Pilgrim's progress, a big blow to conservation

A temple in a reserve forest has brought into focus the challenge of regulating pilgrimage while being sensitive to ecology of the hills

March 17, 2015 08:14 am | Updated 08:14 am IST

It used to be called South Kailash with the sanctum sanctorum at a height of 6,000 feet (MSL) and involving a 5.4-km tough trek from the foothills. In winters, the temperature can go sub-zero.

The row over the right of way to the peak from the foothills, where the Arulmigu Vellingiri Andavar Temple, Poondi, is situated in the midst of reserve forests has resurfaced.

The executive officer of the temple run by the Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department has applied to the Forest Department to let five acres (2.02 hecatares) at Andisunai on lease for 30 years. The proposal includes setting up of temporary sheds.

This is to enable the lakhs of devotees visiting the hill temple between February and May every year to rest for a while before climbing up to what is called the Girimalai. According to HR&CE officials, it is a centuries old custom of devotees to visit the hill temple by walk and worship Lord Shiva at the peak of the seventh hill.

It was way back on June 4, 1930, the Chief Conservator of Forests, Chepakkam, Madras had confirmed the right of way to the sanctum sanctorum. In 1970, five acres were allotted at Andisunai on lease for a period of 25 years. Forest and HR&CE officials have not arrived at any agreement to renew the lease, though they held talks now and then.

The Forest Department, in fact, refused to accept a cheque of lease rent (Rs 10,440) for the 2002-04 period. But, the devotees continue to visit the temple.

“It is no longer pilgrimage. It has become a trekking site. There are no restrictions. It is totally unregulated. The HR&CE Department is insensitive to the ecology of the hills,” says K. Kalidas, OSAI, a conservation NGO based in Coimbatore.

Activists rue that it has become a trekking route throughout the year in the name of pilgrimage. Admitting that it was a spiritual spot, they emphasis that visitors should be allowed only during festival days like Chitra Pournami as presence of Nigiri Tahr and Lion Tailed Macaque (LTM) had been recorded in the adjacent hills.

A few years ago, the HR&CE Department organised anna dhanam on the grasslands en route, which was stopped after activists opposed it. “There is a tendency to commercialise it,” Mr. Kalidas said.

Early this year, the Forest Department turned down the proposal by the HR&CE Department for want of details. Now, the HR&CE has applied again, say Forest Department sources affirming that permission would not granted to put up temporary structures.

There is also a proposal to declare Boluvampatti range, where the Vellingiri hills are located, a wildlife sanctuary, say activists, expecting the State forest headquarters to intervene and regulate pilgrimage.

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