A tragedy at Sabarimala

Print edition : January 30, 1999

The death of 53 persons in a stampede in Sabarimala raises questions of safety at the pilgrim centre in Kerala which attracts millions of Ayyappa devotees every year.

THERE is probably no other event in southern India that better represents the ebullient fervour of popular Hinduism than the congregation at Sabarimala in Kerala during the two-month-long annual pilgrim season, which begins in the middle of November.

Over the years there has been a tremendous increase in the number of pilgrims from the neighbouring States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka visiting the forest temple of Ayyappa, situated in the Western Ghats in south-central Kerala.

According to the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, over five crore pilgrims visited the shrine during the season this year and the number of pilgrims has increased by 30 per cent every year. These estimates may well be on the high side, but a huge crowd witnesses the climactic event of the pilgrim season, the Makara Vilakku, the camphor-yellow glow of light that flickers (usually, thrice) atop Ponnambalamedu, a hill across, as the doors of the shrine open for the evening puja on Makara Sankranti day.

On that day (usually it is January 14), as from a few days before it, every vantage point in and around the shrine and the hills and valleys surrounding it would be teeming with people, clad in spartan black, blue or saffron. They have religiously observed some two months of fasting and abstinence and trekked their way up the hills to have a glimpse of what they believe is divinely lit light. This sight is the next best thing that they expect from the pilgrimage, after a glimpse of the idol at the shrine.

The minute the glow of light ends at Ponnambalamedu (10 km across as the crow flies, but over 100 km through forest terrain), there is a spirited rush to or from the shrine, as engines rev up in serpentine queues in the valley, roads get clogged and the parking lots burst at the Pamba base camp and beyond. The 2,500-strong police force, government employees including employees of the Devaswom Board, and hundreds of volunteers are but specks in this sea of humanity inside the area of the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

On January 14 this year, 53 persons, the majority of them from outside Kerala, died in a stampede at the Pamba base camp caused by, among other things, the collapse of the sides of a hillock. There was an unprecedented flow of pilgrims to Sabarimala this season and those who had already trekked the 4-km hillpath to the shrine would not leave without witnessing the "vilakku". Thousands were hence forced to remain at the base camp, from where one can have a clear view of Ponnamabalamedu.

The hillock at Pampa, a side of which collapsed causing the death of several pilgrims.-RADHAKRISHNAN KUTTOOR

As more and more people flowed in, every building, tree, vehicle, hillock and even the ubiquitous mounds of tender coconuts had people waiting on them for a glimpse of the light. According to eyewitness reports, immediately after the event there was a rush to move on. Soon a rope snapped, the edges of a hillock collapsed and some pilgrims on a mound of coconuts slipped and started falling, one on top of the other. Later, a stay wire of an electric post reportedly snapped and a bus at the hilltop parking lot careened dangerously under the weight of panicky pilgrims on its roof. All these triggered the stampede or made its effects worse. Those who climbed over others and crushed their bodies and limbs found themselves similarly overcome by others. In the darkness after Makara Vilakku, Pamba and later the nearest Government General Hospital at Pattanamthitta witnessed heartrending scenes.

BY any account, the pilgrim complex and the roads leading to it are not in an ideal shape; and a tragedy was waiting to happen. There is a limit to the number of people who can be accommodated on a clearing in the heart of a forest in the high ranges, or the extent of development that can take place there, without further disturbing the pristine environment of a wildlife reserve. But the increase in the number of pilgrims to the shrine in the past 15 years, no doubt encouraged zealously by the Devaswom Board, has been phenomenal.

The collection in the hundi alone this season had crossed Rs.36 crores on the day before Makara Vilakku. More than a week after the event buses carrying Ayyappa devotees from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu formed long queues in front of temples from Thiruvananthapuram in the south of the State to Guruvayoor and beyond in the north. (For the Devaswom Board, the temple at Sabarimala fetches the highest amount of revenue among the hundreds of temples under its administration.)

The challenge the Board faces at Sabarimala boils down to providing accommodation and other facilities to an ever-increasing number of people at a temple located within a Project Tiger reserve. Because of the constraints imposed by the temple's location, development becomes skewed, and restricted to the building of more and more concrete structures in and around the temple complex and at Pamba and carrying out last-minute, temporary maintenance of the roads every year. Making matters worse is a recent trend among pilgrims to stay on for days once they climb up to the shrine, especially in the period immediately before Makara Vilakku.

