The depleted numbers of pilgrims across temples in Kerala is telling, as the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s move to implement the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala order leaves the tourism industry reeling.
Earlier this week, an Ayyappa devotee from Tamil Nadu got into a lift at the Kousthubham rest house in Guruvayur, where he was staying in a room on the second floor. On the lift were an old man, his wife, and another middle-aged man.
As the lift started going up, the 70-something-year-old man asked the devotee: “You have come back from Sabarimala?” The devotee shook his head in affirmation.
“Did you put any money in the hundi (donation box) there?” the old man continued. The devotee again nodded his head to say yes.
“Why did you put money? No one in Kerala is donating money to the temple. We are all angry against the state government for what it is doing in Sabarimala. Please don’t donate any money to temples here. God is not asking for donation from you,” the old man advised as the devotee alighted from the lift on the second floor.
The anger of the Keralite Hindu is evident in Sabarimala. As you trek up the hill to go to the Ayyappa shrine and return, you find very few Keralites coming to visit the abode of Lord Ayyappa.
Visits by pilgrims from other states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu besides North India are also down this time during the peak mandala season, which is on from 16 November 2018 to 20 January 2019, with a break during 28-29 December.
Say, if 10 pilgrims are coming to Sabarimala, there could be four from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, three from Tamil Nadu, two from Karnataka, and the other could either be from Kerala or North India. You can hear most people speaking in Telugu, Tamil, or Kannada. You rarely come across someone speaking Malayalam among the pilgrims.
The reality of the situation is that the crowd is nowhere near the one you see even during off-season, when the Ayyappa temple opens for five days in every month of the Malayalam calendar. Besides, the temple is open for five days during Onam and two days during Swati Tirunal.
“Last year, we were grabbing good returns at this time in the year. Now, you see for yourself, we are driving out flies,” says a cashier at one of the food outlets atop Sabarimala. The outlet has so few pilgrims that you get served whatever you place an order for in no time.
“There is just no crowd this time. People seem to be waiting for things to settle down after the Supreme Court ruling allowing women of all ages to enter the Ayyappa temple. The state government is trying to implement the ruling, but there is stiff resistance all over,” says a vendor who sells ghee containers at Sabarimala.
On 28 September this year, the Supreme Court ruled that women of all ages can enter the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple. Till now, women of reproductive age between 10 and 50 years were not allowed temple entry to protect the deity’s “Naishtika Brahmachari” or eternal bachelor status. The ruling has led to widespread protests across Kerala and the situation has turned grim with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) keen on implementing the ruling.
As a result, the flow of pilgrims to Sabarimala has been affected. The Travancore Devaswom Board has reported a Rs 25 crore fall in its income at Sabarimala from various collections up to now this year.
But the losses that Kerala, its people, and government face are much more and probably run into hundreds of crores. Religious tourism during this period has taken a big hit, thanks to Pinarayi Vijayan’s insistence to go against people’s wishes.
Whether it’s Sabarimala or Ambalapuzha or Mannarasala or Haripad or Kodungallur or Thriprayar or Guruvayur or Thrissur – there are tell-tale signs of what, particularly, Hindus in Kerala think. Almost at all of these places, the unanimous comment is: “It was needless on the part of the government to try and implement the Supreme Court ruling in a hurry. Pinarayi (Vijayan) thonivasam kaanichu (has played mischief).”
“Pilgrims are also not coming to Sabarimala because they are not allowed to stay. At 10 pm, police ask all pilgrims to trek down. This is affecting the flow,” another vendor at Sabarimala said.
A dholi worker from Tenkasi says that during the peak season he gets to carry at least three pilgrims. Now, they get just one. Dholi workers charge Rs 4,500 per head to take pilgrims up the hill and bring them back. That gives each of the four workers Rs 1,125. He had come on 25 November and by the next morning, he had earned just Rs 1,000, an over two-thirds fall in his seasonal income.
Another dholi worker from Idukki says they are finding it tough to find even one pilgrim. “I work in a tea estate in Idukki. I apply for leave and come here during the pilgrim season to earn something extra. This time, I wouldn’t be able to earn much,” he says.
There is minimal flow of pilgrims after 10 am to the temple. “Policemen seem to outnumber pilgrims,” says a vendor in Sabarimala sarcastically. Vendors are concerned over the thin flow of pilgrims since they have all invested huge sums to get their outlets on auction from the Travancore Devaswom Board.
“Of the 1,000 shops on offer at auctions, less than 100 have been taken. Even those have been taken at rates 30 per cent lower that last year,” says a vendor dealing in beverages, biscuits, and soft drinks.
A hotel owner in Kottayam said that since the mandala season began on 16 November, businesses are witnessing huge losses. “Usually, at this time, the son of a medical college founder in Chennai comes with a party of 60 persons. The team comes with its own cook, who has two teams to prepare food here and at Sabarimala.
