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Are Religious Pilgrimages in India Ready for a VR Upgrade?

crowd in India

Virtual reality (VR) has shifted worship to a whole new domain, making it possible for religious Hindus to pray at the temple of their choice without leaving their homes.

Earlier this year, Devakaran Pushpath experienced one of India’s most cherished and sacred festivals from the comfort of his own home.

The Mahakaal Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest religious gathering and a Hindu pilgrimage of faith attended by millions. It’s held in four locations throughout India: Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayag), Nasik and Ujjain.

“A villager like me will rarely get a chance to travel and stay for an event like the Kumbh Mela, given the expense and the time it takes,” said Pushpath.

Indian child with VR headset
A villager at Ushapur experiencing the VR Darshan of the Mahakaal Kumbh Mela

Instead, Pushpath donned a VR headset and plunged into his personal religious pilgrimage without having to brave crowds that can reach up to millions of people. He said it felt as if he was actually standing in the temple and viewing the Hindu prayer aarthi while the idol towered over him. As he adjusted to the experience, he forgot about the VR headset and became totally immersed in the holy viewing.

A Leap Forward from Gaming

VR has swept through the gaming and immersive entertainment industries in recent years, but it is now permeating new domains. Bloomberg is looking at a VR version of the multiple screens used by traders, while Facebook has announced its idea of incorporating VR into its user experience.

Today, companies such as Twist Mobile, developer of the VR religious space, are exploring other possible uses of this technology based on region or industry-specific needs and interests.

Twist co-founder Virat Khutal, who spent the first 10 years of his life in a remote village, understands the relevance of region-specific VR experiences better than anyone. “Anybody who understands the villagers knows that their use of technological services, such as WhatsApp, is very different,” he said. “There are groups that share a new picture or video of the morning aarthi (prayers) at important temples across India every day.”

It was this intimate knowledge of the villagers’ lifestyles and a deep understanding of technology that gave birth to the idea of VR temple experiences.

The Temple Visitor’s Perspective

While the idea seems like a genius way to use technology to connect people in far-flung regions through religious experiences, what does the temple-going public think of it?

Hong Kong-based forex trader Raghavendran Rajaraman, who has visited many temples all over the world, including the Kumbh Mela in India and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, does not believe a VR religious experience compares to the real thing.

“A huge part of the Kumbh Mela is experiencing it through all five senses. You don’t get this in a VR scenario,” he said. “The smells of people cooking or smoking a chillum (pipe), the different languages swirling around, all make an impression. Also, interacting with people makes you understand the importance of the whole thing from different perspectives.”

Despite his reservations, Rajaraman is interested in trying out the VR tour of the Kumbh Mela. He explained that the Mela runs over the period of a month and each day has a different significance and activity. On his physical visit he was able to experience only about 1 percent of the whole event. Given the massive scale of the Kumbh Mela, he thinks a VR tour may offer a broader visual experience.

Indian man in VR headset
A villager at Ushapur experiencing the VR Darshan of the Mahakaal Kumbh Mela.

Television channels such as Tata Sky are already in the market space, with broadcasts of many religious events, and it may take time to convince the authorities of the value of VR. However, Khutal said the majority of temple authorities have reacted positively to the concept of VR tours.

As temple-goers show a positive interest in religious VR tours, the red tape, prohibitive costs and perceived competition are all hurdles that must be overcome. Considering the immense emotional and historical importance of religious sites in India, the trend of religious worship via VR will be one to watch.

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