What’s the experience now of visiting the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala? Swarajya’s Executive Editor went down there and saw for himself. Here’s his report:
For a person who has gone to Sabarimala quite a few times, the change is evident from the moment one enters Chennai Central railway station. Devotees heading to Sabarimala are on the platform on which the Chennai-Thiruvananthapuram superfast express awaits departure.
The crowd for the mandala season at Sabarimala seems less than what one normally sees during off-season pilgrimage when the Ayyappa temple opens for the first five days of every Malayalam calendar month besides five days for Onam and two days for Swati Thirunal. The stark reality of the Pinarayi Vijayan government in Kerala trying to implement the Supreme Court ruling, permitting women of reproductive age to also enter the Sabarimala temple, dawns on you when you board off the train at Kottayam as you see fewer devotees than before. Even those heading to Chengannur, from where most find it convenient to reach Pamba, are less.
The sharana ghosams either onboard the train or at the stations are at a low key. The parking lots for vehicles at Kottayam lack the usual bustle.
For one who fears of having to put up with a huge crowd during the peak mandala season, the lack of activity is rather stunning. The mandala season is on from 16 November 2018 to 20 January 2019 with a three-day break during 28-29 December.
As the transport vehicle starts rolling towards Nilakkal, you aren't sure what is in store. The travel looks smooth, though you notice unusual police patrolling for the entire route. Reflectors on overcoats worn by police give away their presence amidst thick fog that makes visibility a problem beyond 10 metres.
As the vehicle nears Pathanamthitta, one can feel the heavy presence of the police. One patrol stops the vehicle, asks the driver where the vehicle is heading, notes the registration number, and then takes the driver's mobile number.
Any outsider would be left wondering if there is any serious security issue with the region. And as the vehicle enters Nilakkal, it is stopped by some aggressively waving persons who collect parking charges for the vehicle. Even when vehicles were allowed up to Pamba, such parking fee-collecting personnel were aggressive, but these young men in their twenties are a little more menacing.
As you proceed further, a policeman stops the vehicle, hands out a parking pass, and orders the driver on how to proceed. And once you get down from your vehicle and get ready to travel to Pamba in a Kerala State Transport Corporation (KSRTC) bus, your real ordeal just begins.
As you tread to the KSRTC bus station at Nilakkal, you find some buses full and others coming in. When buses come in, the waiting devotees remind you of an onrushing cattle. No efforts have been made to have a proper queue that will ensure smooth boarding on the bus.
On approaching one of the KSRTC employees for a ticket, I’m told, “inside the bus”. As you get into a bus, you find that you have only the space to stand.
Each bus has two or three persons collecting the return fare to Pamba. The return fare comes up to Rs 2 per kilometre, which it seems KSRTC is making up here for the losses it incurs for operations in other parts of the state.
Once they think they have collected the fare from all passengers inside the bus, they give way to two ticket checking inspectors. The checking inspectors try to tally the tickets with the passengers inside the bus. There seems to be some miscalculation now, so they start counting the heads again before satisfying themselves that all have bought tickets, and allow the driver to start the 20 km journey to Pamba.
The journey for a standee in the bus isn't something to write home about. But as the bus negotiates the curves and u-turns, it’s a tough task to maintain the balance during the 45-minute travel.
As the bus nears Pamba, the reality of the damage wrecked by the floods in August this year dawns on you. Pamba River seems to have narrowed, the steps for bathing and the huge hall for pilgrims to rest have all been washed away. The Triveni is more muddier and shallow than before.
On the banks of Pamba, the Kerala government has built some new toilets, but the banks of the river and pathway to the Kannimoola Ganapathy Temple need more attention. As you take a bath in the cold water of Pamba that seems standstill, you also notice closed-circuit television cameras keeping a close watch on you.
After the bath, it is time to go uphill and get ready for more hardships. As you climb up the stairs, you find a metal detector waiting for you to pass through. The policeman manning it gives you a pat-down search top to bottom to ensure you aren't carrying any arms or ammunition.