“Once the team lands here, they are provided breakfast, and lunch is packed and given to them when they head to Sabarimala. Atop the shrine, the team is provided dinner and breakfast next morning before they come here and have lunch.
“Dinner is packed and given to them when they take a train in the evening to Chennai. The team books 35-40 rooms every season. I have lost at least Rs 1 lakh of business in the last two weeks,” the owner said.
Kottayam is facing a situation where the business is dull during peak tourist season, related mostly to religious trips to Sabarimala. “People are not happy with what the LDF government is trying to do and, thus, all of us have been badly hit,” the hotel owner said.
At Ambalapuzha, another hotel and restaurant owner points out that around this time, at least three teams from Mumbai, each comprising around 60 pilgrims, would have come there. The return of 115 pilgrims from Mumbai without having a darshan (view) of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala 10 days ago has sent a wrong signal in Maharashtra, he says.
“Only 15 persons came in a regular team of devotees of 60 persons from Mumbai last week due to the protests and problems. Each team provides me with a business of at least Rs 45,000 a day. All that has been lost,” the hotel-cum-restaurant owner said.
The reduction in the number of pilgrims to Kerala is affecting those who work on daily wages in restaurants and other places. Many of these workers come from places like the Kuttanad area or Haripad, but after taking stock of the situation, almost no one has come.
“I have only three staff workers here. At least six others have not come, knowing well it will be difficult for me to pay them every evening. See, I have to pay for gas and electricity, which are already running. That apart, I need to pay rent and wages. It’s tough to meet all these requirements,” the hotel-cum-restaurant owner said.
Many pilgrims from Tamil Nadu flock to Mannarasala and Haripad before going to or after visiting Sabarimala. At Mannarasala, the Nagarajavu or serpent king temple is usually visited by pilgrims in flocks. The Haripad Sree Subrahmanya Swami Temple is famous as its presiding deity is Lord Murugan. The temple is among the top ones for getting donations from devotees. But both these places are just empty with pilgrim inflow being minimal.
“Pinarayi (Vijayan) gnangalai chathichu (has damaged us). Very few pilgrims are turning up in Kerala this year,” said a temple staff worker at Haripad.
The story of poor pilgrim patronage of Hindu religious places in Kerala continues at Kodungallur, too. “There is just no business this season. Kerala people are determined to teach the state government a lesson. So, they are all not going to Sabarimala at all,” said a tea stall owner.
Views on why people in Kerala are not going to Sabarimala differ from place to place. Some say people aren’t going to Sabarimala in order to register their protest against the LDF government’s decision to implement the Supreme Court ruling. Some say Keralites want to let the government know how they feel.
“People in Kerala are not going because of fear. Police seem to target Keralites at Sabarimala. Look at the 69 persons arrested two weeks ago. Hardly 16 or 17 were Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) workers. Rest were all ordinary ones arrested for no reason,” says a local at Alappuzha.
Even the 89 persons arrested on 25 November reportedly had less than 20 RSS workers. “The point is, if Kerala police sees any Malayali with a sacred thread tied to his/her hand, they think they have some allegiance to RSS or BJP or some Hindu organisation and arrest them,” says a local at Thriprayar.
Guruvayur seems also to be bearing the consequences of the Kerala government in a big way. Bookings at the Guruvayur Devaswom Board rest houses are available on the spot and most shops lack activity.
“Our business is down by 70 per cent this season,” says a tourist operator at Guruvayur. “Please don’t donate any money to the temples. If you feel so compelled, just drop a rupee coin in the hundi. That’s enough for god as he is not demanding any cash from you,” he adds thoughtfully.
Throughout from Sabarimala to Haripad and to Guruvayur, one could watch pilgrims or devotees dropping only one-rupee coins in the hundis. “Things are so bad that it is doubtful if temples will have enough money to pay their staff,” says a shopkeeper near the Thrissur Vadakkumnathan Temple.
Hindus in Kerala seem to have hit the government where it hurts most – finance. Across Kerala, Devaswom boards are seeking donations for anna danams (food given free to pilgrims), particularly for the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple.
“Over here, usually the temple cooks three bags of rice (each 60 kg) every day for anna danams to pilgrims. Now, they cook only one bag and even a good part of it goes waste,” laments a vendor at Ambalapuzha.
The share of tourism in Kerala’s gross domestic product of Rs 7.73 lakh crore is 10 per cent or Rs 77,300 crore. October-January is the peak time for tourism. And it is not just religious tourism that has been affected by the events in the state. Other tourism activities are also now at a low key, going by many idling boat houses in Alappuzha and its surroundings areas.
What effect will the current situation have on Kerala’s finance? What will the LDF government do to offset the losses, particularly when it needs large sums of money to set right the damages caused by floods in August? Questions like this abound, but some clues could be available once the mandala season ends on 20 January 2019.
Last year, the Kerala government earned over Rs 200 crore during the mandala season in Sabarimala alone! This year, we’ll wait and see.
(Pictures: M R Subramani)