Legends about Sabarimala

Manufactured legends

Print edition : February 01, 2019

Pandalam palace committee leaders circumambulating the Ayyappa shrine as part of the atonement rituals under way at the Sabarimala Sannidhanam, on October 22, 2018. Photo: H. VIBHU

The Pampa river lies polluted. It is the main source of drinking water for people living downstream. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The Sabaramala temple nestled in the biodiversity rich Periyar Tiger Reserve. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The legends about Sabarimala now being presented as history were manufactured by upper-caste worshippers who snatched the shrine from tribal people and lower castes.

Sabarimalais topical today as a contested site of protests after the Supreme Court’s verdict allowing women of all ages entry into the Ayyappa temple there. Amidst debates over issues ranging from violation of fundamental rights to preservation of outmoded beliefs, the temple’s history, heritage, traditional customs, ownership and ritual sanctity, among other things, have acquired a renewed interest.

The temple’s history

Legends of Sabarimala as the seat of Sabari, a woman ascetic who finds mention in the epic Ramayana, and Ayyappa as Manikantha, born to Vishnu, in his female avatar as Mohini, and Siva and consequently deserted in the forest but picked up and fostered by a childless king of the Pandalam royal house, are all relatively recent fabrications based on epic/puranic elements. Originally, the Ayyappa temple site might have been a cult spot of Ayyanar, a tutelary deity of people residing in the forest. As tradition goes, the Pandalam royal family, a collateral offshoot of the Pandyas, migrated from Tenkasi in present-day Tamil Nadu, built the temple somewhere around the 15th century CE, probably to commemorate the legendary prince, fated to be in exile under his step-mother’s ploy to ensure the smooth accession of the subsequently born legitimate heir. He might have lived as a devotee of Ayyanar and died at the cult spot.

An insignificant shrine deep inside the forest, and hence outside the brahmanical tradition, the Ayyappa temple used to be visited in the olden days by people belonging to various tribes such as Malampantaram, Ullatar, Mannan and Narikkuravar, and a few low-caste people settled along the fringes, besides some pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, annually during the Makara Sankramana (January-February). This tradition continued until recent times, accounting for the present claim of tribal heritage of the temple. In mid June 1950, some poachers burnt the shrine and broke the idol of Ayyappa. For about a decade, the shrine remained in ruins, although the pilgrimage continued as usual. A new temple was constructed under the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which was constituted in 1949-50 after the dissolution of the Travancore Royal Devaswom Commission (TRDC). Ever since, there has been a steady rise in the number of pilgrims.

Rise in pilgrim population

The pilgrim traffic rose from a few hundred to several thousands in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, the flow of pilgrims became phenomenal, most of them drawn from the lower middle class of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. In the process, the temple and the pilgrimage, once associated with the tribal peoples and lower castes, became completely overtaken by upper-caste beliefs, institutions, customs and practices.

Corresponding to the increase in the pilgrim population, the number of days of worship at the shrine in a year multiplied. As of now, the temple is open for 133 days in a year, providing a total of 1,431 hours for darshan (viewing). If at a time, 10 devotees are able to get darshan (of the idol in the sanctum sanctorum) every second, the total number of pilgrims having darshan would be just 51,51,600. But the Board estimates that the pilgrim footfall has crossed five crores now, which is indeed a hyperbole. Anyway, the pilgrim population expansion has turned Sabarimala into a veritable pool of wealth and a vigorous site of consumption and exchange. A few crores of rupees and a substantial quantity of gold reach the temple coffers by way of votive offerings and endowments. Today, Sabarimala is not just a pilgrim spot but a major business centre transacting not only items of oblation as priced sacred goods and divine services beyond pricing, but also multiple consumables and paid services.

The women’s entry issue

Actually, there was no age restriction on the entry of women to Sabarimala until the High Court stipulated in 1991 an age range of 10 and 50 to disqualify women, presuming that it would not be possible for them to satisfy the observance of 41 days of penance due to the monthly menstrual cycle. It was also based on the belief that Ayyappa, considered a celibate (Naishtika brahmachari), would not like young women visiting him. Either way, it is ridiculous, for menstruation can be controlled through medication and the celibacy argument, implying Ayyappa’s susceptibility to temptations, is blasphemous. In short, the court’s stipulation has neither ritual sanctity nor scientific justification.

