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The Rediff Special/ A Ganesh Nadar in Chennai
Log onto god, courtesy two friends
April 12, 2007
Mahesh Mohanan and Mervyn Jose, friends and schoolmates from Don Bosco, Chennai, had a lot in common. After schooling, both did their engineering courses, and both worked in a few companies, till they latched onto the infotech revolution sweeping the world in general, and India in particular, as the last millennium drew to a close.
Together, they founded a software developing company. And like many tech entrepreneurs, they were developing e-commerce web sites for their clients in Europe and the United States, when Mohanan's marriage in 1999 changed both their lives, unexpectedly.
After his marriage, Mohanan had to visit a number of temples in neighbouring Kerala. The difficulty of travelling to the many temples in the brief break from work sparked an idea.
Could prayers be offered in temples without actually visiting them, he asked himself. And his entrepreneurial instincts told him the answer would particularly be helpful to the global Indian Diaspora.
When he returned to Chennai, Mohanan discussed the idea with Jose, who was equally enthusiastic. Thus was born saranam.com � a site where you can select the temple where you wish to do a puja, and for a fee have it conducted.
At the site, which claims to be 'the world's first Hindu puja service,' you can select the kind of puja you want performed, you can specify for what -- health, wealth, job, etc -- you can buy religious merchandise like rudraksh beads, get your Vedic astrology charts, and more.
The smart entrepreneurs spread the word about their service by e-mail to their friends who were working abroad. They also printed posters and mailed them to the US to their friends, who had them displayed at Indian stores.
Initially, five temples in and around Chennai were listed on the site. There was one person who went to these temples when there was an order.
The word of mouth created a buzz, and now, the site claims 'thousands of devout Hindus trust and come back to Saranam for their needs.'
There are 156 temples listed where you can have your puja performed. They are planning to add 18 more this month. They have established a network of representatives at the temple towns where they offer their services.
But such an operation could not be borne by just the two of them, so soon Mohanan and Jose approached Chennai's Sanmar Group. The group liked their idea, and a full-fledged company was formed.
There were hurdles. One of the major challenges they faced initially was convincing people that pujas were actually performed. Many temples in South India gave receipts for the pujas, but not all. Most temples in North India do not give receipts. While they could videotape the homams, photography in the sanctum sanctorum of most big temples is prohibited.
Now, there is a prominent link labelled 'Authenticity' on the home page, which explains the service.
Apart from the Mohanan and Jose, the web site has just three full-time employees. Though they have people to perform the pujas, Mohanan sometimes takes part in some homams they conduct.
To advise their clients about pujas and appropriate rituals, they have an expert panel of astrologers and priests.
"We have never thought of expanding to other religions," says Mohanan, "because there is something tangible to send to the customer in every Hindu ritual. This is not the case with other religions."
In the early years, 80 per cent of their customers were non-resident Indians, and 20 percent were people of other nationalities. Now, they say, the trend has reversed -- more than 80 percent of their clients are foreigners.
Though their customers are predominantly from the US, they also have clients in Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, Russia, Japan and the Far East. Archanas at temples and homams top their orders. Prayers for wealth and propagating navagrahas are also popular.
Within India, their service is sought out mostly for astrology and rudraksh beads. Every month they get orders for about 20 astrological charts. They have another 10 clients using their personal astrologer service. The one-hour astro-consulting live Internet chat attracts five to 20 customers a month.
When they get a request for a puja in a temple not on their list, they ask their nearest representative to do it.
About future plans, Mohanan says, "We need to constantly innovate with new services, sprucing up existing ones and do everything to satisfy our customers' demands.
"We have to do this specially because many temples are launching their own web sites. In the immediate future we plan to add more temples to our list and also more services at temples. We will have more subscription services. We are also planning a full-fledged pilgrimage service, but that will take time."
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