Sabarimala: The Sabarimala pilgrimage in Kerala, during which over 100 pilgrims were killed in a stampede early this year, began earlier this month as the sanctum sanctorum of the famed temple was opened.
On the first day of Malayalam month Vrishickam, temple melshanthi N Balamurali opened the doors for the two-month-long pilgrimage season amid shouts of `Swamiye Sharanamayappa`.
The temple, situated on a hilltop, is crowded since its inception and pilgrims mostly from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh stand in queues - each extending to over a kilometre - waiting for their turns.
Situated on the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats at an altitude of 914 metres above sea level, Sabarimala temple is four km uphill from Pamba in Pathanamthitta district.
One of the most famous Hindu pilgrim centres in India, it has earned itself the tag of the `Mecca for Hindus`.
The temple, which bars the entry of women who have attained puberty, is accessible only on foot from Pamba. Even though the temple is now open throughout the year, the peak pilgrimage season begins on the first day of the Malayalam month in November and closes on the first day of the Malayalam month in January.
As many as 100 people were killed in the stampede in January this year when pilgrims were returning after watching the celestial Makara Jyothi light, the most important event of the pilgrimage, from a hillock some 30 km from the Sabarimala.
With tragedy striking last season, this time the number of security personnel has been increased. A new footpath, a new bridge and a slew of other measures have been taken to decongest the route.
Kerala Director General of Police Jacob Punnoose said that for a smoother and less crowded atmosphere, they have set up blocks en route to the temple to avoid any stampede in case of an excessive rush of devotees.
But the long claims made by the authorities are moving far from reality as the procession proceeds towards its conclusion. The arrangements are not up to the mark as pilgrims struggle on ground zero.
Inadequate vehicle parking facility and absence of proper crowd management and sanitation systems have been identified as the major problems faced by pilgrims visiting Pandalam during the annual Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrim season. Pandalam is a main base camp where scores of Ayyappa devotees congregate daily to see the sacred attire, ‘Thiruvabharanam,` at the Pandalam Palace strong room and to offer prayers at the Dharma Sastha Temple.
A good number of pilgrims visit the palace too as part of the Sabarimala pilgrimage. However, the Travancore Devaswom Board or the State government is yet to ensure adequate facilities for the pilgrims at this base camp.
Vehicles parked by the wayside create bottlenecks near the Manikantan Althara junction on the MC Road. Though the Sabarimala Sanitation Society has deployed 25 workers at Pandalam for clean-up, many a devotee was heard complaining about the ‘unhygienic` comfort stations on the banks of the Achencoil river. TDB has two pilgrim shelters attached to the Sastha Temple which can provide dormitory accommodation to 200 pilgrims. The board has auctioned off the right to run the two shelters and 27 toilets at Rs.2.60 lakh for one year.
Though the TDB has fixed Rs.3 as dormitory accommodation charge per person, it is alleged that the contractor charged as much as Rs.50, and even more at times, during the rush days.
The Kerala Tourism Development Corporation had constructed a wayside pilgrim amenity centre on the banks of the Achencoil river at Pandalam, spending Rs.1.35 crore in 2003, primarily to cater to the pilgrims visiting Pandalam. The centre that houses four bedrooms, dormitory, a spacious conference hall, well-equipped kitchen, lounge, 18 toilets and a sprawling courtyard has been leased out to a private party for running a hotel.
Local MLA Chittayam Gopakumar and M Sukumara Pillai, veteran CPI leader and former Kerafed chairman, who had taken the initiative to launch the pilgrim tourism project, said Chief Minister Oommen Chandy should intervene and provide better facilities at the centre.