May 02, 2007


By Lai Kok Fung, BuzzCity CEO

I stood on the banks of the River Ganges – one of the holiest sites for the Hindu religion – watching people throw cremated ashes of loved ones into the river’s holy waters. Religious pilgrims voyage to the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh to bathe in the river, drink its water and visit one or more of the 1500 temples located here in the town of Varanasi.
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world and devotees believe that someone who dies by the river will be freed from the endless cycles of reincarnation.

After a few busy days in Mumbai where we hosted the Mobile Monday, I traveled to Varanasi for some reflections. I’ve always wanted to see the Ganges for myself. It is the city of the Lord Shiva, and the Lord Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon at a nearby town. Over the centuries, the city has produced prominent Indian philosophers, poets and musicians like the sitar player Ravi Shankar, who had such a huge influence on the Beatles. And for anyone who has benefited from an Ayurvedic massage – yes you can thank the people of Varanasi for that as well.

Ways in which modernity and tradition intersect are always interesting, but here on the banks of the Ganges, I really found myself wondering how new technologies – particularly mobile technologies – will change lives.

More than a million people voyage to Varanasi every year, but many more would like to make the trip.

Thanks to the Internet, devotees can now hire someone to make an offering and say prayers for them at a temple. The best-known site for purchasing this service is Saranam, which caters mainly to overseas Indians. For a US$15 per month subscription – or US$39 for offerings on special holidays – someone who lives close to the temple of your choice will perform the rites, including the recitation of special requests that you enter in the online application form. Afterwards, the person who says the prayer will send Saranam a “prasad” from the temple and Saranam will forward it on to you.

(A prasad is like the Hindu equivalent of a wafer at a Catholic mass. Hindus believe the prasad, which is first offered to a deity before being given back to devotees, has the deity’s blessing residing within it. The desire to get Prasad is a major motivation of making pilgrimages and temple visits.)

Amazing. But internet penetration is not nearly as widespread within India as mobile penetration. According to Rajesh Jain , there are approximately 20 million Indians who now access the internet from their own computers. Another 40 million are estimated to use cyber cafés. Compare this with 150 million mobile phone users. An additional 5 – 10 million Indians buy mobile phones every month. To be fair, the consensus at Mobile Monday Mumbai was that there are currently 5 – 10 million active mobile internet users – but this number is growing quickly.

Imagine now for a moment that Indians in southern cities like Chennai, who do not have the means to travel to Varanasi and who do not have easy access to a PC, can connect to a temple, or even a real person (a service provider?) there. Imagine 200 million ordinary Indians empowered by affordable mobile devices dramatically expanding their scope of contacts beyond their current, limited physical space. The impact of mobile internet on this vast, old and yet rapidly modernizing country will be hard to fathom.


It seems to me there are two areas that will drive the uptake of the mobile internet. The first is fantasy. On the traditional internet, the best case for this is Second Life, where users create avatars and virtual worlds. We’re not that far along yet in the mobile internet, but our users still create fantasy lives. In one of our games, for example, users seek virtual spouses.

The second area consists of applications that make life easier. Virtual pujas fall into this category. So does information like bus arrival time, weather information, queue numbers at polyclinics and access to exam results. Due to the limited size of the screen and the highly personal nature of the devices, I believe that successful mobile internet applications will be rather different from the traditional internet.

Moreover, micro-billing is a feature natural to the mobile internet and may cause it to develop quite differently from traditional internet. Prepaid credits on the mobile phones will, for the first time in human history, enable billions of people from the “middle of the pyramid” to transact electronically. We do not yet have clear ideas on the specific sector or sectors that will emerge as killer applications. However, we can be sure that some entrepreneurial individuals here in India and in other parts of the world will figure it out .
One more point that I’d like to make this week before wrapping up is that with more and more mobile users accessing the web for the first time, we need to take actions to protect minors from inappropriate content. You need only look at the recent Richard Gere incident – he created a huge uproar by kissing Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty on the cheek at a public event (a court has even issued a warrant for his arrest) – to see how inappropriate actions can really backfire. We in the mobile space have a responsibility to use our technology to impact positive change, but not to offend social mores. At myGamma, we are taking steps in this direction by monitoring and removing offensive content and offering guidance to youth using our services.

Back at the River Ganges, dusk is turning to night and there are no lights. The town is experiencing a brown-out. I’ve enjoyed my time at the river, but it’s time to go. We need to walk up the ghat, but it’s so dark I can barely make out the narrow valley lane, much less the patches of cow dung. My rickshaw driver has a solution. He turns on his mobile phone and uses it to light the way.

(Note: Varanasi montage courtesy of