Come Makaravilakku festival, the holy hillock of Sabarimala turns into a sea of humanity.
Ayyappa devotees from different parts of the country throng the sacred grove of Lord Ayyappa situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the mountain ranges of Western Ghats to witness the sighting of the Makarajyoti, a bright flame and a celestial star that appear on the eastern horizon of the Sabarimala Sannidhanam.
Devotees believe that the Makarajyoti darshan brings them good luck and divine blessings, and the pilgrim turnout to witness the auspicious event has been on the rise every year.
Pilgrims perching on tree tops and camping on the surrounding hills and grasslands even a few days prior to the Makaravilakku day (January 14) is common in Sabarimala.
Almost all roof-tops and the entire Sannidhanam will be packed with devotees with the lone mantra 'Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.'
Selfless devotion, bakti, to the divine is the very soul and spirit of the Ayyappa cult. All are reverently being called 'Ayyappa' or 'Swami' and here in Sabarimala, each and everything belongs to the Lord.
All are equals
There is no caste or creed in Sabarimala and all are equal at the holy hillock, making it the only one of its kind.
The mutual respect among the congregation of pilgrims belonging to diverse cultural backgrounds and different socio-economic strata is a model.
Shedding their egos, pilgrims are found lying on the wayside, footpath and wait in the long-winding queues for hours together, braving the hot sun and the chilling cold, for the holy darshan.
Away from the modern luxuries, they camp in the forests for days together to witness the Makarajyothi.
The Ayyappa idol will be decorated with the Thiruvabharanam, sacred ornaments, brought from the Pandalam Palace in a ceremonial procession, prior to the deeparadhana at the temple.
There will be silence at the holy hillock for a few minutes and first appear the bright star, Makarajyoti, followed by the flickering of a bright flame twice or thrice on the eastern horizon, raising the multitude of pilgrims to a state of divine ecstasy.
The Makarajyoti appears on the eastern horizon as soon as the deeparadhana at the Ayyapa Temple takes place on January 14 evening.
Provision of foolproof facilities to such a mammoth congregation and that too in a place like Sabarimala is, of course, something humanly difficult.
But, commercialisation of the pilgrimage by the allegedly incompetent management comprising political nominees of the successive State Governments for a period of four years often found to have been the bane of Sabarimala development. It is alleged that absence of a professional administrative body committed to the cause of devotees has been leading to crass commercialisation of the Sabarimala pilgrimage, disregarding its disastrous repercussions in society as a whole.
No Government have taken the issue seriously for reasons best known to them.
Lack of commitment
''Lack of social commitment, political will and 'criminal opportunism' on the part of the political leadership have been causing hurdles to Sabarimala development.
Here, both the Left and the Right wing parties and even the so-called Hindu organisations were often found to have been keen on 'fishing in the troubled waters', leaving the hapless pilgrims at the receiving end,'' laments an elderly devotee in a chat with The Hindu in Sabarimala.