Ayyappa devotees are unwilling to write off appearance of the Makara star on Makaravilakku as mere coincidence

Faith Divinity and Controversy Decoding the Sabarimala Makaravilakku phenomenon
news Sabarimala Thursday, January 14, 2016 - 18:49


4000 feet above sea level stands the famed Sabarimala shrine surrounded by 18 hills -all part of the Sahyadris (Western Ghats).

The phenomenon of Makaravilakku which sums up the climax of the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage is traditionally held on either January 14 or 15 each year.

The Makaravilakku (light) appears thrice at Ponnambalamedu -a remote hill-top eight kilometers east of the Sannidhanam- on Makar Sankranti after the evening puja.

Makaravilakku celebrates the meeting between Rama and Dharmashasta (another name for Ayyappan) in Sabarimala.

Lakhs of devotees throng the shrine to witness the Makaravilakku. But the occasion is also  a huge people management challenge for the government, with two major stampedes occuring in 1994 and 2011 leading to a considerable loss of human lives.

The devout believe that Makara Jyothi darshan would bring them good luck and divine blessings with the number of pilgrims to the shrine on the rise every year.

The appearance of the star on the horizon followed by the flickering of a bright fire three times at Ponnambalamedu leaves the worshippers in an absolute state of ecstasy.

The question of divinity

For many years devotees considered the Makaravilakku a divine phenomenon. It was only in 2011 that the Devaswom Board as well as the Pandalam Palace -the traditional custodian of the Sabarimala shrine- clarified that the light seen in the skies was man-made.

In earlier times, it was believed that forest-dwellers in and around Ponnambalamedu used to light the fire as part of their Makaravilakku celebrations.

The tradition continued even after these tribals vacated their abode with the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) taking over the responsibility.  The board itself however had no role in creating it.

TDB has been entrusted by the Government of Kerala with the legal and administrative management of this famous temple. The square cement platform that is used to light the fire was built by the TDB in the 90s.

The said spot –a highly restricted zone- can be accessed only after an arduous trek through the shoal forest.

Controversy in court

Since 1981, the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham and a few others were on a mission to disprove the divinity accorded to the said phenomenon.

But the government clarification that Makaravilakku was a man-made phenomenon came only after the Travancore Devasom Board was taken to court following a stampede in 2011 which killed 102 pilgrims who were returning after watching the Makara Vilakku and the Makara Jyothi.

The Devaswom Boards’s reply was in response to affidavits filed by a few including the Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham.

Kandararu Maheswararu –the then senior Tantri of the temple- had reiterated that Makara Jyothi referred to the bright star ‘Makara’ that appeared above the Sabarimala Sannidhanam and that it was in no way related to the light lit at Ponnambalamedu as was “publicized by certain quarters.”

Believers and non-believers

The devout flocking to the shrine from all corners of the country still hold the appearance of the star on the very same day as an auspicious sign and one which they are unwilling to write off as mere

On the contrary, the Pandalam Palace Managing Committee president P Ramavarma Raja had then gone a step ahead and categorically stated that the term Makaravilakku was in no way associated with either the celestial star or the lamp lit at Ponnambalamedu.

He saw it as the mere creation of certain vested interests who wanted to downplay the importance of the “deeparadhana” offered to the deity decorated with the “thiruvabharnam” (sacred ornaments) brought from the Pandalam Palace.

Kerala BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan who was then the Hindu Aikyavedi general secretary had opined that whether the phenomenon was man-made or divine was beside the point. What mattered -he said- was that the Makara Jyothi had carved a religious niche of
its own in the minds of the Ayyappa devotees.

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