Wearing masks, maintaining physical distance and adhering to the rest of COVID-19 protocol, devotees of Lord Ayyappa trekked the holy hill Sabarimala and offered prayers at the famous temple in Kerala‚Äôs Pathanamthitta as it 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 and authorities have decided to restrict the number of devotees to 1,000 per day and to 2,000 on weekends.
However, the "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 this morning.
Pilgrims, having COVID-19 negative certificates, were allowed to trek the hills since 3 AM from Pampa, the base camp, through a virtual queue system, temple officials said.
Devotees from neighbouring states were among the most who flocked the shrine in the initial hours, sources in the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), that manages the hill shrine, said.
In total contrast to normal times, when there would be a mad rush right from the holy 18 steps and in front of the sanctum sanctorum jostling for a glimpse of the presiding deity, only a few scattered devotees in batches could be seen having a relaxed darshan during the day.
Pilgrims should exercise extreme caution: CM
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that it is advisable for those showing COVID-19 symptoms as fever, cough and breathing difficulties, and others who were recently infected, to avoid the pilgrimage this year. Religious celebrations and pilgrimage resulting in big crowds coming together have caused large scale spread of the disease across the world, the CM warned. In Thirupathi even after strict measures were observed, there was a surge of infections, he said. Pilgrims should therefore exercise extreme caution.
‚ÄúPilgrims should avoid sitting together or occupying closed spaces. The number of pilgrims will be limited everyday and everyone is to follow the COVID-19 protocol as wearing masks, cleaning hands every 30 minutes, and maintaining a distance of at least 6 metres between each other at all possible places. Avoid gathering at all places. Devotees must bring a COVID-19 negative certificate of a test they have had in the last 24 hours,‚ÄĚ CM Pinarayi said.
Toilets should be disinfected occasionally, he added. Drivers, cooks and cleaners who accompany the pilgrims must also follow all the protocol.
Devaswom Board and Police personnel keep vigil
Wearing masks, employees of the board and police personnel, some of them clad in personal protective equipment (PPE) kit, kept vigil at various points from the base camps to the temple complex to ensure that the devotees followed the COVID-19 protocol.
The rituals began with tantri (head priest) Kantaru Rajeevaru performing the ''Ashtadravya Maha Ganapathy homam'' at the Sannidhanam, they said.
A TDB official said that around 650 devotees offered prayers at the hill temple till noon on the first day.
Two devotees tested positive for the viral infection on Monday and both of them were sent to a first line treatment centre at nearby Konni, the official said.
"Both the devotees - one from Punalur in Kerala and the other one from Chennai - have tested positive for the virus while undergoing a test at a health department kiosk," the official told PTI.
State Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said that all arrangements had been completed to ensure a smooth darshan for the devotees during the pilgrimage season.
"Arrangements have been made in compliance with the COVID-19 norms and in accordance with the directions of the Kerala High Court," he told reporters at the Sannidhanam after taking part in a review meeting of various government departments.
Detailing various measures taken by the government to ensure physical distancing at the temple premises and trekking route, the minister said that floor markings have been made in various points and steps have been taken to make devotees abide by the instructions.
About 85,000 devotees expected this season
Though the shrine opened last evening, there was no special pooja on Sunday and devotees were permitted inside the complex only on Monday 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 VK Jayaraj Potti and Malikkapuram melsanthi MN Raj Kumar, who were the first to climb the holy 18 steps and offer prayers, took charge Sunday evening.
COVID-19 kiosks were opened at the base camps for testing, official sources said.
According to the TDB, about 85,000 devotees would offer prayers during this pilgrim season which used to draw lakhs of people in the past.
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.
Testing kiosks at base camp
In view of the pandemic, the Health department has made elaborate arrangements for rapid antigen tests in various centres, including all bus stands and railway stations, at Thiruvananthapuram, Thiruvalla, Chengannur and Kottayam, where pilgrims arrive to proceed to the Ayyappa temple.
As per COVID-19 protocol, those in the 10-60 age group would only be allowed to offer prayers at the shrine.
Doctors, including specialists, would be posted on a rotation basis for seven days each while all other staff are being 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.
(With PTI input)