It is so sad to think of pilgrims dying at Sabarimala or on any yatra. The tragedy revives poignant memories of the two trips I made there as a little girl. The traditional route we took was past three vibrant Shaiva temples, Vaikkom, Kaduthuruthy and Ettumanoor. All those years ago, Sabarimala was busy but not teeming. There was space on the jungle path uphill to walk past another person. I was thrilled to bits to be in that hushed, beautiful forest where wild elephants roamed, an unseen but sensed presence.
The high point of my yatra was to break a coconut atop the Padinettu Padi (18 steps) that led to the main shrine, after which it was the regular darshan drill, the way I recall it.
Why would a bone-lazy, utterly anglicized 12-year-old want to climb barefoot with stones and thorns hurting her feet? I haven't a clue, because I can't see myself going on such a difficult pilgrimage today.
Yet people do, lakhs of them, enduring long waits, basic facilities, the sweat and crush of "the roving, gathering, separating millions of India” and the real risk of being trampled to death.
Two views about Indian pilgrims come to mind about this. One weary soul, involved at a senior and therefore head-on-the-block level for the safe conduct of a Kumbh Mela — oh God, what an admin nightmare — said wryly that it was “the Great Unwashed in search of the Great Unseen”. Before you get mad, try dealing with this: one of the biggest admin headaches at such events is apparently mass diahorrea.
The other view was from a well-spoken doctor doing the barefoot thing with the Kavadiyas who annually invade Delhi en route to Haridwar. He said, so unselfconsciously, “I need to do this, to walk patiently and humble myself before God. Urban life does not teach me this perspective.” And of course, lots of us go to honour the rules of mannat, of going in person to thank our chosen deity for wish-fulfillment.
Whatever our reason, do you think it's really about what that coconut means? That when we break one at the deity's feet, we're saying in effect that we crack the hard shell of our earthly ego and approach God with our vulnerable inner self, all defenses down, because that's how it seems to work? If we want to touch base with the Great Unseen, that is?
Renuka Naraynan writes on religion and culture.