In an embarrassment to the Kerala government, ministers from the other southern states did not attend a crucial meeting convened by it to discuss the preparations for the three-month-long pilgrimage season at Sabarimala beginning November 17. The meeting, though held annually, assumed significance this time in view of the state witnessing frenzied protests by Ayyappa devotees over the CPI(M)-led LDF government's decision to implement the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to offer prayers at the hill shrine in Sabarimala. Instead, various officials from the states attended the meeting, where the Kerala government sought the cooperation of all in implementing the apex court verdict.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who was to have inaugurated the meeting, kept away, apparently following the absence of the ministers from the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Puducherry, from where lakhs of devotees throng the Lord Ayyappa shrine. Some women from Andhra Pradesh were among the dozen devotees and activists in the traditionally barred age group of 10-50 prevented from entering the temple earlier this month when it opened for the first time after the apex court order.
The Sabarimala Special Commissioner in a recent report submitted to the Kerala High Court has said protests by Lord Ayyappa devotees leading to possible stampede and casualty were expected during the annual pilgrim season. Kerala Devaswom (religious institutions) Minister Kadakampally Surendran, who presided over the meeting, sought to downplay the absence of ministers from the other states and said it had nothing to do with the latest developments in Sabarimala.
Describing as 'baseless' media reports that ministers from the state had kept away due to the women's entry issue, he said they had 'sufficient reasons'. The states were informed about the meeting at very short notice, he said. Setting up a centralised control room at Sabarimala 'sannidhanam' (temple complex) or Pamba at the foothills for the benefit of pilgrims coming from other states was among the suggestions which came up during the deliberations. Surendran said the state government had the constitutional obligation to implement the apex court verdict.
The state had witnessed widespread protests by devotees after the state government made it clear that it was bound to implement the top court's verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the hill shrine. Opposition Congress and the BJP have extended support to the agitation of the devotees, who want to preserve the centuries-old traditions of the temple. Meanwhile, the Nair Service Society (NSS), an outfit of the state's influential Nair community, said it stood firmly with the devotees' opposing entry of women in the menstrual age group into the temple.
The outfit, which has filed a review petition in the Supreme Court against its verdict, Wednesday organised peaceful protests, chanting Ayyappa mantra, across the state to mark its Flag Day, a report from Kottayam said. Kerala had suffered massive devastation in the floods in August and Sabarimala, especially Pamba had been badly affected, he said, adding the "Nadappanthal" (resting place) at Pamba, the health centre and the toilet facilities had all been very badly damaged. The restoration works at Pamba and the construction of additional facilities for pilgrims at the Nilakkal base camp had been entrusted with the Tata Project Limited at an estimated cost of Rs 25 crore, the minister said.
Almost all the works, including the facilities for accommodating 10,000 pilgrims, parking of 20,000 vehicles, besides those related to drinking water and the toilet blocks at Pamba and Nilakkal, base camps, were nearing completion and were expected to be ready by November 11, he added. The repair works of the roads damaged in the deluge were also nearing completion, Surendran told the meeting. Elaborating on the arrangements for the season beginning November 17, he said the Ayyappa devotees would be regulated from Nilakkal and the state-run KSRTC would provide services for reaching Pamba.
Private vehicles would not be allowed beyond Nilakkal as the floods had devastated facilities, including parking bays, at Pamba, he said. The booking for KSRTC buses could be made online in advance as well as offline, the Minister added. Plastic in any form was banned even inside the "Irumudikettu" (the offerings for Lord Ayyappa carried by the devotees), he said. Wide publicity should be given in vernacular languages by the print and electronic media across the southern states to sensitise the "Guru Swamis", who lead groups of devotees on the pilgrimage, as well as the devotees, on the need to shun plastics.
(With inputs from agencies.)