Legend has it that when Lord Ayyappa set out to seek solitude, he settled upon Sabarimala. Its sylvan surroundings and undulating terrain had made it an ideal retreat for the bachelor god. The pristine monsoon forests had wrapped like an ornament around his hermitage at the top of the hill. The Lord believed to have called the area with tranquil atmosphere as his poonkavanam (sacred forest).
A shrine inside the forest and a deity who chose the calm ambience of hills and valleys has few parallels in the country and outside. But now, it seems, all of the glories of Sabarimala were a thing of the past. When mythology meets present-day reality, Sabarimala is no more a chosen abode of the hermit God. During January-February each year, more than 50 million devotees, as claimed by the temple authorities, are thronging this forest temple for annual pilgrimage, putting the fragile ecology of the region under severe stress. Now, the holy hill is a synonym of increasing inflow of pilgrims, inadequate infrastructure, a devastated environment and a hapless wildlife.
While the entire hill and the adjacent river Pampa, the third largest river in Kerala, are stinking due to sewage pollution and accumulation of garbage, the situation is not much different in the administrative and spiritual circles of the hill shrine. First, it was a controversy involving Kannada film actress Jayamala and a group of orthodox Hindus, who questioned her claim of touching the idol of the bachelor god defying the barricades meant for preventing sexually active women from entering the hill shrine. Then one of the highly revered traditional priests of the temple was robbed of a large amount of money and gold ornaments during his visit to the house of a woman engaged in flesh trade by a mafia gang. And now, it is the turn of aged father of a senior priest to allege that his son is under influence of a powerful Ezhava community leader with shadowy nature and the leader's followers are using his son to pocket the temple money. In the meantime, the Left Front Government has disbanded the existing administrative body of the temple citing corruption at high level and is preparing to enact a legislation to keep the corrupt community leaders out of the administrative body forever.
On monetary grounds, the temple is the third largest in the country, standing very close to Tirupathi and Guruvayur. The cash-strapped Kerala Government, despite its leftist moorings, is depending very much on the income from the temple to meet salary needs of its employees. In order to increase the revenue, the successive governments and the so-called proponents of development are vociferous of implementing multi-crore construction plans in |Sabarimala clearing forests and building a concrete jungle in its place. But nobody in the spiritual and administrative levels of the temple as well as the government establishment are apprehensive of the increasing level of pollution and the extreme level of deforestation. Their focus is entangled only in the growing number of controversies and the commissions to be available after the beginning of the construction work.
Located about 467 metres above sea level, the Sabarimala temple is surrounded by 18 hills and situated inside Periyar Tiger Reserve, one of the few safe havens for tigers in the country. According to bird watcher B.Sethumadhavan, as many as 2000 species of flowering plants, endemic and medicinal, have been identified among the region's flora. `` About 63 species of mammals, some of them endangered like tigers, elephants and lion tailed macaque live here. So far, 223 species of birds and 45 species of reptiles including King Cobra have been identified in this area,' he said. The ever- expanding number of pilgrims and mindless construction works are posing severe threat to their very survival. Devotees of a Lord, who believed to have loved the flora and fauna and their safekeeping, are now on a rampage in the name of development forcing the wildlife to move out of their traditional habitat.
As per legends, the vehicle of Lord Ayyappa is tiger. But, astonishingly, neither the tiger nor the surrounding evergreen forests do not come in the list of priorities before the |Travancore Devaswam Board, which administers the shrine. ``There was an increase of 35 per cent in revenue while comparing with last year during the November-December period. In the number of visitors, the increase is of 19 per cent. These figures show the need for immediate developmental works in Sabarimala. But there are agencies like Forest Department which cry for tigers and forests,' alleges G.Raman Nair, outgoing president of the board.
However, environmentalists and forest officials are countering the allegation. ``The development works so far at Pampa have made it impossible a soul-filling holy dip in river Pampa. At least, two scientific studies conducted by Government's own agencies had found that landslips and tremors would take place at the holy hillock any time largely because of the extensive concrete flooring at the temple premises. The devaswam is only interested in money making. It has no concern for the impending dangers for both nature and devotees,' pointed out Sumesh Mangalassery, a member of the environmental group Kabani.
According to Sumesh, a panel of Kerala Legislature on environment led by RSP leader A V Thamarakshan had submitted 32 proposals to the Devaswam Board to protect Sabarimala around five years back. But none of them were acceptable to the board. Even the suggestions of Kerala State Pollution Control Board to minimise the pollution of river Pampa were paid scant regard by the board. A visit by Tehelka to Sabarimala found that river Pampa continues to remain the main victim of the callous attitude of the authorities. It gets choked in the temple area as solid waste including human excreta; plastic bags, empty water bottles and coconut husks block the free flow of water. About 35 million people took a holy dip in the river between November and January, which is the major source of drinking water for three districts.
According to a study by the pollution control board, the total coliform count recorded at the river portion close to Sabarimala is about 1,14,000 per 100 millilitres (ML) during the peak of pilgrimage. Just before the pilgrimage season, it is merely 380 per 100 ml- well below the permissible limits of 500 per 100 ml. According to local people, the overflow of human faeces from sceptic tanks around the temple stands the major reason of the pollution of the river. ``More than 3,000 temporary toilets are functioning close to the temple in addition to about 600 permanent toilets. The capacity of the sewerage treatment plant is very limited,' pointed out K.Anirudhan of Sabarimala Samrakshana Samithy.
