Number of Sabarimala pilgrims falls as police tighten rules

Sabarimala: Compared to previous years, there has been a fall in the number of pilgrims who are arriving at the famed Sabarimala temple ever since the shrine opened on November 16 for the two-month pilgrimage season.

In the past, the average daily number of pilgrims that visited the shrine during the season was around a lakh, but this time it has fallen dramatically.

So far in the current season, over seven lakh devotees have registered online for darshan of the deity on various days. However, half of those who registered themselves in the past four days did not turn up.

The main reason for this has been the tightening of the rules for pilgrimage by the police, after protests by Hindu groups since September 28 when the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages to enter the temple that hitherto banned girls and women aged 10-50.

The apex court on November 13 refused to stay the September verdict.

The Left Democratic Front government, led by the CPI-M, has been trying to implement the apex court’s verdict, even as the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and several Hindu groups are up in arms against the violation of the temple tradition.

The police on Monday arrested 69 protesting pilgrims and sent them to jail.

On Tuesday, the police further tightened the rules and have started handing out notices to pilgrims at the Nilackal base camp that they should return in six hours after praying at the temple.

The notice also states that the pilgrims are not supposed to speak to the media and if there is any violation, they are liable to be prosecuted.

“The police after inspecting our vehicle told us that if any of the rules are broken, strict action would be taken,” a pilgrim told the media at Nilackal.

A group of 110 devotees from Kalyan in Mumbai, which had reached Erumely, decided to return without praying at the temple.

“We are unhappy with what we have seen on TV and read in the newspapers on what is happening at the temple premises. We are pained at the developments and even after coming so close to the temple, we decided not to pray as we are worried for our safety amid the stringent rules that are now in place,” said the seniormost pilgrim to the media.

Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, who arrived at the temple town, expressed anguish at the manner in which Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was handling the Sabarimala temple issue.

“We fail to understand what has gone wrong with Vijayan. Who does he think he is? Nowhere else in the country would there be prohibitory orders at a religious centre,” said Chennithala.

State BJP President P.S. Sreedharan Pillai told the media in Kochi that they are going to step up their protests against the high-handedness of the Kerala government.

“We have three demands, including withdrawing of the prohibitory orders prevailing in the temple town, ending the ‘police raj’ against pilgrims and freedom to pray,” said Pillai.

Senior BJP leader and member of Parliament V. Muraleedharan, who was at the temple town, said that it’s strange that the police say the pilgrims cannot chant Lord Ayyappa hymns.

The Travancore Devaswom Board – the custodian of the temple – in a statement issued here on Tuesday said that while the number of pilgrims in the first few days was less, it has started to pick up in the past two days.