New Delhi, August 1: Witnessing temple rituals through live streaming cannot be a substitute for a physical visit to places of worship, the Supreme Court said on Friday, advocating opening of temples, churches and mosques for the public during the Unlock period on special occasions.

A three-judge bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra said that a limited number of devotees can be permitted in temples during the Unlock period provided adequate safety measures and social distancing guidelines are adhered to, Hindustan Times reported.

“E-darshan is no darshan. Can’t you permit darshan by adhering to social distancing? During a total lockdown things are different. But during Unlock period, when other things are functioning, why can’t states manage temples. Temples, churches, mosques should be opened at least on special occasions,” Justice Mishra remarked.

The bench was hearing a plea by Member of Parliament Nishikant Dubey seeking a direction to the state of Jharkhand and the central government to open Baba Baidhyanath Jyotirlinga Temple at Deoghar and Baba Basukinath Temple at Basukinath to the public and to further allow the ‘Shravani Mela’ devotees to offer prayers during Hindi months of ‘Shravan and Bhado’.

The Jharkhand government had opposed the plea citing the Covid-19 threat and the fact that it would be streaming the temple rituals online.

The apex court eventually did not pass any direction instead asking the Jharkhand government to explore the possibility of allowing at least a few devotees to visit the temple every day.

“While we are not issuing any direction, we request the state government to find out the possibility and work out a mechanism for allowing darshan (of the temple deity) to the public. This shall apply to churches and mosques as well. Let efforts be made by the state government in this direction,” the court said.

The Baidyanath temple assumes special significance during the festival of Shravani Mela which falls during July- August when devotees throng the temple carrying water from the river Ganga to offer it to the deity at Baidyanath temple.

Dubey, who represents the Godda constituency of Jharkhand in the Lok Sabha, had initially approached the Jharkhand high court seeking permission to open the two temples for devotees citing similar intervention by the Supreme Court in the Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra in June.

The high court, however, dismissed his plea on July 3 stating that allowing public to congregate for the festival could seriously impact the Covid-19 situation in the state.

“No such direction for Shravani Mela will be appropriate to be passed taking into consideration the spread of threat of Covid-19 virus which according to us, if allowed, may cause great danger of widespread of infection of the virus,” the high court said. Dubey then approached the Supreme Court on July 8.

During the hearing on Friday, senior counsel Salman Khurshid and additional advocate general Tapesh Kumar Singh, appearing for Jharkhand, told the court that the state has arranged for online darshan of the temple and argued against opening the temple to for the people.

“The state is going through the Covid-19 crisis. Serum testing is happening now and depending on the results, lockdown might be imposed,” Khurshid said.

Tapesh Kumar Singh said that the lanes leading up to the temple are very narrow and it might not be possible to ensure social distancing between people if the temple is thrown open to devotees.

The bench, however, said that the state should have made an effort to allow at least a few hundred devotees on a daily basis.

“Is it the same for churches, mosques. It is Eid, are mosques open? Why can’t it be permitted adhering to social distancing,” Justice Mishra asked Khurshid. “No, it will become difficult with overcrowding,” Khurshid replied.

The petitioner’s counsel, Samir Malik pointed out that though the Baidyanath temple is not open to public around 30,000 pandas (pilgrimage priests) are allowed inside the temple.

The state government said that only a limited number of pandas are allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple though there is no restriction on them in the temple premises.

“We are alarmed by this,” the court noted while ordering the state to make arrangements to avoid entry of large number of pandas so as to avert a spurt in Covid-19 cases.

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