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Let me first recite a story and we shall take up its relevance in due course. There was an avid photographer in the mountains who came upon a finely decorated idol which was being worshipped by a peasant in his run-down hut. The photographer sought permission to take photos of the sacred stone. Then he found that there was a problem of visibility inside. He asked the peasant if he could move the idol into the sunlight outside, to which the peasant readily agreed. After taking tons of photos the photographer asked if he could replace the idol in its same place. The peasant replied,    “O ,that’s alright. I can find another stone!”

The controversy regarding Sabarimala in Kerala is indeed a sad issue.  And now added to that is another public debate relating to a question set in a PSC examination paper. However, once seen in perspective, the entire issue lacks gravity and seriousness. This is not a religious or spiritual question at all but simply a part of an amateurish political game. And with all other such gossamer stuff will blow over soon enough.

I have been to Sabarimala several times as a pilgrim along with my father and elder brother. My father was a no-nonsense person with a clear rational and thinking mind and at the same time he had his own inner faith having been brought up in a conservative society himself.  But his long life had led him through enough experience good and otherwise to have taught him to look upon religious customs and ceremonies with the clear-sighted discrimination that evolves with such individuals. Many even regarded him as a Guruswami—in those days a person who had visited the Sabarimala over eighteen times was looked upon as one, and he was a genuine Guru.

When the time was right he would tell us children—my immediate elder brother and I– to get ready for the pilgrimage. We did not usually tread through the arduous path via Erumeli but took the available transportation facilities to the river Pampa and then took to the mountain path.  Those were the days, when I now begin to reflect – the forest was greener than now, the mountains bluer, and the rivers crystal clear…  We were eager and young. Everything was beautiful all around. The other pilgrims who usually travelled in batches were also equally devout and we all took care to maintain a certain amount of cleanliness religious and otherwise, all around. There were lots of stray donkeys and willing carriers. On the leaf-filled boughs overhead macaques dangled alongside parakeets, golden orioles and the hill-myna birds. Life was indeed a real pilgrimage then, for us. All this was just more than four decades ago. A past I can easily clutch in my memory now! The darshan at the Sabarimala shrine though a bit overcrowded even then was something spiritually satisfying and mentally renovating. We made sure we noticed the Brahminy kite hanging about all through the evening, we pointed out the star to one another and when the Makara Jyothi sprang up prayed devoutly. It is not that we did not ask questions that generated doubts about the veracity of all these rituals, but we knew somewhere inside that these were a matter of faith. You could be a radical disbeliever and still take the journey to the hills.

Why do we need to go all the way to Sabarimala these days at all, I ask? Now that there are a million pilgrims flooding the mountain paths each year, they have made arrangements to keep the temple open on several days besides the usual special days, and the paths are dry, denuded and dirty. They have built innumerable sheds and structures, shops and hotels, bridges and roads, malls and helipads to facilitate the eager tourist of these days. Besides, Sabarimala has found a special place in the world tourist map as a religious centre in the south of India. Many VIPs and VVIPs reach here by early dawn and are off by mid-day, in flight and train—these are the advantages of globalisation. Appam and Aravanai—the special delicacies of those days are now available easily over the world-wide-web portals. Prasadams are even couriered and circulated. Sabarimala is now on an equal par with Tirupathi—a rich temple with billion-rupees turn over. Over and above all this, there are eager and enthusiastic women who want to prove themselves as equal to men, perhaps indeed better than them, by taking the roving mountain path to the sanctum sanctorum. On the other side there are those equally enthusiastic and twice alert young men who are the self-styled arch defenders of a tradition that they consider to be Hinduism—and they are the strong men who build walls to ward off young women from entering the temple premises, because in their professed scriptures women are seen as secondary individuals. Caught in between are those genuine pilgrims who undertake the annual pilgrimage to the holy hill irrespective of women and men.

In all, Sabarimala nowadays has definitely lost its mountain charm—the weather has changed; the atmosphere filled with spite and muscle power– where people push and pull to gain something or the other on their own—this is indeed Kali Yuga. Where once the genuine seekers went to pray and seek saranam at the feet of a mountain deity, renouncing all and everything, there now survives only wanton skirmish and self-proclaimed religious systems, strikes and hartals. Where has fled that spiritual glory and that self-less search for inner peace? Why go to a hill temple at all if this is all that remains there?

I recall that even as a young man in the seventies when I used to tread the roving path during mid -January coinciding with the Makaravilakku, the river Pampa used to glide in all its majesty, and the Blue and Black mountains still retained their spiritual air. The atmosphere held a certain amount of religiosity and the crisp mountain air was cold to the touch. The wind whispered among the high rain-filled evergreen tops and the birds still sang till late evening when the camp fires were lit down in the valley. There were tree crickets and cicadas to play accompaniment to the Sabarimala-Sastha songs floating down-hill. The ringing of the temple bells and the prayers of the devout remained in our ears and hearts for several days after our return home.