At the Kannimoola Ganapathy Temple premises, there is a good presence of police, including half a dozen who mark your entry if you had opted for the online facility for a quicker darshan (view). But more painful at the premises is to see some policeman moving with boots or shoes.
As you climb down from the Kannimoola Ganapathy Temple to get ready to go up the Neelimala, you watch a strong posse sitting near the health centre.
Before you start from the Neelimala bottom, you are once against whisked by another policeman after passing through another metal detector.
As you climb your way to the top of Neelimala and then walk your way towards Appachimedu and then touch Sabari peedam before reaching Marakkootam, you see police presence throughout. At Marakkootam, those who have online booking and those haven't are separated. You wonder why you aren’t seeing any pilgrim coming downhill from Neelimala onwards.
As those who haven't got the online booking trek up towards Saramkothy, they realise the advantage of being tech-savvy. The path for those who haven’t got online booking done is rough with stones and pebbles besides having to climb up a little. It is a circuitous route and a little painful before you reach the nada pandal or the corridor that gets you near the foyer that leads to the 18 holy steps.
Before you reach nada pandal, as you take a glass of medicated water from one of the facilities set up by Travancore Devaswom Board, the daily worker there, who has been engaged for 60 days of the mandala season for Rs 400 a day wages, warns you to not shout sharanam ghosham at nada pandal.
“Yesterday (25 November), they arrested 89 persons for raising sharana ghosham. They have clamped Section 144. So, you can’t raise sharana ghosham there,” he alerts.
Once you enter the nada pandal, it reminds you of a heavily guarded fort. Again, you pass through a metal detector, get whisked, and face an unfriendly cop. The nada pandal is bereft of the eateries on the right, and no signs of activity are there on the left where there are rooms to stay.
The walk through the nada pandal before you take the flight of steps to the foyer in front of the 18 steps is a breeze. But before that, at the far end of the nada pandal you go through another metal detector that has always been there.
As you take the flight of steps and come face to face with the 18 steps yards away on the foyer, you find minimal human activity there. A few pilgrims trying to climb the 18 steps are helped by the staff to make things easy.
Before that, as you look to your left, you find police having taken possession of the entire area. As you climb past the 18 steps, you find that no one is allowed near the flag post. And as you go up the ramp and around the temple, heading towards the sanctum sanctorum, you can see the crowd is thin. It is much thinner than what you see even during the off-season.
When you climb down the ramp and head towards the sanctum sanctorum, you can see armed policemen near it as well as near the flag post. “The presence of police near the sanctum sanctorum is hurting. Wonder if you see such things in any other temple,” laments a devotee in the queue.
Once you reach the sanctum sanctorum, you face Lord Ayyappa. But even before you can even think “Swamiyae”, a rough hand from behind pulls you away from the sanctum sanctorum. You think of turning around and telling the guy, “I have come all the way from a far-off place, let me have the darshan for a few more seconds”.
But the fewer people there gives you the hope of going around and getting a second darshan. So, as you make your way to one of the known exits, a policeman quietly waves his hand to tell you the way has been closed.
As you look up for an exit, another cop tells you “way out only through Maligapurathu Amman complex”. So, you head to the nearby complex to offer your prayers to the Amman and then head off to buy a ticket for the ghee abhishekam.
As you look for a place to break the coconuts in which you have bought ghee for Ayyappa, you see ghee spilt at many places by devotees who all seemed to have gathered in a space that seems to shrink by the minute.
At other times, you would check in to your room and break the coconut at leisure with a stone that would be in the corner of a room. But things are different this time and such a facility is not available.
You break the coconut, pour the ghee in a small stainless steel container, get the ghee abhishekam ticket and head up a flight of stairs for the queue again. Another metal detector welcomes you, but thankfully, the queue for ghee abhishekam is almost non-existent. The police at the metal detector is a little discourteous, too, as he even checks the pouch hanging by your hip.
