A couple of days ago, an executive magistrate from Bhuj issued an order rejecting a temple’s request to use loudspeakers during the holy month of Shravan. He said the emanating sound could spread the Covid-19 virus. A revised order was issued 24 hours later granting permission to the temple.
It might be unusual to think about religion through sounds when we are swamped with images of altered practices and rituals, quieted spaces and live-streamed prayer services. But the pandemic’s toll on religious life is understood not merely by way of imageries but also through altered acoustics.
Sound brings us into hallowed locations, offering insights on what people do in particular moments and spaces, from the mundane to the extraordinary. The soundscapes of religion also allow us to think of faith more expansively beyond traditional religious institutions. They make us aware of the diversity of religious communities and their constellations of beliefs, practices and dichotomies.
Sound has been an ameliorating force in South Asia, and in India in particular, where discord among dominant religions and sects has amplified over time. The sacred aural experience cuts across religious, caste, socio-economic and linguistic lines bolstering the perceived sense of unity.
This sense of unity not only intensifies worship and contemplation, but also opens up the space for dialogue between communities and sectarian groups, levelling hierarchical differences.
It isn’t uncommon to find azaan calls to prayer reverberating across Hindu neighbourhoods; temple music accompanied by percussion instruments in Muslim neighbourhoods, or even church choir music in Jewish quarters. This, along with other sacred ambient sounds, fashions the aural universe.
The sense of solidarity has intermittently been broken by demands to ban azaan calls; memos to switch off temple music broadcast through loudspeakers; or even appeals to Sikh priests to curtail auditory transmission outside gurdwaras. But overall, even the most conservative sections have learnt to live with the asymmetries of faith and religious practices by expanding their repertoires.
With the coronavirus pandemic, however, the muezzins’ calls to prayer, sounds of shuffling feet outside mosques;, echoes of whooshing water during ritual ablutions, Gurbani notes wafting from gurdwaras, Sanskrit mantras accompanied by high-pitched ululations, tolling of church bells and choir music have been muted to align with pandemic-induced faith protocols.
Not only that, community life in temple towns and around houses of worship stands vastly altered. Many of the sounds were enmeshed in the religious life around these places—surround-sounds pulsating with vitality, which now sound themselves out through their absence or truncation.
Where are the flower and sweet sellers calling out to customers in their undulating voices? The rhythmic prayers invoking the gods in smaller shrines around houses of worship? The poor huddling together for alms? The cymbals synchronised with bhajans and kirtans? Steam hissing from community kitchens beside gurudwaras? The faithful feeding the pigeons, monkeys, and rats?
Just as acoustics are inseparable from these rituals in specific religious traditions, so too is ritual meaning deeply embedded in these sounds, which transpose them from the commonplace to the sacred. The concentration of sensory experiences heightens the believer’s spiritual awareness.
Acoustics tied to belief systems defined the religious life of communities—mainstream and indigenous—in cities, towns and remote locations across India. But with the pandemic upending faith modalities, these sounds are now being sought to be curated on custom-built digital platforms.
A servitor at Puri’s famed Jagannath Temple rued how the buzz of devotees, mahaprasad being prepared in steaming clay pots, chimes during evening aarti, and the sweltering press of devotees added to the “holiness” of the cavernous temple. Its emptiness now haunts him every day.
In Tiruchirapalli, with local festivals struck off the 2020 calendar, the sound organisers are struggling to recreate acoustics on digital platforms; in Telangana’s Neeladri Temple, monkeys that were used to food from devotees have their ears pricked to stray sounds from passing vehicles.
The coronavirus pandemic has altered the ecosystem around worship and pilgrimage centres.
With the acoustic vacuum, religious leaders and start-ups have not only stepped up to move their services online but are also focusing on the sonic experience. Their live-streamed services are often accompanied by yantras, japas, darshan-viewings, cook-ups, sacred music and other spiritual practices through virtual reality platforms to create a tapestry of sights and sounds.
Believers, too, are sharing their recorded versions of private practices—the setting of mats before prayer, preparation of sacred food, scriptural readings—to build solidarity and connectedness.
Despite these innovations, it’s impossible to recreate the devotional intensity of congregational prayers and songs. Not only do they bind believers, but also evoke a range of moods from wonder and fear to compassion and yearning. Besides, religious centres also serve as gathering places for intensive performances and meditations accessible to diverse communal and linguistic groups.
As the pandemic exacts its toll, some religious centres are recalibrating their faith practices. Mosques are foregoing their daily azaan for awareness campaigns and messages through loudspeakers; mosques and temples have opened their doors to social activists and political leaders to use their public address systems; gurdwaras have replaced their langar with bread and biscuit.
With these altered practices, the auditory experience is bound to change. It will be interesting to see how technology keeps up with these shifts, which may endure or prove to be fleeting. The focus, so far, has mostly been the visual transformation.
(Priyadarshini Sen is an Independent Journalist based in Delhi. She writes for India and US-based media. Views expressed are personal.)