The "Ram Kot Parikrama", an important religious event that marks the start of Ram Navami festivities to be held in Uttar Pradesh's Ayodhya next week, has been suspended amid concern over the novel coronavirus outbreak. The celebration, usually attended by several lakh people, had been scheduled to start on March 24 but has been called off by its organising committee.
"There are many such important parikramas (the act of circling an object of worship) that we organise in Ayodhya. This is one event and was scheduled for March 24, but the coronavirus is a national and international threat. We don't want anyone to get infected here, so we have suspended the event," Mahant Raj Kumar Das, a member of the organising committee told NDTV.
The committee has also appealed to people to not visit the temple at this time and refrain from bathing in the Sarayu River. This in line with an appeal made by UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath on Thursday, asking people not to congregate at religious spots across the state.
However, the Chief Minister's appeal did not mention Ayodhya specifically.
As per data from the Union Health Ministry, Uttar Pradesh is one of the worst-hit by the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak. A total of 23 active cases have been reported, including nine who were discharged after getting treatment. Across the country more than 200 confirmed COVID-19 cases have been reported, with at least four deaths linked to the virus.
State governments have responded by shutting down public spaces like malls, cinema theatres and gyms, temporarily closing educational institutions and encouraging people to work from home.
However, so far there have been no orders from the UP government on either sealing borders of Ayodhya district or shutting down transportation ahead of massive crowds expected in the first two days of April; these are the final days of the Ram Navami festival, when lakhs of people could turn up.
Massive gatherings such as these are exactly what medical experts have repeatedly advised against to contain the spread of this highly infectious virus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a televised address to the country last night, made the same point and urged people to stay away from crowds. However, he too did not specifically mention religious gatherings such as the one expected in Ayodhya next month.
Normally the UP government facilitates Ram Navami gatherings by putting up barricades for crowd control and sanitising bathing spots along the ghats. It also manages crowds at prominent temples.
Sources say such specific orders are likely to be issued in the next 48 hours.
Meanwhile, Yogi Adityanath's government is also pressing on with a plan for the Chief Minister to perform a prayer at Ram Janmabhoomi on the morning of March 25, as the idol of Lord Ram is moved from a makeshift tin structure at the site to a temporary fibre glass structure.
Government sources say this will be a private affair. However, there was no response to a question on how to prevent crowds once the Chief Minister leaves.
Attention around Ayodhya is heightened now because of the Supreme Court verdict in November last year, which saw the top court clear the way for the construction of a temple.
Meanwhile, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a prominent right-wing group that also facilitates passage of pilgrims to Ayodhya during important festivals, says they too will appeal to people to not come in large numbers.
"There is no question of calling anything off at our end. But yes, we will make an appeal to people asking they avoid large gatherings this year," Sharad Sharma, a senior VHP functionary in Ayodhya, said.
The COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the world is believed to have originated in China's Wuhan district in December last year. It has killed over 8,000 people so far and infected over 2 lakh others.