Bengaluru: The Ayyappa temple in Kerala’s Sabarimala opened its doors to devotees Saturday, for the first time since it closed down in March, even before the nationwide lockdown was announced. The reopening comes at a time at a time when the state is witnessing a surge in Covid-19 cases.
The first case of Covid-19 in the country was reported from Kerala on 30 January 2020. Although the state initially managed its virus outbreak effectively, since July, its administration has been struggling to contain the spike in cases.
On 10 October, Kerala recorded the highest single-day spike of 11,755 cases.
As of 16 October, Kerala had reported a total of 3,252,12 cases, of which more than 95,000 are active. The death toll as of 16 October is 1,113, while there are 643 hotspots across the state. The state war room data says that on 16 October, 7,283 new positive cases were reported in Kerala.
The government announced its decision to reopen on 28 September. “Sabarimala is the most important pilgrimage centre in our state, but in the wake of the Covid pandemic, it has been decided to hold this year’s Mandala Makaravilakku pilgrimage with a limited number of pilgrims without symbolically reducing any rituals,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told reporters last week.
The Mandala Makaravilakku pilgrimage season in Sabarimala began 16 October and will last until 20 January 2021.
The CM added that the state had also made preparations for the season. “The health department will examine the health aspect of making masks mandatory when devotees climb the mountain. As public bathing in the river cannot be allowed, sprinkler or shower systems will be installed for bathing at Pampa and Erumeli,” he said, adding that “The Thiruvabharanam procession in connection with the Makaravilakku will be conducted in full compliance with the Covid protocols.”
A senior doctor who is part of the Covid management committee said that it is imperative that people follow guidelines or action will be taken against them under the Epidemic Diseases Act & Disaster Management Act. “We have to keep the sentiments of the devotees in mind, but they should also keep the well-being of themselves and their fellow devotees in their minds,” said the doctor, who did not want to be named.
Other health officials told ThePrint that there will be several restrictions in place during the pilgrimage season. In pre-Covid years, anywhere between 50,000 and 1.5 lakh devotees would throng the temple in one day during the season, but now, that number will be capped at 250 per day, and children and those above the age of 60 will not be allowed to be part of the pilgrimage.
“All necessary arrangements and guidelines will be issued by the health department. People also need to take utmost care,” Kerala Health Secretary Rajan Khobragade told ThePrint.
The mechanisms in place to check Covid transmission
A virtual queue system, to be manned by the Kerala Police, has been devised to allow devotees to register their details. Only those who book through this system will be allowed to enter the basecamps at Nilakkal and Pamba at an allotted time slot. A fitness certificate has also been made compulsory to ensure the devotees who are allowed are first to trek to the holy temple. According to government officials on the first day, as many as 246 people booked through the virtual queue system for Saturday.
Between arrival and darshan, devotees will be asked to leave the sanctum and basecamps within 48 hours.
Devotees, particularly those from other states, need to carry a Covid-negative certificate and clear an antigen test at the Kerala health department facility set up at the basecamps on the way up to the hill temple.
Even though the temple doors were opened on Friday, devotees were allowed only on Saturday which was also the first day of the Malayalam month of Thulam.
‘Govt doesn’t want to alienate Hindu vote-bank’
Political opponents and other sections of people in the state, meanwhile, point to various theories about why Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government decided to open the temple despite the spike the Covid cases.
Kerala’s BJP leaders claimed that the decision shows the government does not want to “alienate a section of Hindus”. Local civic activists also pointed out that the government could have been compelled by financial reasons, too, as donations received by the Sabarimala temple help the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which the state controls.
For the government, the Sabarimala shrine is a huge source of revenue to also run the other temples that come under the TDB, whose president N. Vasu said the temple received donations of close to Rs 3 crores in a day during the worship season in 2019. On an average, the cost of running the temple, including payment of salaries, is around Rs 50 crores per month. “We have been faced with a severe cash crunch and need to take steps to ensure employees in the over 1,200 temples the TDB administers are paid their salaries,” he said.
Another reason the government has opened Sabarimala and allowed the pilgrimage to take place, political opponents said, could be the 2018 agitation that it witnessed following the Supreme Court’s decision allowing women of menstrual age into the shrine.
The SC ruling went against the centuries-old custom of prohibiting menstruating women to enter the Sabarimala temple. The government had decided to implement the decision, but faced severe backlash, with protests and a number of groups threatening to prevent women from entering the shrine.
“This is another reason why the CPM government did not take such a risk. They don’t want to alienate their own (Hindu) vote-bank that had opposed its 2018 decision,” said a senior Kerala BJP leader.
The Congress did not want to comment on the re-opening of the temple. But social and religious activist Rahul Easwar, the grandson of Kandararu Maheshwararu who was the seniormost priest of the Sabarimala temple and heads the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, welcomed the government’s decision, and spoke about the financial importance of the pilgrimage.
According to him, during this season, Sabarimala gets close to three crore devotees. He said the shrine was one of the first temples in the country to decide to remain shut during the pandemic. “Having said this, a balance needs to be struck as the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the Sabarimala temple, has 1,248 temples under its wing,” Easwar said. “It funds 1,100 temples and the revenue from the Sabarimala Temple alone is Rs 155 crore annually.”
He added: “This is a spiritual and cultural season. We have to strike a balance between spiritual belief and maintaining strict Covid-19 protocols. Devotees from other states who travel to Sabarimala during this season are encouraged not to violate any of the protocols.”
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