The coconuts offered as worship, the tonnes of firewood that pilgrims collect from the forest, the camphor and incense sticks they burn, the plastic bags they bring and leave behind, a general tendency among pilgrims to use every available open space to answer the calls of nature, the alarmingly large number of sick donkeys that are left behind after use as load-carriers, the grossly inadequate drinking water supply, garbage disposal and sanitary and health care facilities -- all these make a potent mix that need only a spark to cause a catastrophe.

According to the State Pollution Control Board, pollution of the Pamba river has reached dangerous proportions, with the total coliform count rising up to 94,000 per 100 ml of water (the allowable limit is 500 per 100 ml) during the festival season.

The Pamba is a sacred river for an Ayyappa devotee; a dip in the river is an essential ritual. In the absence of a full-fledged treatment facility, the water from the river is chlorinated and used for supply at the base camp and the temple complex. The hundreds of make-shift restaurants that line the route right up to the temple also use the same water, which they dump, along with garbage, back to the river.

The flow of pilgrims to the hill-top temple being regulated at Marakkoottam on the trekking path in view of the heavy rush.-RADHAKRISHNAN KUTTOOR

Several solutions have been suggested for the ills of Sabarimala. At least two master plans have been prepared, one of them by the Committee on Environment of the State Assembly at its own initiative. But the Devaswom Board has not accepted any of them.

One solution may lie in managing the flow of pilgrims effectively and in planning scientifically for development without affecting the once-pristine forest any further.

Suggestions in this regard include developing base camps with facilities for parking and accommodation away from Pamba and the temple complex and laying alternative roads to reduce the traffic congestion on the arterial Plappally-Pamba road, in addition to providing effective water treatment and sewage disposal facilities.

According to Director General of Police B. S. Sastry, the crowds can be controlled only if the flow is directed through a well-knit chain of barricades. At present, a scientific crowd control mechanism exists only at the entrance to the shrine complex, the shrine and its immediate surroundings.

"There is every possibility of a similar tragedy occurring anywhere in Sabarimala, any time, and in the present circumstances the police are unable to avert it," Sastry told presspersons at Pathanamthitta. He said that since it was forest land, the police could not be deployed at each and every point where a devotee would decide to camp or climb. "To control the crowd the police should not be deployed into a crowd, but the crowd should be made to come to the police," he said. For this, Tirupati-model controls have to be established if necessary right from the points where the major pilgrim routes to Sabarimala begin.

The Devaswom Board authorities claim that their demand for more forest land from the Tiger reserve for purposes of development is years old but has been ignored by the Central Government. However, according to some members of the Assembly Committee, the demand has been couched in vague terms - for 80 or 160 ha of land, with no firm statement on the need for it or the development activity that is planned. "It is no surprise that the demand has not been considered," B. Vijaya Kumar, one of the committee members, told Frontline.

Photographs of victims displayed at the government hospital at Pathanamthitta for identification.-RADHAKRISHNAN KUTTOOR

One immediate remedy may be for the authorities to ensure that pilgrims do not stay on at or around the shrine, or crowd into the Pamba or the temple area unless a similar number of them return after worship.

Another solution may be to extend the pilgrim season, a proposal that is not acceptable as per temple tradition. Sabarimala was at one time open to pilgrims only for two months from mid-November. However, the temple is now opened for poojas during the first five days of every Malayalam month and during the major Kerala festivals of Onam and Vishu although traditionalists frown upon it.

A sure-fire solution, however, will be to limit the number of pilgrims based on a scientific estimation of how many people Sabarimala can accommodate safely at any given time, as is done in some North Indian pilgrim centres.

Significantly, the cult of Ayyappa is a purely indigenous manifestation of Hindu worship in Kerala. The exploits of Ayyappa in the legends associated with the God add to the reasons for his veneration in the State as a protector from evil and as a giver of good fortune. Particularly appealing to a large majority of educated populace who undertake the annual pilgrimage is the secular rituals linked to the pilgrimage - such as a visit to a mosque at Erumeli and a church at Arthungal, because of Ayyappa's legendary association with an Arab pirate, Vavar, and a Christian, Veluthachan. It is these very rituals that have supported the claim that the Ayyappa cult is casteless and unifying in its origin.

However, 30 or 40 years ago only around 50,000 pilgrims, most of them from Kerala, visited the temple on Makara Vilakku day, after a trek through deep jungle for several days. Today 60 per cent of the lakhs of pilgrims who visit the shrine is from other States.

Any suggestion to limit the numbers of these pilgrims will raise the question whether the temple authorities or the Government can deny a pilgrim his right to worship.

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