Menstruation was considered auspicious and symbolic of fertility from time immemorial. The attribute of puberty in girls was deified and a girl’s first menstruation was celebrated as the most sacred occasion. This was true of the tribal and lower-caste peoples who had thronged the temple along with their women and children of all age groups until the 1960s. There is archival evidence of the regular entry of upper-caste women into the temple for their children’s ritual initiation into rice/solid food eating. In fact, the 1991 judicial stipulation is proof of the regular entry of women below the age of 50 into the temple. Even after the imposition of age restriction, women have gone on pilgrimage to Sabarimala. It has become an issue only now. Actually, it is the inhospitable terrain and the forest landscape that had discouraged middle-class women from undertaking a pilgrimage to Sabarimala; matters that hardly obsess many today. It is true that upper-caste women abstained from entering holy places during their monthly periods. Several men, who go to Sabarimala as pilgrim tourists, are not even aware of the tradition of observing 41days of penance, and hardly do they take celibacy and consumption of vegetarian food seriously. Many of them follow their own norms: they follow their own dress colour; some wear ochre-hued clothes, some dark blue and some yellow. What tradition permits them to substitute these colours for black? How come traditional observances are binding for women alone? This is blatant discrimination and subjection of women to upper-caste patriarchal intolerance.

Namboothiri tantris considered Sabarimala temple non-traditional in view of its existence in the forest along with inferior deities such as Ayyan and Karuppaswamy, not qualified to be consecrated with ashtabandha (eight ritual bonding elements) and purified through agamic rituals. Agamas do not sanction the construction of a temple in the forest with traditional delimitations (prakaras, or enclosures). The tantris used to mockingly describe Sabarimala as a temple with 18 hills as its boundary (anta-prasada), and wonder whether any tantri initiated in Agamic texts would dare to undertake the responsibility of maintaining its sanctity through rituals. Now, the tantri does what he knows and that is the tradition. A tantri of the same lineage, who was removed for misconduct, had admitted before the High Court his ignorance of traditional rituals.

Traditions change over time through contingent adaptation and reinterpretation. They are reinvented from time to time, but people take inventions for tradition and believe in continuity. It is like a farmer who believes that he uses his great-grandfather’s sickle even though he has changed its handle and metal several times. Sabarimala traditions are no exception to this sociological phenomenon. Most legends and traditions about the Ayyappa temple are fabrications of recent times with stock motifs from the epic and the Purana. Some are bereft of them, as the tradition relating Ayyappa’s close association with his Muslim friend, Vavar. This secular identity and religious symbiosis that the pilgrimage represents are being tainted by upper-caste values of exclusion and differentiation. Some traditions are fabricated out of historical qualms. Some people’s attempt at vainly identifying Ayyappa with Nilakantha, an Avalokiteswara of the Buddhist mythology, is a classic example. Terms such as “dharma sasta” associated with Ayyappa are later-day inclusions, and the practice of chanting sharanam is not Buddhist. For a Buddhist monk, sharanam is a vow or oath taken at the time of joining the Sangha, or monastic order.

Contest for ownership

Multiple claims tend to make Sabarimala a site of contest today. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s September 2018 verdict, various groups have shown a renewed interest in accessing history for staking their claims over the temple. Dalit organisations have put up their stake by asserting the tribal heritage that the upper castes obliterated through systematic intrusion. Pointing out a Malayaraya family’s traditional right to burst fireworks until recent times, the tribe now stakes a strong claim and accuses the upper-caste-controlled Board for their expulsion. Women seek to reinforce their claim by joining the subalterns, by showing that there is a long history of women visiting the temple with their children.

If one recalls historical records, the hollowness of the claim of the Pandalam royal house’s ownership of the temple get exposed. As per a document called the Pandalam Atamanam of 1794 (KE 969, Edavam 23), the royal house had legally alienated the entire forest, including the temple and other establishments, to the Travancore king to clear a huge debt incurred to moneylenders such as Thachil Mathu Tharakan and Muralikrishnadas. Thus, the ownership of the temple reached the TRDC, which was constituted in 1810 by Rani Lakshmi Bai (1810-1815) on Col. Munro’s advice. In 1950, the TRDC became the TDB, the sole custodian of the temple and its property today.

All these contestations converge polemically on two groups: those holding on to the upper-caste rites and those inspired by women’s rights. The Sangh Parivar and the Congress, sensing the opportunity, have plunged into the contest using the first group led by the Nair Service Society which claims equidistance from political parties. All of them claim to be mutually exclusive and opposed to one another, but virtually become one in their rush to fish in troubled waters, and expose themselves shamelessly fighting for the cause of upper-caste beliefs in pollution and gender discrimination. Those led by the government, the ruling party and public intellectuals sought to recall history for the cause of the Supreme Court verdict. At the core, it is contest for state power by the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-Sangh Parivar using caste-Hindu communalism against the religious minority and lower-caste secularism and democracy.

