Little children in Kerala were initiated into the world of letters on Monday, Vijayadasami day, as per tradition, but by following the COVID-19 protocol. Meenakshi, a two and a half year old from Kochi, was one of the many kids who took part in the ritual, sitting on her fatherâ€™s lap and repeating the Saraswathi mantra the priest said, all the while wearing a floral pink mask and scribbling the first letters on a platter of rice. Her hands were cleansed with a sanitiser when she left the temple in Ernakulam.
"In the wake of the pandemic, all rituals were held under strict vigil. Physical distancing was maintained in the temple premises," Aneesha, mother of Meenakshi, told PTI after the ceremony at a Saraswathi (Goddess of Learning) temple in Ernakulam district.
"Only a limited number of people were allowed inside at a time. Everyone, including children, parents and priests, wore masks," she said.
Vijayadasami is observed as the day of 'Vidyarambham', the beginning of learning, in the southern state, marking the culmination of the annual Navaratri festival.
As per customs, scholars, writers, teachers, priests and other prominent figures in society make children, usually aged two to three years, write their first letters of learning on the occasion.
They help the tiny tots write "Hari..Sree..." on platters filled with rice or it is scribbled on a child's tongue with a golden ring.
Media houses including television channels and newspapers also used to make elaborate arrangements to mark the day where prominent cultural and literary personalities initiated children into the world of letters.
Children and their parents used to gather in large numbers at temples, schools and cultural centres across the state where arrangements had been made for the 'ezhuthiniruthu' - the initiation ceremony.
But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, authorities had asked everyone to have all cultural and religious activities like 'vidhyarambham' and 'bomma golu' at home or within the safe clusters with two to three close families.
However, the ceremony was held in major temples, especially those dedicated to Goddess Saraswathy, under strict vigil.
In view of the pandemic, a large number of parents preferred to conduct the 'ezhuthiniruth' within the confines of their homes.
Unlike previous years, even the famed Panchikadu Saraswathi Temple in Kottayam and Dakshina Mookambika Temple in Noth Paravur, the shrines where the day is observed with tradition and gaiety, did not witness the usual rush.
Many cultural institutions including Tirur-based Thunchan Memorial Trust and Research Centre, dedicated to Thunchath Ezhuthachan, the father of Malayalam language, skipped the ceremony.
At all major temples, only those registered in advance through their website or mobile app, were permitted for Vidhyarambham this year as part of efforts to limit the number of visitors as per the government directive.
Along with devotional songs, announcements regarding the need to maintain physical distancing and sanitising were made frequently at the shrines while the ceremony was held.
Parents were asked to bring the rice and platter for the ritual considering the virus situation, temple authorities said, adding that these used to be provided at the shrines in previous years.
Also, priests, wearing face masks, only chanted mantras and gave directions to perform the ritual and parents did the initiation ceremony.
State Health Minister K K Shailaja had asked people to avoid overcrowding during the festival. She also asked people to be cautious in using only disinfected gold rings or other such material to write the first letters on the tongues of children.
"Special precautions are required while writing on tongue during 'vidhyarambham'. No such material shall be reused for more than one child," the health department guidelines said.
It also asked the organisers to do symptom screening and not to permit anyone with infection symptoms.
Kerala reported 6,843 fresh COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths on Sunday taking the tally in the state to 3,79,991 and the death toll to 1,333.
(With PTI input)