Sabarimala pilgrimage begins, Covid-19 free certificate made mandatory
The Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala opened for the two-month-long annual pilgrimage season on Sunday evening. The new head priest took charge on the opening day but pilgrims will be allowed to trek to the hilltop shrine from Monday morning.
There are many restrictions in place for pilgrims in view of Covid-19. Only 1000 pilgrims will be allowed to trek to the shrine in a day and they will have to carry a Covid-19-free certificate, obtained not more than 24 hours before reaching the base camp at Pamba. The health department has opened many kiosks for carrying out antigen tests on the way to Pamba, said the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) which manages the temple.
Pilgrims will also not be allowed to stay at the hilltop and bath in holy river Pamba, said the TDB officials.
Masks are not mandatory for trekking. Earlier, doctors had warned that during the steep trekking, masks will create breathing problems for devotees. Devotees, however, have been asked to maintain strict social distancing during trekking.
The temple was opened last month for monthly Puja with strict restrictions but the flow of devotees was very poor. Though 250 pilgrims were allowed a day, their numbers shrunk considerably forcing the board to approach the government asking them to increase the cap on the number of devotees allowed to visit the temple. The government then agreed to a cap of 1000 pilgrims for the annual pilgrimage.
The temple was closed for devotees on March 18, a week before the first lockdown to contain the disease came into place. In June, there were plans to open the shrine but it was deferred after many opposed it. One of the richest temples in the country, Sabarimala’s revenue is usually used to fund smaller temples and for salaries of employees of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). The closure of the temple had created problems for the TDB and its 3500-odd employees.
During the last pilgrimage season-- 2019 November to 2020 January-- the aggregate revenue of the temple was Rs 263.57 crore. Aravana payasam-- a black kheer made of rice, jaggery, ghee and cardamom--consumes 60% of the temple revenue.
Pilgrims from the five south Indian states throng the temple nestled in Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta district during the annual season and it is often considered the largest seasonal pilgrimage after Mecca. At the peak of season, at least 5 lakh people visit the shrine on a day, temple statistics show.