Not just virtual, but reality: how startups are tapping India’s vast religious services market with technology
At the recent Kumbh Mela – a mass pilgrimage lasting over a month in Prayag – Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath inaugurated a virtual reality stall that allowed eager followers to queue up and experience the marvels of the Kumbh through virtual reality (VR).
The experience was just one of the many offerings from Bengaluru-based startup Kalpnik, which is bridging the gap between devotes and their faith by delivering an “immersive and Interactive experience”.
Although pegged at an impressive $30 billion based on various media reports, the religious products and services segment still is highly unorganised, mostly served by small, fragmented players and ripe for disruption though technology.
When we say technology: Think of augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR), image processing, VR-based apps, and OTT streaming – all the tools that Kalpnik is using to deliver as real an experience as possible without being physically present at a venue.
Launched in July 2016, Kalpnik’s team introduced their app, VR Devotee, in January 2018. “The product and business model initially were focused just on VR, which meant the need for a unique VR-enabled app and also the need for good bandwidth at a customer's end,” recounts John Kuruvilla, founding member of VR Devotee, on the early days and how they pivoted their model in the following years. One of the biggest challenges was the bandwidth speed and connectivity, especially in Tier II and Tier III cities.
“Customers told us that while they loved the 3D experience, they also wanted the ability to watch in 2D,” he explains.
Keeping the purpose behind their endeavour in mind, the team decided to flex their strategy, allowing consumers to seamlessly transition between 2D, 3D and VR. The shifting of gears worked. Now VR Devotee covers temples pan India, offers its subscribers a complete package comprising VR headsets (at a nominal price of Rs 250) and a mobile-only subscription plan (Rs 89 per month for 12 months), and even live streams aartis on popular demand.
Founders from (L-R) Apul, Ashwani and John
Faith and spirituality might be the oldest-known practices to mankind, but application of technological tools is new. Born of experience in deep tech and consumer spaces, platforms like VR Devotee is not only carving a niche for itself, but also serving the time-poor generation.
“A recent study has shown that while the Indian millennial is caught up with the hustle bustle of life, their relationship with God continues to be important,” shares John citing an HT-Mars survey, “56 percent of the respondents claimed they pray regularly.”
He is referring to the section that cannot afford the luxury of time and doesn’t find the TV content appealing. A shift to mobile platforms was a natural progression, thus, as John adds: “Close to 80 percent of our followers on Facebook are in the age group 24-35.”
A full spectrum of services
Making things easier for that segment of the population, and others, is Thanjavur-based religious concierge service, 27 Mantraa. The startup allows you to order Hindu religious rituals online, which are performed at specific temples on your behalf. From an archana or a remedial pooja or homam, to arranging for e-prasad delivery and organising spiritual yatras and darshan (viewing) at temples, 27 Mantraa does it all for you with just a few clicks on their website.
One such customer was Ravi Kumar Manikoth from Vadodara. Having been diagnosed with metastatic cancer, Ravi was taking oral chemotherapy tablets. When doctors realised he was not getting any better, they switched him to chemotherapy via IV. The prognosis was grim, and Ravi’s instincts turned him to faith.
He commissioned a Mrityunjaya Homam (a puja done to ensure a long and healthy life) and a Dhanvantari Homam (to help battle chronic illness). “It has been three months, and I am now back to taking tablets,” Ravi told YourStory. His results have shown a marked improvement.
At a time when his family was focused on taking care of him, arranging for pujas that last several hours called for a whole lot of coordination, preparations and arrangements. For them, a service like 27 Mantraa may not be what the doctor ordered but it was what they needed.
27 Mantraa says it is the first religious concierge services provider in India and describes the company as a “holistic platform to fulfil all your religious pursuits”. They have also introduced a ‘gift-a-pooja’ concept, where a customer can request a pooja to be performed in the name of their loved ones.
“Spiritual tourism is a $30 billion market, purely unorganised,” reiterates Ajay, who co-founded 27 Mantraa along with his wife, Aathmika, and Chandrashekar Kupperi, in 2016, adding, “There are only five known players in this field and each one is different from the other.”
Going by those numbers, opportunities for services and businesses to standardise this mostly unorganised sector and in the process, help devotees to achieve their spiritual aspirations, are huge. And like a lot of ecommerce players, they understand the need for going omnichannel.
“We are in the process of launching offline outlets through the franchise model, merchandising products such as hand-crafted pooja mandirs under our own label, 27 Mantraa,” adds Ajay.
A helping hand in times of need
Time poverty, nuclear families, single parents, children migrating abroad – these are the underlying realities that define the lives of urban Indians. When everyday functioning is facilitated by one or the other app, imagine the nightmare in times of crisis, especially when there’s been a death in the family.
In many religions, traditions require conducting elaborate rituals as part of the final rites. That’s where the team of Mokshshil comes in. A brainchild of Abhijeet Singh and Bilva Desai Singh from Ahmedabad, the startup provides end-to-end funeral management services with authentic rituals performed by well-versed priests.
“In the beginning it was very difficult for Mokshshil to sustain as people demoralised the idea, and we had to face negative reaction because it’s basically related to death,” Bilva tells YourStory. But having initiated a perfect marriage between technology and the growing needs complemented by lifestyle changes, departure from traditions; Mokshshil is now an essential service for the Tier I and II market.
Founders of Mokshshil: Bilva Desai Singh and Abhijeet Singh
God's own startups?
Religion and spirituality has long been an omnipresent force, even before smartphones and AR/VR invaded our homes. And with the technological uprising, it was just a matter of time before people realised the potential in the practice of faith.
“OTT is predicted to be a $5 billion market in India alone in the next five years,” points out John. “We believe religion and spirituality is next only to sports (especially cricket) and movies/episode driven entertainment verticals.”
If these services catch on, as promised by the few startups operating in this segment, religious services could be the order of the day. It wouldn’t be surprising then if more players choose to jump on the bandwagon for a share of the pie that is ReligiousTech.
VR Devotee at the Kumbh Mela earlier this year