Sabarimala: the tragedy and
By P. D. T. Achary
Temple Page |
Hinduism: Bhagavat Gita|
The unprecedented surge in the number of
devotees year after year has created enormous problems in regard to
infrastructure, crowd management, provision of basic facilities, maintaining
hygiene, traffic movement and related issues.
The tragedy that struck Sabarimala pilgrims on Makarasankranti claiming 102
innocent lives, is horrendous in magnitude. The pilgrims returning after a
fulfilling darshan of the jyoti could never have thought that death was awaiting
them on the hillslopes. But any perceptive observer who visits Sabarimala during
the festival season beginning in mid-November and concluding on the day of
Sankranti, would be able to say that this was a tragedy waiting to happen.
No official or unofficial records are available to show when pilgrimage to
Sabarimala started. It always remains a mystery how a temple came to be built in
this most difficult terrain infested with wild animals. There is no human
habitation anywhere near it. In the 1950s and earlier, a pilgrim had to walk
barefoot 65 km through dense forest and trek seven steep hills to reach
Sabarimala. He was always in danger of being attacked by wild animals. So, the
pilgrims moved in large groups and in the night they would camp in the midst of
a dense forest and build huge fires, fire crackers and beat drums to scare away
Trekking through a thorny and stony forest track and climbing steep hills
involving physical suffering is associated with the Sabarimala pilgrimage. The
pilgrims chant, “thorns and sharp stones are like pads on our feet.” The mystic
and rarefied experience of Sabarimala cannot be understood by an observer unless
he goes through it. The collective chants, “Swamiye Saranamayyappa,” coming from
millions of pilgrims, send powerful vibrations all around the hills which are
called the “magnetic hills.” Interestingly, the deity is called “Kantamala Jyoti,”
meaning the sacred light of the magnetic hills. No wonder, Sabarimala, which is
said to be a powerful energy field, attracts tens of millions of devotees. No
other religious centre in the country is visited by such a large number of
pilgrims during one season lasting for just over two months.
The unprecedented surge in the number of devotees year after year has created
enormous problems in regard to infrastructure, crowd management, provision of
basic facilities, maintaining hygiene, traffic movement and related issues.
It is universally accepted that the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the
temple, is not able to fully meet the ever-growing needs of the pilgrimage.
Non-availability of enough land is only one problem. Land is not made available
for expanding the infrastructure because Sabarimala's ecology is fragile and
large-scale construction activities will irreparably damage it. Moreover, it is
part of the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary and therefore there are serious constraints
on development activities near the shrine.
Years ago, this writer took a daring step by taking the Public Accounts
Committee of Parliament headed by Sardar Buta Singh to Sabarimala, that too on
the day of Makarasankranti, when the crowd is at its peak. After surveying the
scene, where millions of devotees were sleeping on the open ground next to one
another in the night, Mr. Singh said he had never seen anything of this nature
in his life. He said he couldn't imagine that people could endure hardships with
such peace and sense of fulfilment. He promised to do everything possible to
bring about minimum development in Sabarimala. Incidentally, this was the first
time a Parliamentary Committee ever visited the shrine.
Sabarimala, visited by crores of pilgrims, lacks basic amenities. Devotees
standing in the queue for 15-20 hours for darshan do not have facilities for
even answering the call of nature. It is humanly impossible for people to keep
standing for such a long time without food or water and a place to sit or
stretch their weary limbs. Pilgrims include old men and women and children.
Certain minimum arrangements can be made to help them.
Temporary hutments with thatched roof can be put up along the route to provide
them clean drinking water and eatables. Chairs or benches can be provided in
these hutments for them to rest a while after hours of standing. Makeshift
lavatories can be installed behind these hutments. Once the season is over,
these hutments can be dismantled easily. These arrangements will not disturb the
forest or ecology, but will be of immense help to the pilgrims.
A major problem is controlling the flow of devotees who take different
traditional and non-traditional routes. The tragedy took place at Pulmedu, which
is one such route. The media have reported that there were just three or four
policemen and the number of pilgrims who converged at this place when the
tragedy struck was over two lakh. The surge cannot be stopped, but regulation of
the inflow and movement should be possible. Reports about the absence of any
kind of facility to save human lives in an emergency like this are in a way not
surprising, given the general attitude towards the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Since
suffering is thought to be part of the pilgrimage, it suits us to ignore the
basic requirements of a pilgrim centre.
The PAC under Buta Singh recommended that a master plan be prepared for
scientific development of Sabarimala without in any way damaging ecology. In
pursuance of that idea, an expert body was set up to study the problems and
suggest short-term and long-term remedies. The PAC visit generated some momentum
which, however, does not seem to have been sustained.
The Travancore Devaswom Board is doing whatever it can. But it is set in its
traditional ways and, because of its structure and outlook and the peculiar
politics of Kerala, it seems unable to internalise the urgency and the need to
manage problems using modern and scientific methods.
What is required is urgent implementation of the master plan. Individual
initiatives have been taken from time to time to improve things. For example,
Mr. Jayakumar, Additional Chief Secretary of Kerala and well-meaning and
competent officer, took steps to make the trek a little less painful and risky
and maintain hygiene in and around the temple. In fact, after the visit of the
PAC, a number of meetings with officials of the Central and State governments
were held and an expert committee was set up. But no one knows what happened
thereafter. The unseemly sight of pilgrims being roughly and mercilessly pushed
in front of the sanctum sanctorum by policemen preventing them from catching
even a fleeting glimpse of the deity encapsulates the problems of Sabarimala.
The devotees of Lord Ayyappa never protest; they endure all kinds of hardships.
This is the assumption on which Sabarimala has been managed always.
( P. D. T. Achary : The writer is a former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha )
( Courtesy: The Hindu )