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Death on the hills

Print edition : Feb 11, 2011 T+T-

The tragedy at Sabarimala was one that had been waiting to happen.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THE pilgrim congregation around the forest temple at Sabarimala, especially in the climactic Makaravilakku season, offers a unique challenge to the authorities of a phenomenal number of people flocking to an inadequate stretch of a dense, ever-green Project Tiger reserve forest in the Western Ghats within a brief span of time, staying on there and in the jungle tracks near by for an unmanageable while, and then leaving, often in random, unruly torrents.

According to the Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous body that administers the temple, nearly 50 million people visit the shrine during the two-month annual pilgrimage season from mid-November. The Board also often claims that there is a 20 to 30 per cent increase in the numbers every year. The estimate may well be an exaggeration, in tune with the commercial interests that inspire such approximations during temple festivals all over Kerala of late. A more reasonable estimate is nearly 10 million, perhaps, with the crowd certainly growing every year, and the largest numbers flooding the forest areas surrounding the temple on the day of the Makara Sankranti, usually on January 14.

The temple, believed to be of great antiquity, is dedicated to Ayyappa, an indigenous manifestation of Hindu worship in Kerala and venerated by millions as a divinity, a protector from evil and a giver of good fortune. Over the years, especially from the early 1990s, there has been an incredible inflow of pilgrims from the neighbouring States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka devotees who undertake two months of fasting, abstinence, and arduous treks along dangerous forest tracts and, eventually, wait in the tiring, serpentine queues before the holy steps for a glimpse of the idol at the shrine, year after year.

The temple itself is open for worship to people of all faiths irrespective of caste, creed or social status and is often cited as a symbol of religious harmony. However, young women are ritually barred from worshipping or entering the temple dedicated to the celibate hero of the legends, Ayyappa. An alluring aspect of the pilgrimage truly is the association of Ayyappa with forest myths, which are retold in the frequent pictorial depictions on the vehicles of pilgrims that show him as a smiling, handsome young man astride a tiger. The rituals associated with the Ayyappa cult are also widely considered as secular and unifying in their origins. Many consider a visit to a mosque at Erumeli and a church at Arthungal to celebrate Ayyappa's legendary association with an Arab pirate, Vavar, and a Christian, Veluthachan, as indispensable elements in a pilgrim's itinerary.

But despite the multitudes that arrive at the foothills every year, at any given time there is a limit to the number of people who can climb up the 18 narrow steps to the premises of the sanctum sanctorum, a ritual necessity for any devotee visiting the shrine. The longer the wait, the larger the crowds downhill, along the many jungle tracks (a number of them unsupervised), at the congested parking lots, and the three main traffic-jammed pilgrim routes from Nilakkal in south Kerala and Erumeli in the north (both leading to the Pampa base camp) and from Kumily and Vandiperiyar in the east to Uppupaara (and from there, to Sabarimala).

The jostling crowds are virtually unmanageable on Makara Sankranti, the day of the Makaravilakku, when immediately after the evening deeparadhana (worship) at Sabarimala, and under a bright star on a darkening eastern sky, a camphor-yellow glow is seen thrice, in between deliberate dark pauses, near the summit of a hill known as Ponnambalamedu, opposite the temple.

For millions of devotees, especially those arriving from neighbouring States, the glow is a divine miracle and witnessing the Makaravilakku is most gratifying for them after prayers before the idol at the temple. For others, the glow has rather down-to-earth origins. With a State Minister, several former Devaswom Board members, police, forest and Electricity Board officials confessing (some rather indirectly), an awareness is growing, especially within Kerala, that the light is man-made and that it is lit by the authorities in order to continue an ancient tribal custom of offering prayers to Ayyappa from the distant hills of Ponnambalamedu (about 10 km across as the crow flies but over 100 km through an inaccessible, prohibited forest route) after the evening deeparadhana at the temple.

