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An uphill task

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005

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The forest temple at Sabarimala in Kerala, which attracts more than five crore pilgrims a year from across the country, is ill-equipped to accommodate such huge crowds safely.

in Thiruvananthapuram

THE hills of Sabarimala in south-central Kerala are a sight to behold during the two-month-long pilgrim season at the forest temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, which begins in the middle of November. Over five-crore devotees, mostly men, from all over India throng the temple and the crowd is unmanageable in the days immediately before and after the climactic `Makara Vilakku' - the light that flickers at Ponnambalamedu, a hill about 10 km away, as the doors of the shrine open for the evening pooja on Makara Sankranti, which is usually on January 14.

The fervour of popular Hinduism is in full flow at that moment, with pilgrims milling at every vantage point in and around the shrine, waiting for the "divine light" and raising cries of "Swamiye Saranamayyappa". The light is religiously lit three times by the authorities, under a glowing evening star.

The minute the third flicker of light fades, nightmare begins for the 2,500-strong police force as also the hundreds of volunteers and government employees, who are dwarfed by a sea of humanity inside the woods that form part of the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghats. The police force is deployed in two blocks, one on the premises of the temple and the other at the base camp at Pampa.

The authorities say that it is a miracle that a season ends without a tragedy given the animated rush of pilgrims to or from the shrine, especially after the `Vilakku', during the first five days of every Malayalam month, and on important festivals when the temple is opened for worship.

The 4-km forest path from the base camp up to the shrine has been barricaded and partially laid with skid-resistant concrete over the years, but another treacherous 2.5 km stretch exists where the barricades are weak, where permanent structures are not allowed by the Forest Department, and it would be a precipitous fall for the jam-packed pilgrim `train' should one pilgrim falter on the mist- or rain-drenched terrain.

In addition, nearly 15,000 pilgrims seek to reach the temple every day by different routes through thick forests, after fending for themselves for most part of the journey without facilities or police support.

Once they all reach the vicinity of the temple, they join a queue where pilgrims move in groups rather than in a single file. The police and volunteers regulate the queue by splitting it into blocks with ropes. Pilgrims wait for hours on end, moving from one block to the next when the volunteers lift the ropes, to reach the 18 sacred steps leading up to the temple. Once in the queue, as of now, they have no food, water or toilet facilities.

IN 1998, 53 pilgrims died in a stampede at the Pampa base camp, caused by, among other things, the snapping of a rope and the collapse of the sides of a hillock when some pilgrims perched on a heap of coconuts slipped and fell. Later, a stay wire of an electric post reportedly snapped, causing alarm, and a bus at the hilltop parking lot tilted dangerously under the weight of panicky pilgrims on its roof. All these triggered the stampede or aggravated its consequences.

It could happen again.

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 disturbing the pristine environment. But the increase in the number of pilgrims in the past 15 years is termed `phenomenal' and the temple today is the biggest money-spinner for the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers it. It fetches nearly Rs.40 crores every season.

The challenge at Sabarimala is to provide accommodation and other facilities to this ever-increasing mass of humanity within a Project Tiger wildlife reserve. Because of the constraints imposed by the temple's location, development becomes skewed and is restricted to the building of more concrete structures in and around the temple complex and at Pampa. Of late, pilgrims tend to stay on for days once they climb up to the temple premises, especially in the period immediately before Makara Vilakku.

Ghee is the most important offering to Ayyappa and pilgrims carry on their heads blue or black cloth bags of coconuts filled with ghee as they make their way up. Once they near the 18 steps, they pour the ghee into jars and wait in a long queue for a glimpse of the deity being drenched in ghee. Not one of the nearly five-crore pilgrims would leave without seeing the priests pour the ghee over the idol and without having a share of the prasadam. The broken pieces of coconuts are thrown as offering into a massive fire in front of the sacred steps.

Any of these elements could provide the spark for a catastrophe.

Over the years, several solutions have been suggested for the ills of Sabarimala, but nothing substantial has materialised. One suggestion is for the authorities to ensure that pilgrims do not stay on at or around the shrine and to develop base camps away from Pampa and the temple complex with facilities for parking and accommodation, besides laying roads that would reduce the traffic congestion on the arterial Plappally-Pampa road.

Another recommendation is to extend the pilgrim season, but this proposal has been opposed as being against the "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 festivals of Onam and Vishu although traditionalists frown upon it.

Top police officials told Frontline that there was no alternative to limiting 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 pilgrim centres in North India. The State police anticipate a threefold increase in the number of pilgrims in the next three years, especially from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, and has suggested that as an immediate measure the hill shrine complex requires queue complexes with toilet, canteen and medical facilities. Effective crowd control now takes place only through a well-knit chain of barricades, which at present is in operation only at the entrance to the shrine complex, the shrine and its immediate surroundings and at Pampa during the rush season.

Soon after the 1998 tragedy, the then Director-General of Police had said that there was every possibility of a similar tragedy occurring anywhere in Sabarimala, any time, and that in the existing circumstances "the police are unable to avert it".

Senior police officers maintain that since it is forest land, it is impossible to deploy police personnel at each and every point where a devotee would decide to camp or climb. They claim that for effective crowd control, rather than deploying a minuscule police force in a sea of humanity within a forest the crowd should be made to come to the police. For this, they say, the Devaswom Board must implement crowd control measures similar to those at the Venkateswara temple at Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh and, if necessary, such controls have to be established at all entry points to Sabarimala.

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, such a demand has always been presented in vague terms such as seeking "80 hectares to 160 ha of land", with no firm statement on the need for it or the development activity that is planned.

Tradition demands that a pilgrim has to visit the shrine at least 18 times to become a "guru swamy" or guide to less experienced pilgrims. However, if four decades ago around 50,000 pilgrims, mostly from Kerala, visited the temple on Makara Vilakku day, after a trek through deep jungle for several days, today Sabarimala, with its casteless, unifying theme, attracts over five crore pilgrims, 60 per cent of them from other States, who arrive in buses, jeeps, and cars that are now allowed to be parked only several kilometres away from the Pampa base camp.

Any suggestion to limit the numbers of pilgrims, or to change the traditional methods of worship, including the rituals linked with the neyabhishekam (anointing of the idol with ghee), is met with stiff resistance and immediately gives rise to questions whether the temple authorities or the government can deny a pilgrim his or her right to worship.

A senior police officer who was on duty at the temple this season told Frontline: "Very soon the authorities may have to choose between their need to remain popular and their duty to ensure the safety of the pilgrims. Often the theme of yearly meetings on pilgrim safety is this, `We allowed it last time, let it go this time too'. It is almost as if we are waiting for something tragic to happen."

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