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 December 26, 2000      TIPS to search 1billion Web pages fast!

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Nidhi Taparia

Granted, God is everywhere. Today, however, it's easier to find him online. Sites now offer everything from prayers to virtual offerings, depending on your religion. Live web casts of the namaz at Mecca, Ganpati visarjans at Chowpatty, chats with religious leaders, discussion rooms on the intricacies of the Bhagvad Gita, aarti rooms where you can sing along to Bhajans, you name it, it's out there.

It all boils down to no more excuses for not being able to spend some time with God. Your faith is being put to the test. Saranam.com is one such site. Founded in January 2000, they claim to be in the business of selling authentic Indian heritage, cultural products and services. Devotees can order prasad, or perform pujas in the temple of their choice anywhere in India. Offerings are offered on their behalf from amongst 600 franchises, and are then shipped to their doorstep within seven days.

While initial devotees at the site were NRIs from the US, today they come from places as diverse as Japan and Denmark, says Mahesh Mohanan, founder of Saranam, which now has over 3,000 unique visitors. "Initially we used to get one order in every three days for an online puja, but it has increased to 25-30 on a normal day and around 150-170 during festivals," says Mahesh. Paying your respects to the Almighty, however, doesn't come cheap, at a cost of $9.75 per puja plus free shipping to any part of the world by registered post.

There are many me-too versions. Like ePrarthna.com launched in April 2000, which claims to be the only site offering pujas at over 1300 temples in India. The aim is to add every little temple on the street in India and abroad on its list. CEO, N. Nambi , explains, "As a user, I would rather offer prayers to a small Ganesh temple near my house, which I visited daily, than perform a puja at a big temple I have never visited."

There are added benefits, like an online mall offering books, cassettes, CDs, idols and more, along with virtual pujas, image galleries comprising over 3,000 images of gods, goddesses and temples, daily panchangs, and even a reminder service for those who don't want to miss their daily ritual no matter where they are.

Most Web sites on religion offer similar content and prices. Online Darshan has a facility of being able to find all aartis for different deities, or important shlokas for different occasions. Seva Puja has online remedial prayers along with information on temples and how to get there, minutiae on fasts, epics, and stories in most religions ranging from Hinduism and Buddhism to Jainism and Sikhism.

There are also popular temples that have gone online. Siddhivinayak temple in Mumbai is one. It hosts online forms for ordering a puja and even donating money online through a tie up with ICICI bank. Likewise, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, allows you to book not just prayers in different gurudwaras, but also donate money, get accommodation and subscribe to newsletters. Looking for any religious texts online is simple too. The Bible Gateway has an easy-to-use search engine for finding either keywords or a specific passage in the Bible. Passages from the Koran can be found at the searchable Quran Browser.

Want to understand the intricacies of Buddhism? You could try Buddhanet.net for its beliefs, mediation, books, all covered in a simplistic fashion. IslamiCity has live audio and video broadcasts, a chat, and answers to queries from leading scholars. But the font of all information is Beliefnet.net helps you find answers through chats and informative articles, no matter what your religion is.

Says Mohanan, "Ninety per cent of people come in through word-of-mouth, and there is a large percentage of people who are repeat customers that buy through our site or visit regularly."

Traffic at these sites though, cannot be divided simply into NRI and Indians. Suresh, CEO, Mataji.org which renders free services, narrates the incident of an Israeli visitor who saw the site and came down India for the first time. "Being Jewish, she wasn't allowed to worship idols. But she fell in love with Saibaba and Mataji, and felt that in her last birth she must have been connected with Hinduism. While we have 50 per cent Hindu visitors, some of the others have never been exposed to the religion but have become interested in it."

So, what makes visitors reach out for God online. "There are several reasons. Primarily, convenience. Plus, the fact that our target customers outside India are close-knit people who are very traditional at heart. They love to continue their lifestyle just like they would in India, while enjoying the benefits of being abroad. Essentially, that's what we're trying to sell to them -- a lifestyle," explains Mohanan.

Agrees a devout user, Deepak Baldwa in Medan, who says, "When my daughter was born while we were in Jakarta, the first thing I did was look for the image of Rani Sati Dadi online, pray to her, and even sing the Aarti which I downloaded."

Sitting in front of the screen does not take away from the bhakti, insist most site owners. Says Suresh, "I have received feedback from Chicago devotees that they perform aarti physically in front of the PC where the temple and idol is displayed every Sunday. For those who cannot find any temples close by, this is the perfect boon."

Mohanan agrees, "Among Indians, worship is much more ritualistic. In these rituals, food offered is distributed to devotees as prasad and is believed to have great powers of benediction. Temples are the agencies through which we can offer our gratitude for blessings bestowed on us. Not everyone, especially NRIs, can do a puja and make offerings to God at these temples on a regular basis. That is the need Saranam.com's puja service fulfils."

Religion on the Net also makes for a sensible business model. With numbers to back their claims, Mohanan says, "It is a trend of the future with several advantages over the real world. I foresee at least 40 per cent of connected people using the Internet for religion. We have alliances with close to 40 top Indian sites. In addition, a few select sites outside India catering to the Indian population abroad have also asked us for an alliance. These will ensure that our customers can order a puja from any temple in India from any site, and they can be assured that Saranam is doing it for them."

God does, it would appear, work in mysterious ways.

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