Sunday, June 19, 2011


Yesterday, after a span of 28 years, I re-visited Sabarimala. You could call me biased but for a person who has seen the transformation of Vaishno Devi shrine (J&K, India) and hiked to the summit of Mt. Fuji (Japan), it was appaling to see a preeminent centre of pilgrimage in Kerala, tranformed into a mega industrial complex, sitting like a cancerous scab amidst lush tropical forests.

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It is tempting to see Sabarimala as a victim of its own celebrity status. The hill shrine now attracts over 40 million visitors (not all are pilgrims) every year from all across India, and contributes over Rs.50 Crores (US$ 11 million) to the Kerala state coffers in just one 'season' (Nov-Jan). Visits by politicians, film stars and tycoons gets prominent press coverage. This, in turn, encourages some of them to use try and redeem themselves with "donations" in exchange for public recognition. A liquor baron got the sanctum gold-plated for his name to be prominently displayed on the temple walls, another one is building a glass roof over the "18 Steps" for reasons that are no doubt, just as dubious.

Yet, for all the money that flows into the coffers, what stands out is the unbelievable scale of carelessness out there -- the ugliness of manmade structures, concrete pathways and crude sheds that seem to have been built to suit the whims and fancies of assorted, aesthetically challenged civil engineers; the lack of adequate toilets and washing facilities; poor signboards and the absence of guide-maps; loud speakers blaring out devotional-pop in multiple languages; the absence of general garbage bins and its logical consequence - pigs sauntering about in the open drains and slush.

At the heart of this industrial complex sits the "Sannidhanam", a sanctum sanctorum, which is a concrete maze teeming  with gilded barricades and conveyor belts. In the gaps between the buildings are open garbage dumps strewn with broken tube lights and plastic packets.  A special police force enforces "order" here, shouting and bullying the huddling masses into the farthest lanes while escorting the VIPs - politicians, businessmen and other assorted movers & shakers - into special enclosures from where they can have a tête-à-tête with the Lord and personally handover big currency notes to a battery of priests sitting inside the sanctum (what is the need for so many to cram into such a tiny space, one wonders).

In one of the side rooms, in a room marked "Thantri", a glum looking priest sits next to an empty, decorated chair. Pilgrims are supposed to drop their dakshina (money offerings) on the empty chair, and, in exchange, the gentleman will deign to drop on your hands a leaf containing some allegedly consecrated flowers and bhasmam (ashes). Like the president of a industrial conglomerate, he rakes in the biggest bucks with the slightest effort. Lower down the value chain, are the scores of sub-priests and administrators; and hundreds of security guards, coolies, hawkers and vendors...all thriving in an economy based on public piety.

Standing in the Sabari hills, it is difficult to believe that until just two generations ago this was a site that represented the ultimate coming-of-age journey for young boys. A dangerous trek of at least 50 km through forests infested with wild animals - a journey once undertaken after months of preparations has now been reduced to a farce by seekers of instant gratification.

In any other place, a site like this would have highlighted its finest cultural traditions. It would have encouraged pilgrim-volunteers to guide and help visitors, and to keep the hills neat and tidy; architects would have showcased the beauty of the forests by setting up viewing points along the swift-flowing Pamba river, and along pathways snaking through the hills.

If I were to ignore the scabs and pick out memorable images from this visit, it would start with a dip in the cool, swift waters of the Pamba; the invigorating climb through early morning mist in deep silence interspersed with bird calls and the chirping of insects; glimpses of a full moon at its brightest, surrounded by a halo and veiled every now and then by thick grey rainclouds. And then, while standing under one of those towering bombax trees along the pathway, as I crane my neck to see the canopy, large drops of water slowly drip down from the highest branches,  glinting in the morning light before exploding over my nose & eyes like tiny bomblets...bliss!  :)


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