Kantararu Maheswararu, the Tantri, or the temple's chief priest, has since 2008 sought to maintain a distinction between Makaravilakku', which he says is lit at Ponnambalamedu and Makarajyothi', which refers to the star that appears on the eastern sky on the day of the Makara Sankranti, and which has more religious significance. Ramavarma Raja, a representative of the Pandalam royal family (which, according to legend, adopted Ayyappa and whose members therefore have ritualistic importance in the affairs of the Sabarimala temple) said in a television interview on January 20 that the name Makaravilakku' originally only meant the Makara Festival' at the temple, with vilakku' being a common term for festivals in Kerala, and that it had assumed the meaning of the light (being lit) at Ponnambalamedu perhaps only in the past 50 years.

With no official confirmation or denial from the Devaswom Board or the State government, the secrecy surrounding the event had only added to the mystique associated with the Makaravilakku. For years it has continued to be the biggest draw for pilgrims, with millions congregating at Sabarimala and the hills and valleys surrounding it much before January 14, first to worship at the temple and then to catch a glimpse of the glow at Ponnambalamedu (more than the star in the sky) before the mad rush to the vehicles parked below overwhelms police and all other official arrangements meant to ensure a safe return journey for them.

Twelve years ago, on January 14, as many as 53 people, a majority of them from outside Kerala, died in a stampede at the Pamba base camp, caused, among other things, by the snapping of a rope and the collapse of the sides of a hillock (A tragedy at Sabarimala, Frontline, February 12, 1999). The heavy rush of pilgrims for the Makaravilakku had forced many to remain at the Pampa base camp, another spot from where one could have a clear view of Ponnambalamedu. Immediately after the event, as the rush began, some pilgrims perched on a mound of coconuts slipped and fell, one on top of the other, a rope broke and the edges of a hillock collapsed. Later, a stay wire of an electric post reportedly snapped and a bus at the hilltop parking lot careened dangerously under the weight of frightened pilgrims on its roof. Panic ensued, and a stampede claimed 53 lives.

The recent tragedy, the biggest ever, to hit the Sabarimala pilgrimage, therefore, evokes a strong sense of dj vu. As many as 102 Ayyappa devotees, a majority of them from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, died in a stampede at Pulmedu, a stretch of grasslands on the slopes of Uppupaara, and near an elevated roadhead about seven km from the shrine.

The scene of this year's tragedy, and the nearby hills and grassy slopes, though rather inaccessible, is a location from where the Sabarimala temple and the hills of Ponnambalamedu are clearly visible. Satram, a nearby place on pristine forest land, was reportedly among the chosen locations for the ruling family of Travancore to watch the Makaravilakku.

This year, pilgrims, mostly those entering the area through the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border near Kumily, had converged on this grassland gallery three days in advance to witness the Makaravilakku. One reason for their choice could be the severe security and traffic restrictions on the major vehicle/trekking routes to Sabarimala, which at times witnessed traffic holdups extending up to 45 km.

A whole new illegal industry of taxis, jeeps and autorickshaws, allegedly in cahoots with forest and/or police personnel allowing them to ply deep into the forest reserve without restrictions, had sprouted in the locality following the inauguration of the minibus services of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation from Kumily border town three years earlier. In this Makaravilakku season alone, according to one estimate, nearly six lakh people had travelled to the Sabarimala shrine through this unlikely and treacherous route. On the day of the tragedy, reports indicate, nearly 2.5 lakh pilgrims were camping at or near Pulmedu for three or four days.

Despite all this, the authorities had clearly neglected the area, which was away from the more popular routes to the temple. Soon after Makaravilakku at 7-07 p.m. that day, as pilgrims began their descent from Uppupaara, over 2,500 vehicles, including jeeps, cars and autorickshaws on hire, were blocking their way. They were parked right on the dark and narrow track, creating, along with a row of makeshift shops that were allowed to come up there, a bottleneck for the mass of humanity that was flowing downhill. According to initial reports, only a handful of policemen were present there when the stampede began. The stampede was triggered reportedly by a quarrel among vehicle drivers or pilgrims, haphazard parking or a mishap involving a wayward vehicle. There were no lights and no telephone or other communication facilities. Help, when it arrived, proved to be too little, too late. It is obvious that many people died because they did not understand what was happening in the dark. Medical help was unavailable and it took several hours for rescue workers to transport the victims to the small ill-equipped hospitals several kilometres away through traffic snarls.

