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Techies may have answer to Sabarimala, Ayodhya rows — but are temples or mosques ready?

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VR or virtual reality is a technological breakthrough that is allowing devotees to experience Kumbh Mela away from Prayagraj.

New Delhi: Abhishek Gupta, a 34-year-old techie, believes he may have found a solution to the Sabarimala controversy as well as the decades-old Babri masjid-Ram janmabhoomi row.

“Imagine that I am a woman of the menstruating age (10-50 years) or I am physically unable to make the pilgrimage,” he said.

“I put on a virtual reality (VR) headset in the comfort of my home, and I am immediately transported to the holy complex of Sabarimala,” added Gupta, who cofounded a VR startup, GreyKernel, in 2015.

“Everything I see is in 3D and as I would see with my very own eyes,” Gupta said. “Lord Ayyappa’s temple adorned with golden carvings, the inner sanctum where the deity’s statue rests and the priests performing puja surrounded by devotees like me.”

VR is an immersive technology that has revolutionised entertainment: It involves wearing a headset strapped around one’s head and over the eyes, to view chosen content as humans generally see the world — not limited by the boundaries of the phone or TV screens.

It is also motion-sensitive, with the view shifting to the direction in which you move your head. For example, in real life, if you want to see what’s to your left, you look in that direction. In VR, if you turn your head left, the view will shift too, all with the magic of specially-filmed videos and technology.

Making the video itself can be expensive, but VR headsets can be bought for Rs 150-1,500. You can upload a video to your smartphone and then use your VR headset to mimic any experience.

The business of religion

Techies have already spied the vast potential religion has to offer for new innovations: Websites now sell prasad and can be accessed to book pundits for pujas. You can also order Gangajal online and have it delivered to your doorstep.

“The Indian market for religious and spiritual services is huge,” said Dr Apoorv Sharma, cofounder of Venture Catalysts, a Mumbai-based platform for investment and startup incubation. “At least $40 billion a year,” he added.

“This is not about religion. Think of it as catering to a consumer need just like the FMCG sector would.”

Venture Catalysts invested $500,000 (Rs 3.6 crore) last May in a religious service startup called Kalpnik Technologies.

Founded in 2016, the company has a flagship app named ‘VR Devotee’, which offers an experience close to what Gupta described: A virtual tour of temples, among other things.

The VR experience is in high demand, said Sharma.

The app, available on Google Play Store with over 3.5 lakh downloads so far, offers users “live aartis, Gods, Gurus, temples, daily pujas, darshans” with a VR experience for a fee: Rs 299 for three months and Rs 499 for a year. Currently, it’s livestreaming the Kumbh Mela 2019 from Prayagraj.

Ayodhya and mixed reality (MR)

There is, perhaps, nothing Indians are more religious about than religion, with challenges to questionable traditions often seen as an assault on the faithful themselves, and not on orthodox practices.

There was thus little surprise when Kerala erupted in protests last year after the Supreme Court sought to remove a decades-old bar that prevents women of menstruating age from entering the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala temple.

That row remains unsolved, with no solution yet on the biggest temple dispute of them all either.

Decades after it first reached a local Uttar Pradesh court as a property dispute between Hindus and Muslims, there is no clarity on the ownership of the 2.77 acre-plot in Ayodhya where the Babri masjid once stood and which Hindus claim as the birthplace of Lord Ram.

The riots triggered by the demolition of the Babri masjid in 1992 by Hindu fundamentalists remain one of the deadliest episodes in Independent India’s history, and the issue has become an easy tool for politicians looking to excite passions.

Gupta, who claims his company has helped the Indian defence forces with VR combat training fields, said technology could solve the row altogether.

“Imagine I am standing at Ayodhya, where neither a mandir nor a masjid can be built,” he added. “But I can create an ‘immersive mixed reality’ version of both spiritual buildings.”

Mixed reality (MR) is another tech breakthrough that merges the real world with computer-generated images to create a brand new environment. In the case at hand, the virtual structure may be as large as a real-life building, so it can make someone feel like they are standing inside the virtual mandir/masjid.

MR is also experienced through headsets, but these are priced at Rs 31,000 and above.

A user must don the headset, switch it on and wait for an air-gesture-operated virtual menu to appear. Then, they can select the relevant app or content featuring the visualisation of their chosen content.

Gupta said it would be expensive to create a virtual life-size masjid/mandir, but the entire proposition did not seem impossible.

“It might cost about Rs 3 crore to only create the visual content,” he added. “For other support services, it may cost Rs 10 lakh annually at the very least.

“[But] Money isn’t the biggest problem here,” he said. “Look at how much the governments spend on religious events.”

For the ongoing Kumbh Mela, for example, the Uttar Pradesh government had envisaged a budget of over Rs 4,000 crore last year.

“The only problem is perception,” added Gupta. “The government has to take some initiative in this. Small private companies like ours cannot do much. We will only get into trouble with all religions.”

Also read: Sabarimala’s Makara Jyoti today: A day devotees see the ‘light’

Technology to keep followers interested

Yudhistir Govinda Das, the communications director for ISKCON, or the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, in India, said “all this technology can be empowering”.

ISKCON, he added, was all for leveraging technology in the 850 temples and centres it runs worldwide.

Das said the ISKCON headquarters at Mayapur, West Bengal, was currently building a VR experience area, scheduled to be completed by 2021, where visitors can have a palpable experience of Vedic stories.

Among other things, the area will be equipped with tilting chairs to simulate a war chariot from war scenes.

The temple at East Kailash, New Delhi, Das added, planned to animate old paintings of the Ramayana and Mahabharat to create a digital art gallery by 2020, again to “offer a more immersive experience”.

However, he said, far from creating an ‘entertainment zone’ with a wow factor, the goal was to use technology to engage and educate followers.

“If we don’t use technology, how can we get the millennials interested in religion? How many would be interested in religious discourse offered in age-old traditional ways?” he added.

“The mediums to teach may change, but the tenets taught remain the same,” he said.

However, others are not so sure. Rahul Easwar, the grandson of the senior supreme priest of Sabarimala and among the most vocal opponents of women’s entry, said technology was important, pointing out its requirement in creating and digitising land records for Hindu temple complexes.

“More than 95 per cent of India’s temple premises don’t have land deeds — it’s become a problem,” he added.

Sabarimala, Easwar said, embraced technology. “It has its website and online accommodation booking,” he added.

However, he stopped short of approving cameras and VR offerings from within the sanctum sanctorum, which hosts the Lord Ayyappa statue.

“Except filming and cameras inside the inner sanctum, everything else is OK,” he told ThePrint, adding that it would disrupt the “energy equilibrium within the sanctum”.

“Funny idea to have,” said a spokesperson of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a Right-wing outfit that has been at the forefront of the campaign to build a Ram temple at the Ayodhya site. “Who is making these suggestions?” he added, saying he could offer no official comment on the topic of VR in religion.

“At this point, I don’t think there is any technology that can solve this matter,” said advocate M.R. Shamshad, counsel for Iqbal Ansari, a litigant in the Babri masjid case.

For Dr Mufti Mohammad Mukarram, the Shahi Imam of the 17th-century Fatehpuri Masjid in Delhi, VR in religion sounded like a good idea “in theory”.

“It’s good that technology is used to connect more people with religion,” he added.

But show Mufti Mukarram some startups offering virtual pilgrimages (virtual umrah), and he is amused. “How can one do pilgrimage without doing pilgrimage?” he asked.

Also read: 2019 Kumbh Mela is the costliest ever with a budget of Rs 4,200 crore


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