Ecological value overlooked

A constitutionally predestined truth about the temple site, which everybody seems to forget, is its status as an enclave in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR), an ecological hot spot on the world map of biodiversity. Authorities contesting for the precedence of their rights of Sabarimala seldom realise that it is part of the reserve owned and controlled by the Ministry of Environment and Forest. Not only the TDB and the Ministry thereof, but even the High Court sometimes seems to be ignorant of the reserve status of the Sabarimala Sannidhanam.

The TDB, under the pretext of meeting the urgent needs of pilgrims, has been pushing urban development right into the core of the tiger reserve, totally unmindful of the environmental regulations. This development has involved deforestation and diversion of forest land and violation of the Kerala Forest Act, 1961, the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Violations of the court verdict have not been new to Sabarimala and all developmental activities at the Sannidhanam are in defiance of a series of judgments, including those by the Supreme Court. The apex court orders in WP(C) No.202/95, WP(C) 212/2001 and Letter no.F.No.8-70/2005-FC dated October 24, 2005, of the Central government and GO (Rt) 594/05/F7WLD dated October 31, 2005 of the State government and the Supreme Court order I.A.No.1373 in WP (C) No.202 of 1995 banning the diversion of the forestland have been repeatedly violated. In the wake of the TDB’s reckless development plans, the Environment Ministry got a Master Plan prepared by Darshan Shankar (who was then member of the National Board for Wildlife) for sustainable development of the forestland, which was approved by the Supreme Court over a decade ago. The court had ordered the closure and demolition in due course of all guest houses, donated structures and other buildings to provide more space and prevent crowding of pilgrims at the Sannidhanam. It also stipulated that no constructions should come up in the enclave. Yet a number of illegal structures, upsetting the ecosystem of the reserve, have come up.

An assessment of the TDB’s callous and slapdash developmental activities in Sabarimala would reveal how indifferent and disrespectful it is towards the Master Plan, the cardinal value of which rests on environmental carrying capacity and social justice. It is a scientifically prepared sustainable plan demanding decongestion of the Sannidhanam through systematic dispersal of the pilgrim crowd and activities from the core area by opening up several base camps like the one at Nilakkal. This long-term plan has never been given serious consideration, and the interest has always been in crisis management at the Sannidhanam.

There is gross distributive injustice in land use at the Sannidhanam as well as in the leased land. Of the total leased land, 14.6 per cent are privatised for the use of 9.5 per cent of the total pilgrims and 3.4 per cent is extremely privatised for the use of only 0.1 per cent. The granting of permission to build donated houses at the Sannidhanam is not only a major violation of the lease contract but also the most unjust use of public land. VIPs and the upper class appropriate public space for satisfying their needs at the expense of the ordinary people and facilitate privatisation of the public space.

Tiger first

The tiger is central to the Sabarimala temple as part of devotion itself. Pilgrims had been viewing the tiger in the Sabarimala forest as symbolic of Ayyappa. It was believed that those attacked by the tiger were in defiance of the traditional ritual observances. Now pilgrims have become largely tourists, totally indifferent towards the forest and the wildlife ecosystem, which the tiger symbolises. A lot of ecological damage is being done. Not only the pilgrims and the TDB, but also the multiple line departments seldom think about the damage caused to the ecosystem by the hundreds of thousands of footfalls in the forest. Hardly anyone bothers about the crucial issue of water: for a few lakh people living downstream, the Pampa river is the main source of drinking water.

The TDB is cleverly taking the assistance of the High Court through petitions by putting the mounting pilgrim tourists in front to make contingent violations of its own undertakings and the orders of the apex court and the Environment Ministry. In one such petition made in 2009, a high powered committee was ordered to be in charge of the implementation of the Master Plan after dispensing with the apex level committee and working level committee that were already in place. Through this, the representative of the Environment Ministry, who was a member of the apex level committee, got eliminated from the high powered committee. Similarly, the National Board for Wildlife and the Tiger Conservation Authority are also not represented. This has led to undermining the urgency to save the tiger, which is the joint responsibility of the Centre, the State and the tiger reserve management as constitutionally ordained under Article 51 A (g) (“protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife”). In effect, the major stakeholder, the Environment Ministry, is removed from the three stakeholders liable for implementing the Master Plan. State-level bureaucrats decide everything without obtaining technical advice from wildlife officers.

Our bizarre notions and shameful positions on beliefs and customs without knowledge of tradition or science cannot be an excuse for destroying the ecosystem. What a great change it would be if those crying for the purity of the Ayyappa Sannidhanam could surrender the Sannidhanam to the female tiger for every tiger census in the area since 1973 has established the dominant presence of the female tiger, and so it is rightfully her territory that people are violating.

Rajan Gurukkal, a historian and social scientist, is a former Vice Chancellor of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam.

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