It’s a bright spring day outside the International Siddhashram Shakti centre in Harrow, London. But inside the prayer room, there is darkness. As devotees come one by one to a Covid-safe worship centre to mark the Hindu festival of Hanuman Jayanthi, there is a sense of gloom, not usually seen at Asian events in the UK.
Dilip Chaubal wears a forlorn expression. His empty eyes, seen above his mask, tell of the grief he has had to endure. “In September 2020, I lost my niece to Covid. Six months later, in April, I lost my nephew. He passed away in Ahmedabad due to a lack of oxygen. My sister-in-law, who lived in Surat in Gujarat, also passed away because of Covid,” Dilip explains. He has also lost a cousin to old age, but because of travel restrictions, he could not visit India to say his goodbyes.
As the second wave ravages India, the diaspora community in London is shocked at what’s going on. A lockdown in the UK has prevented in-person gatherings like these for over three months. But instead of the joy of meeting one another once again, there is an overwhelming sense of loss.
On Sunday alone, 349,691 more cases of the virus were reported in India, and 2,767 lives were lost. India was put on the red list of countries, restricting travel between India and the UK, last week.
Inside the main hall, leading the prayers and chanting the Hanuman Chalisa (Hindu prayer) is His Holiness Shri RajRajeshwar Guruji.
“We’re knocking on the doors of Lord Hanuman (an Indian deity). We’re saying, ‘Please Lord Hanuman, please look after our community, the universe, and (give us) world peace and harmony”, His Holiness explains before beginning the 8-hour ceremony beamed live on religious Indian TV channels.
The prayer room fills up with sounds of chanting, traditional Indian musical instruments and hymns. Lord Hanuman is known for his devotion, resilience and strength.
Muna Chauhan has travelled from the city of Coventry, a journey of around 180 kilometres. “Just by somebody reciting some of our baath or some of our Chalisa, in whatever way or however they feel that they can, I think it makes somebody feel just that little bit better,” she says.
Another devotee, Bhakti Nagavekar, lost her mother in India during the pandemic. She couldn’t be there to mourn her loss. For her, coming to today’s event was a cathartic experience. “I cannot go back to India during this time, so I am trying to do something to make her feel like she is at peace,” she explained.
The British government is now stepping in to offer assistance to India. “We stand side by side with India as a friend and partner during what is a deeply concerning time in the fight against Covid-19” Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced. “Vital medical equipment, including hundreds of oxygen concentrators and ventilators, are now on their way from the UK to India to support efforts to prevent the tragic loss of life from this terrible virus.”
The British government is sending more than 600 pieces of life-saving equipment to India to support its fight against Covid-19.
Back in Harrow, as the British and Indian flags flutter in the wind, many community members felt a sense of calm after visiting the centre. In hushed tones and socially distanced gestures, they bid each other the very best as one batch left so that the next group of devotees could enter the prayer room.
Hanuman Jayanti marks the birth of the god – revered by many Hindus in India and across the world. The Hanuman Chalisa is a collection of devotional hymns sung at religious gatherings in honour of Lord Hanuman.