The COVID-19 guidelines issued by the government of Assam for the Durga Puja has landed the organizers of the upcoming festival in dilemma. Merely four days ahead of the festival, priests of Dhubri district have decided to keep themselves away from the pujas after the government made COVID test mandatory in the state.

“The government wants us to get the test done on the Panchami, which is the first day of Puja. Ideally, these tests should be at least ten days ahead so that if a priest tests positive he gets enough time to get cured and get a negative report to resume puja. Moreover, what about the devotees or revellers who will come to seek the blessings of the goddess. We need to bless them with the ‘teeka’. What if they are positive carriers,” said Deep Bhatta, Secretary of the Regional Brahman Samaj.

Dhubri town hosts around 104 Durga puja and the district organises has around 300. Due to the pandemic and economic slowdown, there has been a 25% drop in the number of Durga puja pandals this time. About 60% of the priest are locals, while the rest come from neighbouring Cooch Behar, Gauripur and adjoining districts.

“If a priest tests positive on the first day of the puja, it will have an impact on his finances in ensuing Lakshmi Puja and Kali Puja, which fall within a fortnight of Durga Puja. Some are also engaged with Chhath Puja. For the majority of the priests, Durga puja is a major source of income for the year and this test can jeopardise this very prospect,” Bhatta added.

The Brahman Samaj of Dhubri on October 16 convened an emergency meeting and decided that if the rules are not amended then priests will refrain from taking part in the Puja.

The Assam government on Saturday urged priests in the state to get themselves tested for COVID-19 before the Durga Puja to ensure that devotees are not infected with the virus. The government has made it mandatory for priests to get tested before the Pujas.

“We have received complaints that priests do not want to get tested but if they do not do so and even if one of them is positive, he will infect so many devotees over four days,” Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said at a press conference.

The Brahman Samaj is likely to meet the Deputy Commissioner of Dhubri on Monday with their concerns and seek a middle path that crease out the fringes of worries.

“The decision by the major section of the priests has put us on the lurch. Though this year it’s a low budget affair, one needs a priest to conduct the religious rituals. We do understand their concerns, but the government has made it crystal clear that there shall be no complacency or leniency on the rules and the district authorities have been briefed duly,” said Uttam Prasad, Deputy Secretary, Durga Puja Coordination Committee in Dhubri.

“If that is a problem, then the priests can be tested before Panchami but they must do it, else the situation may again take a turn for the worse,” Sarma said, adding that his government has directed that all puja pandals must close its gates by 9.30 pm but on some days, the timings of the rituals associated with the Pujas extend beyond that and on such days, it may remain open.

Similar sentiments have been echoed by the priest communities of Jorhat and Gauripur.

“We have asked the authorities to conduct the test couple of days ahead to the puja. On Panchami, the priest begins the rituals and it is not correct to touch him or disturb him during this. The district authorities have agreed to our proposal” said Debajit Bordoloi of Jorhat Durga Puja Organizers Association.

Meanwhile, Sarma has urged that one needs to be very careful during the Durga Puja and follow diligently the set protocols for the occasion so that the declining trend continues.

According to the revised puja guideline of neighbouring Tripura, all the priests along with puja organisers and volunteers will need to undergo Covid-19 tests before Panchami, which falls on October 20. Besides, there might be Covid-19 testing teams at the vicinity of some puja pandals to conduct random tests on the devotees visiting the pandals during the puja.

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