Shortly after Saumya Vardhan returned to India in 2013 from studying in London a friend’s father passed away. Terribly sad yes, but this was to provide crucial insight into how difficult, and elaborate the traditional Hindu 13-day death ceremony actually is. Most of the family lived outside India, and those in India struggled with organizing the rituals that surround the cremation process.
“There’s no pricing schedule,” says Vardhan, “nobody checks the educational background and qualifications of the people who deliver these services.”
Around 80% of India’s population is Hindu – many continue to follow ancient traditions that have evolved little since around 500 BC. These play a huge part in daily life. Families contact priests to perform everything from astrological chart readings for the entire family to rituals for naming children to fixing financial problems, warding off evil spirits, wedding ceremonies, last rites – you name it.
Temple donations, the purchase of offerings, spiritual tourism, payments for ritual services, astrology services, traditional home décor services – the money being spent in India alone easily rockets into the billions of dollars.
A couple of years ago, The Times of India declared that the Indian spiritual and religious market is worth around $30 billion – they remain one of the most cited authorities on this figure; though newer estimates put that figure closer to $40 billion and Vardhan says her calculations place the market value at around $48 billion today.
The figures prompted Vardhan to start up Shubh Puja in late 2013; Shubh, which means ‘auspicious’ and Puja in reference to the act of worship. The platform was created using technology as the intermediary – providing ‘a puja one click away’ experience for users.
Customers from anywhere in the world can schedule and participate in rituals customized for them, in India, through Skype or Facetime. The priests on-the-ground handle everything – bringing the offerings needed for the ceremony and informing a customer of when they need to log in – and what recitations, if any, they should participate with during the ceremonies, which are still conducted in the ancient Sanskrit language.
“It’s a very fragmented industry, which saw no innovation for a long time,” says Vardhan, whose company hires a small full-time staff of priests, but also maintains a wide net of tightly vetted priests, “a lot of people don’t know that the priests have done undergraduate and Masters degrees in these subjects – we have specialists in each field.”
Priests typically specialize in an aspect of the religious practice; some are experts in career astrology, others may have stronger experience with wedding rituals, and so on. Vardhan says by utilizing the individual expertise of priests they are able to provide a better experience for customers participating in the ceremonies.
(Originally appeared in Forbes)