A festive fervor is sweeping across India, from Durga puja in the east to Navratri in the west, both worshipping the Hindu goddess Durga. There are colorful Durga puja pandals (temporary structures) in neighborhoods and late night Navratri dandi dances on the streets. And south Indians are thronging to temples of Saraswathi and Lakshmi. The week-long festivity culminates in the goddess slaying a demon on Vijaydashami or Dussehra, which falls on October 11 this year. This will be followed 18 days later by the festival of lights, Diwali.
Religious occasions are a cultural extravaganza in India, where community, drama, and festival cuisine are as much a draw as the gods and goddesses. It’s also a time for shopping, gifting, and refurbishing.
We’re used to seeing ecommerce sites rolling out festival sales during this time, much like the Christmas shopping season in the US or Singles’ Day in China. Amazon and local rival Flipkart both claimed over 15 million units were sold in their five-day special sales before Dussehra, and an even bigger sale can be expected before Diwali. Xiaomi claimed to have sold half a million phones in three days.
Niche shopping sites and on-demand services, especially food delivery, also have deals on offer. But it’s not just the ecommerce and on-demand players cashing in. Religious and spiritual activities in India are a multitude and go on round the year. A range of startups have sprung up to cater to this market estimated to be worth US$40 billion.
OnlinePrasad, for example, delivers prasad (food blessed by gods) from over 50 of the biggest temples around the country. Shubhpuja will send a pundit (priest) and everything else required to conduct a puja (prayer) ritual at home, office, or pandal. There’s also ePuja which conducts pujas online, makes offerings to the gods on behalf of devotees, and finally delivers the prasad from temples to their homes.
To some it may not make sense to do something as personal and spiritual as a communion with god online. But many, including the huge Indian diaspora in the US, Singapore, and other countries, find these online services useful to remain in touch with their temples and religious roots back home. Some even subscribe to monthly deliveries of prasad from temples to make sure they are on the good side of the gods. My parents subscribe to monthly deliveries of holy ash – bhasmam – from the famous temple of Chidambaram, which we apply on our foreheads during prayers.
Bangalore-based event services marketplace Eventosaur has been doing brisk business supplying priests on-demand for pujas in homes and offices. “Depending on their community, people ask for specific priests,” co-founder and CEO Nikhil Jois tells me. For example, Marwadis ask for Rajasthani priests, Marathis need chit-pawan brahmin priests, Konkinis demand goud saraswat pujari, and so on.
Last year, around this time, Nkhil was in a fix when someone asked Eventosaur for a Bengali priest for ashtami pujo at short notice. “I managed to find one through a Rajasthani priest who’s been working with us,” he says. These days, a lot of startups have been using their services for in-house puja when they open a new office. House-warming pujas are also much in demand.
Travel portals like MakeMyTrip have pilgrimage packages for religious tourists traveling to India’s many spiritual destinations. There’s also MyHolyTour which focuses entirely on this segment, with connections to hundreds of religious and spiritual places.
And lastly, there are of course ecommerce sites specializing in puja merchandise, from idols and lamps to incense sticks, prasad, and innumerable other materials needed for the rituals of the many religious sects in India. Pujashoppe is one such marketplace, and inevitably there’s also the Flipkart of the spiritual domain, Shubhkart.
The startup culture of India’s Silicon Valley, Bangalore, may be oriented more towards pubs than pujas. But that doesn’t stop the techies from mixing religion with business to offer prayers on demand.