The jungles in Kerala spread over the Western Ghats ranging from one end to the other. They were all interconnected at one time and we had the major Palakkad gap in the Palani hills and the one near the Senthurini in the south—the Arulvaimozhi pass. Through this one could walk across into the Tamilnadu plains and the hot air from the Bay of Bengal swept across into the cooler valleys. Nowadays on account of the insane and blind deeds of a development-minded society Kerala’s greenery has shrunk visibly and with dire consequences. Not only has it affected the already dwindling biodiversity but also adversely affected the climate in these parts. Of course these things are not to be considered in isolation separately from the larger issues that the entire nation and the globe are confronting today. Environment as we now have understood is not something built in with borders and frontiers, states and political boundaries.  Kerala’s plight is not to be seen in isolation at all.  But in the context of what we have been discussing, the Sabarimala and the entire area that it encompasses is also an integral part of a bio-chain, unique and spiritually and environmentally sacred. Do we need to destroy that space too? Can we not protect it with sanctity of Hindu Dharma, Sanatana Dharma or whatever Dharma that we can find in our sacred texts, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Ajivika or the like? Now that there are a million devotees all over the world—men and women alike—waiting to flock into the sacred space at one go why don’t we do something about it? Providing a million toilets or building overbridges and star accommodations, helipads or aerodromes is definitely not the answer to this issue. The skirmishes among the uninitiated and the ignorant masses too is not going to subside.

Religious texts have looked upon non-human nature as sacred and made allowances for the preservation and maintenance of the delicate environmental balance. Hinduism for instance evolved the popular belief in attributing religious sanctity to certain trees and sanctifying certain significant groves thereby ensuring the continuous maintenance of such select bio-systems. The common man and woman may not be aware of the science behind religious systems and apparently superstitious beliefs, and further, may not even care—for them religion was a matter of blind belief and faith and was founded on certain strict practices. Like the Mimasakas of yore our present day temple-goers swear by their holy practices. For them everything that is associated with any temple is holy and unquestionable.  Let us continue to maintain their ways, let us also gently make them aware of life around them other than their own selves and their immediate families. That indeed is the duty of those who understand religious practices in their right spirit. Rather than go on professing that one should get up from bed on the right side always, wash one’s hands turning East, spit only toward the west etc, one needs to ask the right questions.

Do we need to take the trouble of visiting Ayyappa in far-off Sabarimala? Do we need to vociferously debate whether it is right for women to tread these hills? Anyway where is it mentioned that women and men are different from each other in the eyes of the creator? And who listens to sense these days? Everyone is blinded by wrong faith and caste discriminations, segregated and separated from their own fellow creatures. Religion has become a violent way of life breeding hatred and rancour, gorging itself on blood and gore. Let us cast aside this wrong mode of life.

Either we take a deeper look at our own blind faiths and practices, and critique them, or try to edge ourselves a little closer to the other belief systems looking upon those in a compassionate vein. Whatever it is, the prime focus in our troubled present is certainly to gather our delicate environmental balance. What better way than to let nature reclaim what she can? We know that nature can heal if we also allow for the required space. Let us leave the sanctity of the mountain to its own solitude, shall we? Can we not just chuck the mountain temple away from everything? Can we not decide not to make any more pilgrimage to Sabari hills? Perhaps that is the best way to heal our wounds. If all that you really want is only a temple and certain rituals to go with it why not build a temple in your own backyard? Thereby you are not hurting anyone nor are you destroying nature’s balance (or what remains of it these days!) You do not need a five star hotel or helipad or aerodrome or VIP rest-house.  Ayyappan will understand and even agree to visit all these homes in your neighbourhood. If only we could all be just humans for a brief spell, as the poet has reminded us, if only we could allow our own inner spiritual sense to sprout religiously within our-selves rather than push one another down to gain a space under the Bodhi tree? Whatever we require is already with us. Earth is indeed bounteous and can satisfy all our needs but not our greed! Religion can once again become a redeeming force, an inner spiritual awakening.

By now the tale we started out with would have found its relevance. Any stone can become an idol, and any idol can be discarded. It is all a question of perspective. For the self-realised soul all stones are idols and all idols are stones. Perhaps Ayyappan himself would have said so. You need not go all the way and disturb his meditation. He can courier his blessings!

So, now, we can forget Sabarimala and can rest assured Lord Ayyappa will be benign and bestow on us all that we desire for. Therefore the best way to get his blessings is by staying away from his abode in the hills. Let the hills once again fill with rain and bird songs. Let the insects sing along with the breeze. And let our rains return on time. This I guess is what we can do in Sabarimala—leave the place and entrust it to nature’s sacred hands. Let no man woman or child ever set foot in these sacred hills ever again. Let no tantric or mantra come between us and nature ever again. Then all stones will sprout new and newer meanings.

Dr. Murali Sivaramakrishnan, Professor and former Chair, Department of English,Pondicherry University

One Comment

  1. Very well said! This madness in the name of religion has to stop. Nobody visits is a better strategy than the melodrama that is happening now.