Lessons not learnt

It has always been a tragedy waiting to happen. In each micro location around the temple, millions congregate where only a few thousands can be accommodated, especially during the Makaravilakku season, when the Devaswom Board's coffers are full with offerings from the devout and the government's treasury brims over with tax collections from various sources all along the pilgrim routes.

(The Devaswom Board is a statutory body that runs 1,208 temples in Kerala and employs over 5,000 people. A major part of the revenue from Sabarimala is used by the Board to run the other temples under it. Its aggregate revenue from the Sabarimala temple during the 2011 season was Rs.131.15 crore, until the day of the Makaravilakku. In 2009-2010, it was Rs.128.48 crore. In 2008-09, the Board's total revenue was Rs.113.23 crore during the two-month season. To give another example, the revenue obtained by the KSRTC from its Pampa-Nilakkal-Pampa chain service alone was Rs.4.55 crore during the period from November 13 to January 19, 2009.)

After the 1999 tragedy, the State government appointed a judicial commission to inquire into its causes and suggest remedial measures. The report and the complete recommendations of the commission are yet to be made public. Several committees, including those appointed by the State Assembly and Parliament, had drawn up proposals for making the Sabarimala pilgrimage safe for pilgrims and the environment. Political rhetoric since then has revolved around implementing the Master Plan for Sabarimala development, a suggestion repeated in every other committee report. However, the actual measures have been half-hearted and implemented in a tardy manner.

To anybody who has ever been to Sabarimala during the seasonal rush, the solution is as evident as the problem itself: limit the number of people visiting the temple at any given time; develop transit camp facilities at various key locations downhill where the devotees can stay in between; and/or stretch the pilgrimage season itself, if possible. Several police officers have spoken to Frontline about the futility of trying to deploy policemen at each and every point in a large forest area where a devotee would decide to camp or climb. Instead, they argue, the pilgrims should be made to come to the police in a controlled manner through modern means such as e-registration or yatra slips, similar to the ones adopted at Tirupati or the Vaishno Devi Temple in Jammu.

A recent trend has made matters worse: devotees tend to stay on for days near the shrine or in the surrounding forests, especially in the days leading up to Makaravilakku. A senior police officer said that pilgrims should not be allowed in areas where secure facilities are not available and that they should be encouraged to leave from the surrounding areas as soon as the darshan' at the temple is over. A majority of Ayyappa devotees coming from outside Kerala consider witnessing the Makaravilakku an essential part of the pilgrimage. The Devaswom Board has a responsibility to create awareness among pilgrims about the truth, especially in the context of the recent stampede in which innocent people from neighbouring States became victims, he said.

On January 20, while considering the reports on the Uppupaara-Pulmedu tragedy filed by various government agencies before it, a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court asked the Devaswom Board to explain the difference between Makarajyothi' and Makaravilakku' and whether the Board considered it a divine phenomenon or not. When counsel for the Board argued that the Board had never claimed it was a divine phenomenon and that it was a matter of faith, the court observed that it was not objecting to the continuance of faith or rituals but was emphasising the right of the people to know the truth about it, especially in the context of the majority of the victims of the recent tragedy being from other States. At the time of writing this report, the Devaswom Board had convened a meeting of all stakeholders to consider what its reply should be.

Several eyewitness accounts from the scene of the tragedy mentioned the unwarranted hurry and irresponsible behaviour of the crowd with devotees running over fellow human beings, which resulted in the death of 102 people in a matter of minutes. The natural impatience and disorderliness of faceless crowds caught in such situations, along with the negligence of the official machinery, acted as a catalyst in the biggest ever tragedy involving pilgrims in Kerala. While discussing steps to prevent such tragedies, it is important to keep in mind that Sabarimala is not just a religious centre where millions congregate but, over the years, has become an ecologically sensitive hot spot crying out against extremely harmful human interventions. The time is ripe to consider: Is it not true that the hill tracts of Sabarimala are already attracting more people than they can bear?