As you head towards the sanctum sanctorum again for the ghee abhishekam, yet another metal detector poses a hurdle. This time as you pass through it, the cop there demands to see what’s inside the stainless steel container. That order to show the container definitely irks you, even as there is no other go.
Then, performing the ghee abhishekam is an easy task, and then again, you rush down and now take the flight of steps that allow devotees to have another darshan without the mandatory irumudi. This time, one is smart to join the queue that takes you to the ramp in front of the sanctum sanctorum and where temple officials usually allow you more time for darshan.
As you climb on to the ramp and have another look, a hand once again reaches to pull you out. Being smarter this time, you shrug off and take a few more seconds to thank Lord Ayyappa for helping you reach his abode.
A look at the watch shows it has been a hectic four hours from the time one left Pamba. After this tiring journey, if you look for a place to sit for a while or even lie down, there is nothing like that within your visibility.
An entry into one of the eateries in which a few pilgrims are having food offers you some time to sit and take rest even as you have your brunch. Someone in a pilgrim group says there are places to sit and take rest, but no one is sure. Nor are there any indications or directions to that place.
After over 45 minutes, it is time to trek down to Pamba and it is not something that you will savour after a good darshan. And it gives you the answer to when you were wondering why there weren’t any pilgrims trekking downhill.
The trek down begins with a walk above the nada pandal and, as you turn towards Saramkothy, you find a lot of dholi workers, who transport pilgrims on the dholi, idling. The trek down till Sabari peedam is smooth before you encounter, which according to us is, the shock.
Near Sabari peedam, police ask you to go through an underpass, which is usually used by vehicles. It reminds one of an early adventure through the pass, ending with a resolve never to use that path again.
But, this time, it is the police who are in charge of the situation and you have no other alternative. This time, you find the trek down more steep and, more importantly, very painful. Yes, painful because small stones in a roughly finished road continuously pierce your feet.
Since the trek downwards on this road is very steep at some places, you feel your feet sting painfully. A few children can be seen asking their elders to lift them, some can be seen limping, and an accompanying relative was almost rendered immobile by the time one reached Pamba.
What makes the trek down more painful and hurting is that you have to descend the same day after you go uphill. Earlier, a pilgrim could walk up the hill during the day, visit the shrine, and take rest in one of the rooms available for the pilgrims.
This time, no room is being made available to pilgrims so as to force everyone to get down the same day. Vendors tell you that no one is allowed to stay on top of Sabarimala after 10 pm, which is in a way forcing pilgrims to trek down within hours of climbing up. This trekking up and down within a day is what hurts and pains devotees, apart from all the scrutiny they have to undergo at the hands of the police.
Once you reach Pamba, you are directed to take a bus from Triveni, but slush welcomes you on the road there. A water tanker is seen continuously sprinkling water on the road, making it difficult to walk on the slush. As you head to the bus stop, the same story of having to rush to get a seat continues.
The bus travel back to Nilakkal doesn’t see any checking inspectors, and so, the departure is brisk.
At Nilakkal, if you miss the place where your vehicle is parked, then you have to trek a long way to find it if the parking space is somewhere near the KSRTC bus stand. Some auto-rickshaw drivers can even demand Rs 50 for a ride that is less than a kilometre long.
Somehow, when one reaches Nilakkal and takes a vehicle back, you find that over nine hours had been spent to go to the Sabarimala temple and return. But having to return the same day after climbing up, that too on a path that is full of stones that pierce your toes, is very painful.
At the end of the day, as you get on to your vehicle to head to the nearest place for shelter at night, you are left numb with an aching leg and burning foot.
Is Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government trying to discourage pilgrims from going to Sabarimala? The pain and hurt could discourage some from going to Sabarimala next time. But this is a suspicion that many have as you interact with people throughout your pilgrimage.
For now, everyone is watching proceedings closely as the Supreme Court gears up to hear the review petitions on 22 January. The apex court’s ruling on the review petitions, probably, hold the key to people’s decision to visit the abode of Lord Ayyappa.
(Pictures: M R Subramani)