year “The ban has dramatically changed the way of devotion as the (mobile) rings have ceased to exist. Selfies have gone away too. This is a ‘Great Positive’ for us. Devotees are now listening to our presentation (on the mike) in a peaceful manner sitting in different locations within the temple complex. Calmness has returned and one can sense overall happiness among the devotees. The ban is definitely a blessing in disguise for the devotees of the temple and for us, the Othuvars.”

One’s ‘Life’ is Pledged outside!!
Devotee R. Shiv Kumar, who has been a frequent visitor to Thevaram Sthalams across the state for the last two decades, has an interesting view on the cell phone ban and how it impacts human life “With no phone allowed inside, one has to be mentally prepared to be without it for a few hours. For almost all the guys, their 'life' is pledged outside till they come.”  

A Penalty instead of a Total Ban?
Temple Activist and President of the Temple Worshippers Society TR Ramesh questions the rationale in the perception of mobile phones being a security threat and is unhappy with the ban “The temple should have ensured swift and certain (definite) penalties for usage of mobiles inside inner prakaras and enforced prevention of misuse of mobile phones inside temples instead of a total ban.”

However, Balakumar is of the view that the ban should be implemented strictly “It is a ban that was much needed. If the authorities stick to the rules, it will certainly pave the way for hassle-free darshan. And a certain amount of sanctity, needed in matters of tradition and culture, will be, hopefully, ushered in.” 

More Temples to ban?
Positive enquiries have been pouring in to temple JC Natarajan from other temples including many privately managed temples on the process and system adopted by the temple in relation to the ban.

The possibility of the mobile ringing at an inappropriate moment has been done away with completely at the Meenakshi Amman Temple. There is now a sense of sense of calm prevailing all around the temple. A surprising and an unexpected outcome has been the amount of time that parents are now spending in one on one conversation with their children explaining the rich history of the temple, something that was a rare sight in the years gone by.  

The successful implementation in a high profile and thickly crowded temple such as the Meenakshi Amman temple will serve as precedence for possible replication in other crowded temples across the state. If the feedback in the last few months at this temple is anything to go by, then implementation of and extending the ban to other temples could lead to restoration of peaceful darshan in temples across the state.

(A version of this story featured in The Hindu Friday Review dated 20th July)

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