Sabarimala sees subdued ‘Makara Vilakku’, cash-strapped temple seeks govt help
The meagre footfall at the temple has drained the plush coffers of the temple and it has asked the government for a bail-out package.
With just 5,000 pilgrims offering prayers on Makara Vilakku, the most auspicious day in the annual pilgrimage season of Sabarimala hill temple in Kerala, the busy festival wore a subdued look as the Covid-19 pandemic took a toll on the country’s largest seasonal pilgrimage. Usually five to six lakh pilgrims throng the hill temple on Makara Vilakku day marking the end of the pilgrimage season, but this time policemen and officials outnumbered pilgrims.
The state government has restricted the number to 5.000 due to Covid-19 and put severe conditions on pilgrims. Though the cash-strapped Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), which runs the temple asked the government to hike the number to 20,000 the government has turned the request down considering the surge of Covid-19 cases.
Once lauded for its Covid-19 control management, the state has turned a virus hotspot since last month. On Thursday, it reported 5,490 new cases with a test positivity rate of 8.11%. The active caseload in the state is 66,503-- now at least one-fourth of the total cases in the country are from Kerala, latest statistics show.
The meagre footfall at the temple has drained the plush coffers of the temple and it has asked the government for a bail-out package. “Our total revenue reduced by 20 per cent when compared to the last few years. We have approached the government for ₹100 crore to tide over the crisis,” said TDB president N Vasu. He said usually Sabarimala revenue was pumped to fund other temples in Travancore region (south Kerala) and low returns have affected even salaries of the employees.
During the last pilgrimage season— November 2019 to January 2020—the total revenue of the temple was ₹263.57 crore. Aravana payasam -- a black kheer made of rice, jaggery, ghee and cardamom-- forms 60 per cent of the temple revenue. But this time it was reduced to 20 per cent and in the last two weeks the revenue was ₹15 crore, said Vasu adding it was less than a single-day revenue during the normal season.
Pilgrims from five south Indian states swarm the temple nestled in the Western Ghats in Pathanamitta district during the annual season and it is often considered the largest seasonal pilgrimage after Mecca. During peak season at least 5 lakh pilgrims trek to the shrine on a day, temple statistics show.
The temple had witnessed unrest in 2018 after the Supreme Court opened its doors for women of all ages-- women of reproductive age are barred at the temple citing the eternal celibate status (naishtika brahmachari) of the deity, Lord Ayyappa. A larger bench of the SC is hearing the case now.
Pilgrimage to the temple is unique in many ways-- a secular temple, all are welcome here. There is a small mosque at the hilltop (Vavar Swami, considered a disciple of presiding deity Lord Ayyappa) and devotees will have to pay obeisance there before entering the sanctum sanctorum. A devotee will have to take a 40-day fast abstaining from all worldly affairs and he will be known as ‘Swami’ once he puts the black bead and dress. At the top of the temple there is an inscription in Malayalam ‘Tatvamasi’, which translates “I am you”.