Sabarimala, named after Sabari, an epic vestal known for her austere penance to attain Lord Rama’s blessings, and now world-renowned for the Ayyappa temple perched on it, is a beautiful hillock of the Periyar Tiger Reserve on the Kerala side of the Western Ghats. Originally a cult spot of the local forest-dwellers’ protector deity, Ayyanar, it became a small shrine of Ayyappa around the 15th century.
Legend says Ayyappa was a prince of the nearby ruling house and had done penance until he was dissolved into the tutelary deity, worshipped by the local avarna castes. An insignificant shrine inside deep forest, obviously with no daily rituals, it used to be visited only annually during the Makara Sankramana (January-February), by tribal people like Malampantaram, Ullatar, Mannan, Narikkuravar etc, a few avarnas settled along the fringes, and some pilgrims from Tamil Nadu. A temple priest (Potti) engaged by the Panthalam ruling house officiated the ritual on the day. Subsequently surrendered to the Travancore ruling family, the shrine came under the management of the Travancore Royal Devasvom Commisssion (TRDC), constituted in 1810 by Rani Lakshmi Bai (1810-1815) on Col Munro’s advice, primarily for revenue interest.
The Flood of Pilgrims: In June 1950, some poachers set ablaze the shrine at Sabarimala and broke the idol of Ayyappa. The shrine remained ruined for over a decade, though the pilgrimage continued as usual. A new temple was erected under the Travancore Devasvom Board (TDB), which was formed in 1950 after dissolving the TRDC. Ever since, there has been a steady rise in the number of pilgrims. It rose from around a thousand to several thousands in the ’70s and ’80s. In the ’90s, it surpassed a lakh, and it’s a bit above 50 lakh today, though the TDB estimate goes to crores, indeed a hyperbole. Corresponding with the growth of the pilgrim population, the number of occasions of worship in a year multiplied. As of now, the temple is open for 133 days in a year, providing a total of 1,431 hours for darshan. At a time if 10 devotees secure darshan per second—it’s hard to let the pilgrims linger too long before the sanctum—the pilgrims would total just 51,51,600.
Sabarimala, thus, now sees a phenomenal flow of middle-class pilgrims from all over south India, and hence a huge influx of votive donations by way of cash and gold. In the process, a temple and pilgrimage once dominated by tribals and avarnas became completely dominated by savarna beliefs, institutions, customs and practices. Far more than a pilgrimage, it is a state-controlled billionaire enterprise today.
Invented Rituals: The ban on the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 was introduced in 1991 through a court verdict, presuming that menstruation precluded the possibility of their observance of purity for 41 days, and that Ayyappa, a celibate, would not like young women. But there is neither ritual sanctity nor scientific justification for this restriction. It’s true that Savarna households observed menstrual pollution and abstained from entering holy places during their periods. But menstruation was auspicious and symbolic of fertility for the tribals, who had flocked the temple with their women and children of all age groups till the ’60s. There is also archival evidence of young savarna women from the Travancore region entering the temple till the ’80s.
Thazhamon, a clan from Karnataka with little tradition of agamic rites, gained authority over the temple.
Till recent times, the Sabarimala temple hardly followed the agamic prescriptions (adapted from Vedic brahmana rites) common to other temples maintaining purity under the ritual authority of the Namboodiri Brahmins. Therefore, the Namboodiri tantri (ritual authority) families of Vedic tradition never bothered about this temple in the forest with inferior deities like Ayyan and Karuppaswamy, as not qualified for installation with ashtabandha (eight ritual bonding objects) or amenable to purification through agamic rites. Any of them would wonder whether an authority in agamic texts could dare to undertake the responsibility of sustaining the purity of the Ayyappa temple with 18 hills as its boundary (prasada). It is not accidental that Thazhamon, a migrant Potti family of south Karnataka with little or no tradition of Vedic or agamic rites, was given ritual authority over the Ayyappa temple. Most legends and traditions about the temple are fabrications of recent times. There is nothing permanent about the tradition of rituals, for every tradition undergoes changes through contingent reinterpretations or new inventions, although we celebrate it as age-old. The Sabarimala tradition is no exception to this universally acknowledged sociological phenomenon.
