Wearing masks and strictly adhering to Covid-19 protocols, devotees of Lord Ayyappa trekked the holy hill Sabarimala and offered prayers at the temple in Kerala as the shrine opened for the annual two-month-long Mandala-Makaravilakku season on Monday morning.
It is the first annual pilgrimage season at the hill temple after the coronavirus outbreak.
"Sannidhanam", the temple complex which used to witness a sea of devotees on the first day of the Malayalam month of Vrichikam, saw only a few devotees on Monday morning.
Pilgrims were allowed to trek the hills since 3 am from Pampa, the base camp, through a virtual queue system, temple officials said.
Pilgrims from neighbouring states were among the most who flocked to the shrine in the initial hours, Devaswom Board sources here said.
Mask-wearing employees of Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine and police personnel keep vigil at various points from the base camps to the temple complex to ensure that devotees followed the Covid protocols in a strict manner.
The rituals began with tantri (head priest), Kantaru Rajeevaru, performing the ''Ashtadravya Maha Ganapathy homam'' at the Sannidhanam, they said.
Though the shrine opened last evening, there was no special pooja on Sunday and devotees were permitted inside the complex only this morning.
Marking the beginning of the 62-day-long pilgrimage season, Melshanti AK Sudheer Namboothiri had opened the doors of the sanctum sanctorum and lit the lamps in the presence of the Tantri on Sunday evening.
The newly-elected melsanthi V K Jayaraj Potti and Malikkapuram Melsanthi M N Raj Kumar, who were the first to climb the holy 18 steps and offer prayers, took charge Sunday evening itself.
Each day, only 1,000 pilgrims, who have booked through the virtual queue system, would be allowed to offer prayers.
They have to carry Covid-19 negative certificates obtained 48 hours before they reach Nilackkal and Pamba, base camps.
Covid-19 kiosks were opened at the base camps for testing and the pilgrims won't be allowed to stay at the temple premises, official sources said.
According to Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which manages the hill shrine, about 85,000 devotees would be offering prayers during this pilgrim season.
During Saturdays and Sundays, 2,000 people would be allowed for darshan and on Mandala pooja and Makaravilakku days 5,000 pilgrims would be permitted, it added.
In view of the pandemic, the health department has made elaborate arrangements for antigen tests in various centres including all bus stands and railway stations at Thiruvananthapuram, Tiruvalla, Chengannur and Kottayam, where pilgrims arrive to proceed to the Ayyappa temple.
As per Covid protocols, those in the 10-60 age group would only be allowed to offer prayers at the shrine, where lakhs of devotees visit each year during the pilgrimage season.
Doctors, including specialists, were posted on a rotation basis for seven days each while all other staff were posted on a rotation basis for 15 days from November 15 to January 19 next year, sources added.
The auspicious Mandala pooja would be held on December 26.
After the Makaravilakku ritual on January 14, the temple would be closed on January 20, marking the end of the season.