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 animals.

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.

Different routes

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.

(The writer is a former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha)

More In: Open Page | Opinion