Savarna Domination: The defining trend in the process of the making of new traditions was that of the systematic induction of savrana values of exclusion and differentiation. This has been impairing the passion for oneness and universal fraternity among pilgrims during their hazardous journey to Sabarimala. There are now attempts through the same process to upset the secular identity and religious symbiosis that Ayyappa’s association with Vavar, a Muslim, and with the Arthunkal church represented. They seek to destroy the flexibility and freedom involved in the pilgrimage that facilitates convergence and transcendence of multiple castes and religious identities.
The fact that Sabarimala is open to people of all castes, creeds and religions is being systematically revamped through the imposition of new rules and ‘conventions’. During the pilgrimage, Ayyappa devotees en route to Sabarimala pay homage to the Vavar mosque at Erumely. Many go to the Arthunkal church as well during their pilgrimage.
This universality, and a few other traits, are often taken to be indicative of the Ayyappa cult having Buddhist antecedents. It makes little sense, however, to make a Buddhist case based on the observance of celibacy, the expression ‘Dharma Sasta’ and the chanting of ‘saranam.’ Dharma asta is only a recent coinage, and the chanting of saranam has nothing to do with the Buddhist charanam that denotes the vow for being a monk in the sangha. Nor is there any archaeological indication at the site to support the presumption. Further, Buddhist monastic establishments are found on rocky terrain and are invariably along trade routes. Based on the tradition that Nilakantha, one of the Avalokiteswaras of Buddhist mythology, was consecrated on the Sahya mountain, some scholars have tried in vain to identify Ayyappa with Nilakantha. Further, there is no trace of Buddhist iconographic influence on the image of Ayyappa.
The Court Verdict: The TDB, under the pretext of yearning to meet the urgent needs of pilgrims, has been pushing urban development right into the core of the tiger reserve, totally forgetful of the forest environment and regulations thereof. This has involved deforestation and diversion of forest land, and utter violation of the Kerala Forest Act 1961, Wildlife Protection Act 1972, and Forest Conservation Act 1980. Violation of Supreme Court verdicts is not new to Sabarimala. In fact, it is the site of a whole series of violations—of a corresponding series of court judgements, including those of the Supreme Court.
There are several court judgements against illegal constructions at the Sannidhanam (main temple complex). Apex court orders in WP(C) No. 202/95, WP(C) 212/2001 and Letter no. F. No. 8-70/2005-FC dated October 24, 2005, of the Central Government and GO (Rt) 594/05/F7WLD dt. 31-10-2005 of the State Government and Supreme Court Order I.A. No. 1373 in WP (C) No. 202 of 1995 have banned the diversion of forest land. It was in the wake of the TDB’s reckless development plans that the Union ministry of environment and forests got the master plan prepared and done. The Supreme Court enforces it. In fact, the court has ordered that all guest houses, donated structures and other accommodations at the Sannidhanam be closed down and demolished in due course. The court orders have also disallowed any more constructions in the enclave.
There is gross distributive injustice in the land use at the Sannidhanam as well as in the leased land. Of the total leased land, 14.6 per cent is privatised for the use of just 9.5 per cent of the total pilgrims, and 3.4 per cent is extremely privatised for the use of only 0.1 per cent! The granting of permission to build donated houses at the Sannidhanam is not only a major violation of the lease contract but also a most unjust use of public land. VIPs and elite pilgrims have appropriated public space for satisfying their personal needs—at the expense of ordinary people. This does violence to the original ethos of Sabarimala—one of its striking features had been its egalitarianism, natural to people moving through a jungle, completely forgetting social differences and hierarchies.
And now, the Supreme Court judgment allowing women’s entry irrespective of age is facing outright violation. People of the Panthalam house, ignorant of the history of their custodianship transfer to Travancore, and the Thazhamon tantri, equally ignorant of the implications of the judgment, are making sub-judice statements. So are other priests of the temple. Politicians, with one eye on votes, are stooping to the same level of constitutional ignorance. Sabarimala is encountering a phase of increasing rigidity, depriving it of its past tradition of ritual flexibility and social freedom.
(Prof Gurukkal, an eminent historian and social scientist, is a former vice-chancellor of MG University, Kottayam)