Thiruvananthapuram, Oct 26 (PTI) Sitting on her father's lap, two-and-half-year old Meenakshi repeated the Saraswathi mantra chanted by the temple priest in the early hours of Monday.
Meenakshi was among several tiny tots who were initiated into the world of letters and knowledge on the auspicious Vijayadasami day in Kerala, by adhering to strict COVID-19 protocols.
The tiny floral-print mask on her face seemed to cause no distraction as her father made her scribble the first letters of life on the platter of rice. Before leaving the premises, she also cleansed her little hands using sanitiser given by the temple authorities.
'In the wake of the pandemic, all rituals were held under strict vigil. Social 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 asked everyone to have all cultural and religious activities like 'vidhyarambham' and 'bomma golu' at home or within the safe clusters with two-three close families.
But, the ceremony was held in major temples, especially those dedicated to Goddess Saraswathy, under strict vigil.
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 social 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 they 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.
In view of the pandemic, a large number of parents preferred to conduct the 'ezhuthiniruth' within the confines of their homes.
State Health Minister K K Shylaja 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 1,332. PTI LGK SS RHL