Children step in to cover for Indian priest shortage
In a crowded neighbourhood building in the western Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay), 30-odd teenagers are chanting Hindu scriptures and singing religious songs.
These children, along with several hundred others, are training in batches to become priests for the city's biggest religious festival.
The 10-day Ganesh Utsav - when the elephant god is worshipped - begins this month and there are not enough priests available to handle the rush of ceremonies: More than 12,000 in different neighbourhoods, and several thousand private ceremonies in homes.
According to one estimate, there are barely 3,500 priests in the city when it needs at least eight times the number.
So the festival organisers have decided to train 700 young boys and girls this year so that more priests can be made available.'Crash course'
Interestingly, many of the children taking the "crash course" in priesthood are girls.
"I know there will be some hesitation [to hire us] in the beginning because we are so young and then we are girls. But once [the clients] know that we are as good as traditional priests, they will hire us," says a visibly excited 15-year-old Neha.
And Manohar, also 15, says he has "stopped lying" ever since he began attending the classes.
"I am learning to be pious which would help me being accepted by those who need the services of a priest."
Pandit Vishwanath, one of the trainers, is confident that his young charges will be ready to become priests.
"They have been in training for over a month. They will have learnt all the scriptures in time to preside over the ceremonies," he says.
But will the people accept the teenage priests?
The organisers are confident they will.
"If the children learn the scriptures which are available in a condensed form and take their job seriously they will be accepted," says Ganesh Pandey, a veteran priest.
The organisers plan to train more children every year to meet the rising demand for priests.
It is not clear why there is such a severe shortage of priests, but one of the organisers says children of priests are not taking up their father's vocations.
The upshot: the city's biggest festival simply doesn't have enough priests to carry out the ceremonies.
"They get so busy," says Naresh Dahibhavkar, one of the organisers, "that they don't even spend more than five minutes at one place for the ceremonies."