Haunted by last season's tragedy which left over 100 pilgrims dead in a stampede, a cautious Kerala government has come up with a new footpath, a bridge and a slew of measures to decongest the route leading to the Sabarimala temple this year. The two-month-long festival season is set to begin early on Thursday at Pullumedu, a hill.
According to state devasom minister VS Sivakumar, a new security manual is in place from this year.
"The state government has accepted the interim report of the Justice Hariharan Commission which enquired into the Pullumedu tragedy and has suggested 30 things that have to be done to make the pilgrimage a safe and pleasurable experience," the minister said.
"Chief minister Oommen Chandy led a discussion in this regard and has directed all concerned to see that the safety of pilgrims is not compromised," said Sivakumar.
Rajagopalan Nair, the President of the Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), the custodian of the temple dedicated to Lord Ayappa, said there will be very few shops and stalls on the trekking path leading to the temple atop the hill this year.
"We have decided to forgo huge revenue that we would have got by not giving a licence for setting up temporary shops at the base camp at Pamba, on the trekking path and at the top of the hill," said Rajagopalan Nair.
"This time, there will be very few shops that would sell just pooja items. We have done this to see that the flow of pilgrims to the top of the hill takes place smoothly and freely," he said.
One major facility for pilgrims this season has been the construction of a Rs 9 million 'Bailey bridge' by the Madras Engineer Group on the diversion road linking the Sannidhanam with Chandranandan Road.
Another new feature is a Rs 13.1 million footpath built by the Police Construction Corporation.
A big sanitation drive was also launched in and around the temple town with over 6,000 volunteers sprucing up the entire place in a week's time.
"We have asked the Andhra Pradesh government to depute around 30 medical professionals to set up a medical facility here and they have agreed," said Sivakumar referring to the fact that a huge number of pilgrims come from the neighbouring state.
As many as 100 people were killed in the stampede that occurred 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 temple.
Situated on the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats at an altitude of 914 metres above sea level, Sabarimala temple is four kilometres uphill from Pamba in Pathanamthitta district.
It is one of the most famous Hindu pilgrim centres in India and 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.
Before setting off to the holy shrine, the more pious ones undertake an intensive 41-day penance in which they do not wear sandals, wear a black dhoti and observe a strict vegetarian diet.
They carry ghee-filled coconuts in a cloth bag which is broken and the golden fluid is ceremoniously poured upon the icon of Lord Ayappa.
When the ghee is released from the coconut and anoints the icon of Lord Ayappa, the essence of the soul of the devotee is said to unite with the essence of god, thus bringing the pilgrimage to its zenith.