Most of the experts, who had conducted studies on the pollution and environmental problems prevailing in Sabarimala, point to the need of regulating the ever- increasing number of pilgrims. ``Sabarimala is bursting at the seams with millions of devotees now. Thirty or forty years ago, only around 50,000 pilgrims visited the temple. Today, the number is fifty million and is rising at the rate of 20 per cent every year. The ever-swelling flow resulted in a major mishap on January 14, 1999, when 100 pilgrims died in a stampede at the site. Indications are that Sabarimala is a disaster waiting to be happen,' warns noted Kerala based environmentalist P K Uthaman. According to him, almost two thousand tonnes of human waste are deposited in crude earth pits and outside in Sabarimala every year. These wastes are finding their way into not only the river Pampa but also to river Periyar by underground as well as over ground rivulets, posing a threat great health hazard for the pilgrims as well as those living downstream.
In addition, the lack of post pilgrimage cleaning drives often result in unabated flow of hazardous waste into the rivers. The temple area has already been converted into a concrete jungle where guesthouses and other structures are constructed haphazardly all around. They are meant for temple officials, priests, VVIPs and police personnel. According to M.Gopal, a pilgrim from Bangalore who visited Sabarimala this year, human excreta and plastic waste were found strewn just outside the Sannidhanam (the main building of the temple). As per data available from forest department, over 2.5 lakh empty plastic bottles of packaged water were collected from inside the tiger reserve. The number of tetra packs collected would come around 4.5 lakh. The temple complex of the hermit, who believed in renunciation of earthly attractions, is now filled with commercial shops selling products ranging from gold ornaments to dress materials. All these shops were constructed by clearing forests.
``The total time available for darsan as of now is a total of 1431 hours, i.e. 515160 seconds. If a darsan goes on one at a time basis and a devotee gets a second, the total strength of the pilgrims can only be 5,15, 160 per year. If ten people could somehow cluster together per second for darsan, the maximum number would be 51,51,600,' points out a document prepared by |School of Social Sciences at Mahatma Gandhi University on behalf of Kerla Forest Department. The document also questions the claims of the board that over 50 million people visit the temple annually. But anyway, the number of pilgrims' visting Sabarimala is many times more than its capacity.
``The authorities must find out some mechanism to regulate the alarming increase in the number of pilgrims. Sabarimala is not only an environmental but also a social disaster,' opined Dr.Rajan Gurukkal of School of Social Sciences. Now a day, the uncontrolled flow of pilgrims from various entry points is resulting in people swarming all around the protected sanctuary leading to man 'animal conflicts. Recently, an elephant trampled upon one pilgrim. Then it was found that the pilgrims were sleeping in the corridor used by the elephants for going to the river to drink water at the night. A large number of such corridors were already disrupted due to the construction works undertaken in the recent past.
According to Sedumadhavan, the authorities are even paying scant attention on the safety of pilgrims. As many as 12,000 litres of diesel are being stored just above the sannidhanam without any storage licence or safety parameters. They are also keeping a large number of crackers near the sanctum sanctoram without any safety concern. The only solution on the part of Trvancore Devaswom Board for all problems plaguing Sabarimala is denudation of nearby forests and setting up new amenities. According to Rajan Gurukkal, such an attempt would be disastrous as all the existing problems of Sabarimala can be viwed as the after effect of deforestation.
The devaswam board has already ruined about 55.09 ha of forestland in the name of sabarimala development. In the opinion of environmentalists, they demand more forests to cut and smuggle out precious trees and construction of further concrete strctures with ulterior motives. Maintaining the sanctity of the shrine and the precious eco-system never appeared a priority before them. So far, the devaswam board was constituted once in five years by nomination of people with no administrative acumen at the behest of successive governments.
Rajan Gurukkal and his team at School of Social Sciences have prepared a long-term action plan for saving Sabarimala from the sequence of disasters in the offing. But the lobbies of corrupt and communal elements are not allowing the devaswam to look into them. Even the small step of Left Government in disbanding the existing devaswam committee is being interpreted as an attempt by atheists to interfere in Hindu religious matters. The move by left government to appoint experts in place of politicians at the board also facing opposition from Sangh Parivar organisations, who claim as custodians of Hindu places of worship.
The board and its corrupt administrators were not able to get their hand on the forest so far due to stringent central acts and Supreme Court rulings. But even the outgoing members are repeating their old slogan of `no development in Sabarimala would be possible without deforestation.' Unless the authorities change their attitude from a revenue-centred approach to a pilgrim centred aprach, there is not much hope. But they still repeat that development (read deforestation) could not be stopped for the sake of a few birds and animals. ``The board had neither faith in environmental protection nor in religious sanctity,' opines Rajan Gurukkal.
Decongestion of base town Pampa by increasing facilities at a relatively distant town of Nilakkal, demolition of unauthorised concrete structures at Sannidhanam and Pampa, cleaning of the river, better waste disposal facilities and provisions of basic facilities for pilgrims without affecting ecology are the urgent needs of Sabarimala. The tigers and elephants must be protected.
If there is no mechanism to check the number of pilgrims, that would increase to two to three crores within years. Moderate elements among the Hindu community are favouring a statutory body for Sabarimala in line with Tirumala-Thirupathy Devasthanam and Amarnath temple. Such a body consisting of experts from different fields can change the course of priorities of the forest temple.