Kerala’s Sabarimala is in the news again: Overcrowding, politics and more

Nestled amidst the Periyar Tiger Reserve, the temple has been witnessing a massive footfall in December, resulting in chaos and frustration among the devotees.
Devotees at Sabarimala temple
Devotees at Sabarimala temple-PTI
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The famous Sabarimala temple in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district finds itself embroiled in yet another row as the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) has come under fire for failing to manage the heavy rush of devotees. As many devotees have been forced to return without a darshan, it has also turned into a contest of political upmanship with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and caste groups accusing the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) government of crowd mismanagement in the hill shrine.

Nestled amidst the Periyar Tiger Reserve, the temple has been witnessing a massive footfall in December, resulting in chaos and frustration among the devotees. Many devotees, especially those from states like Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have had to return without offering their prayers at the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. Devotees have also been complaining of insufficient KSRTC buses to transport them from the Nilakkal base camp to Pamba, which is at the foothills of the temple. As a result, the existing buses are overcrowded, leaving devotees numbering tens of thousands stranded and waiting for more buses to take them to the temple foothills. 

The current situation is unfolding on the backdrop of the 41-day Mandalam-Makaravillaku pilgrimage season, which began on November 16. However, it was only in the second week of December that reports started to emerge of devotees having to wait long hours – some as long as 12 to 14 hours in the queue – to offer their prayers.

According to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, while an average of 62,000 pilgrims visited Sabarimala during the initial days of the Mandalam season, the number increased to 88,000 in just four days from December 6, leading to challenges in managing the crowd by security officials and temple administrators. “One of the reasons for the sudden overcrowding at the temple is that many devotees from states like Telangana and Tamil Nadu, who couldn’t come during the initial days because of elections and floods, are flocking the temple now. Taking this into consideration, the time allotted for offering the ‘darshan’ has been extended by one hour,” said the Kerala CM.

The opposition parties – the BJP and the Congress did not waste any moment to mount attacks on the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government, accusing them of not providing adequate facilities to the devotees and for not making the necessary arrangements to ensure a smooth pilgrimage.

Kerala’s Leader of Opposition, VD Satheesan, said that the government and the TDB, which is the statutory body which manages the temple, have failed in their duty to ensure proper facilities for the devotees coming from various parts of the country. 

“Children, women and elderly people are waiting for hours in the queue without food or water. And there are not enough buses for them. Sadly, none of the concerned authorities are taking responsibility for the affairs,” said Satheesan. 

A team of United Democratic Front (UDF) members led by senior Congress leader and former Kerala minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan had also reached the Pamba on Tuesday, December 12, to understand the issues faced by pilgrims. 

Meanwhile, the BJP and their youth outfits staged protests outside the Kerala secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram alleging government apathy towards the devotees. Protestors even attempted to jump over the police barricades into the secretariat premises but were dispersed by police water cannons. 

The BJP's Kerala unit, in its statement, said, “The INDIA Alliance and their state governments are actively persecuting Hindu believers in their relentless pursuit to eradicate our ancient faith. The scars are evident in Sabarimala temple. BJP Kerala stands unwavering, committed to defending the rights and beliefs of devotees. BJP remains at the forefront of the battle, resolute in safeguarding Sanatana Dharma from those who seek to obliterate it.” 

On Thursday, December 14, Kerala BJP leader Kummanam Rajasekharan visited the Nilakkal parking ground and inspected amenities for pilgrims.

The Kerala police have also been facing criticism for not adopting effective crowd control measures to reduce the waiting time. The police offered another explanation. Inspector General of Police Sparjan Kumar said that the TDB had overbooked the number of pilgrims by 15,000. He said the virtual queue booking must be limited to 75,000 people per day to reduce the waiting time for the darshan. “Things become very difficult when 90,000 people come through the virtual queue,” he told the media, adding that it was difficult to get darshan on the same day with the arrival of such a huge number of pilgrims.

False narratives

Meanwhile, several prominent right-wing handles also attempted to spin false narratives around the existing situation to paint a picture of Kerala authorities harassing devotees. On Tuesday, a video of a small boy on a pilgrimage to the hill shrine crying inside a bus after being separated from his father and pleading for help from a police officer in Kerala went viral. 

Although the video showed the police official consoling the boy and being reunited with his father, it was widely shared by right-wing handles on X, alleging that the boy was detained by Kerala police and that the government was committing ‘atrocities’ against Hindus. 

The X platform handle of Congress in Kerala too, used the picture of the same boy, along with another crying child, to criticise the Kerala government over its failure to address the grievances of pilgrims in Sabarimala.

When critics called out the Congress party handle for spreading the right-wing narrative, the party said that just because some hatemongers used the same photo we used doesn't mean that we both are saying the same thing. “The photo is not key to the post, it was used for representational purposes only because children are suffering the worst,” said the INC Kerala handle.

CM Pinarayi Vijayan lashed out at the BJP and Congress for trying to politicise the issue by exaggerating the situation at Sabarimala. “Nothing unusual is taking place at Sabarimala at the moment. But there is an attempt to mislead the public from various places. We will take measures to ensure that people are informed about the reality and not be misled by false narratives that are doing the rounds on social media,” he said. 

‘Higher crowds, than usual’

Devaswom Minister K Radhakrishnan also reacted to criticism, terming them as ‘fake campaigns’ against the state government and the TDB. He also pointed out that over 1.2 lakh devotees had visited Sabarimala on December 7 alone, the highest number of pilgrims this season.

Radhakrishnan also said that despite the government and the TDB arranging a particular limit per day on the virtual queue booking, several devotees had come without booking tickets. “We had set the limit of virtual booking to 80,000 tickets per day. But thousands of pilgrims are coming to the shrine from various routes without booking their tickets, leading to overcrowding,” said the Minister.

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