Man versus Ayyappa

On January 15, two weeks into the New Year, more than a hundred people died in a stampede in Pulmedu, deep in the core area of Periyar Tiger Reserve. Two years ago, 50 people had died in Pamba in the buffer of the reserve. Pulmedu loosely translates from Malayalam as “grass mounds”, a climax grassland ecosystem that lies interspersed with low altitude evergreen forests. The forests around Pulmedu, especially the Uppupara and Ponnambalamedu region, abound with wildlife — elephants, tigers, sambar, wild boar, Nilgiri langur, lion-tailed macaques and the great Indian hornbills are all residents and indicators of a mature tropical forest. For two months in the year the region is also home to five million people, temporary residents who visit the most famous Shasta shrine in India, Sabarimala.

They come from all the four southern states and a few northern ones as well, driven by the desire to pay homage to the ultimate forest god, Swami Ayyappa or Shasta, the son of Shiva and the enchantress Mohini, the only female avatar of Vishnu. Legend has it that the renunciate prince left the Panthalam kingdom and rode a tigress through the forests of Poongavanam onto the then mist-laden highlands of Sabarimala. In pursuit of this celibate god come a million initiates, mostly male, all black clad, following a strict rule of abstention for 41 days and walking along four different forest routes. They throng the forest for 10 days every month, increase to a vast multitude during the winter months and culminate in a roar of onrushing black in January, the month when the divine celestial light of Makara Jyothi is purportedly seen atop Ponnambalamedu. This is when there is utter pandemonium in the reserve. This is when both accidents have occurred. This is when the wildlife of the area retreats into adjoining parts of the reserve, overwhelmed by the crush of humanity. This is when the forest god himself must surely feel that the kingdom of Panthalam has invaded his retreat and probably leaves his abode for a less disturbed part of the park.
I have visited Sabarimala as a pilgrim and a conservationist for nearly two decades. Both reside with little contradictions in my self. Kerala Tourism is equally all encompassing. Inviting visitors to God’s own country, it speaks of Periyar thus, “One of the best preserved forest regions, teeming with rich wildlife, the Periyar Tiger Reserve… is one of the 27 reserves in India meant for the conservation of the big cat — the Tiger. This 777 sq. km tiger reserve is home to rare, endemic and endangered flora and fauna and forms the major watershed of two important rivers of Kerala, the Periyar and the Pamba”. Look for other major tourism attractions on the tourism site and you find, “The Sabari hills, throughout the pilgrim season reverberate with the chants to Lord Ayyappa. The hills are home to some of the luxuriant forests, grasslands and a variety of wildlife”. It directs all wildlife tourists to Thekkady in southern Periyar and all spiritual tourists to its northern confines of Sannidhanam.
The sanctum sanatorium is in the tiger reserve and a wildlife sanctuary. The forest department, with the concurrence of the state and the Centre, has made available 140 hectares within the Periyar Tiger Reserve and 110 hectares of forest land on its fringes in Nilakkal to the Travancore Devaswon Board (TDB) for facilitating the pilgrimage. In other words, the temple and its access routes exist within protected forests and have been made accessible to people by the forest department only due to a long held tradition. This tradition, however, has been violated time and again in the recent past. I have myself witnessed on occasion thousands of people stripping trees of its bark to take back as “prasadam” or at other times throwing hundreds of towels into the Pampa river after the descent as instructed by their “guruswamis”. The ethos of Ayyappa requires the pilgrim to follow a forest code that over the years has degenerated into a joke. There are over 1,500 shops and vendors (including pushcarts) that do business on the forest trails during this period. They sell everything from lemon juice and cut pineapple to plastic toys, lingerie and blonde wigs. How the last two can be said to provide pilgrim comfort beats all imagination.
In 2007, an ecologist of the Periyar tiger reserve walked along the pilgrim paths and found plastic material in 37-90 per cent of all elephant dung piles. That is to say that at best one-third of the elephants of Sabarimala were eating plastic left in the park at the end of the pilgrim season, at worst nearly all of them were. In the same year an institute in Kerala did a satellite data survey that looked at forest cover for 20 years. They found a 10 per cent decline in forest cover and large-scale degradation in and around Sannidhanam. Sannidhanam itself is a mini township, bereft of forest, with large concrete buildings that include telecom offices, dewaswom board offices, police posts and even a room meant for a high court judge!
The results are clear: The forests are disappearing and so is the tiger from around the Ayyappa shrine. The forest god is turning urban, his feline vehicle has abandoned him.
The recent accident has turned the spotlight on Sabarimala once again. In response, the Kerala government wants to up pilgrim safety and comfort. One proposal is to divert even more forest land and convert the forest trails into large motorable roads, lit up by halogen lights, tarred and made into a pilgrim highway. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh, in a characteristically strict response to chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan, has laid out facts as they are, pointing out the non-compliance of the Master Plan proposed by the ministry and agreed to by the state in 2005. “A faithful and timely implementation of this Master Plan would have prevented any kind of disaster in this area” he notes. He further goes on to say that “any further demand for forest land by the TDB is meaningless at this juncture since the forest land already made available to them is not being used as suggested in the Master Plan”. If the state government chooses to ignore the Union government’s missive, it might as well start a KSRTC bus service to Uppupara. Lord Ayyappa, bereft of his tiger “vahana”, might also start using it to escape the forest during the mad days of the Malayalam month of Makaram.

Vivek Menon is a practising wildlife conservationist and environmental commentator

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