By: MR Lalu
The pilgrim season to Sabarimala this year was the most outstanding, especially in a post-pandemic period. This year’s season was an unprecedented success in two aspects. The first is the revenue. The revenue the temple received in this season surpassed all previous records with almost 320 crores falling in its sanctum sanctorum. The second aspect is the number of devotees attending the pilgrim season to the hill shrine in Kerala was at an all-time high. The earliest highest revenue the temple received was 260 crores in 2018. Devotees from the entire five southern states climb the hill shrine every year in a particular pilgrim season of 41 days of Mandala Puja and a special Makaravilakku pilgrimage. Overall, 55 days of pilgrim season from November 17 to the Makar Sankranti brings millions of Lord Ayyappa’s devotees to the shrine which is enshrined in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, a pristine 777 square km forest area stretching from the Pathanamthitta District of Kerala to the borders of Tamil Nadu.
The temple remained a subject of controversy nationally a few years ago as its ancient traditions denied entry of women of menstruating age to its premises. Normally women of that age are allowed to reach only up to Pamba which is the base camp of the hill shrine. With the Supreme Court axing the temple tradition, the Kerala Government managed to push ladies who never believed in the sanctity of Sabarimala into the temple campus. This was probably an unpardonable political exercise by the Communist government led by Pinarayi Vijayan. The government’s efforts to topple the temple traditions by force received severe resistance from the Hindu community in the state, especially women. What went on for months in the form of agitation was unprecedented. Thousands of Ayyappa devotees staged peaceful protests against the government’s belligerence and many of them were arrested. The post-pandemic pilgrimage had once again ignited the Ayyappa consciousness in the minds of millions of devotees and the season found cash and other precious things mounting in the sanctum sanctorum. The Devaswom Board’s statement is startling that heaps of coins to be weighed in quintals are lying unattended and an accurate counting of currencies would take a few more days to finish.
This year’s pilgrim season was spiritually charged by a movie on the Ayyappa consciousness which was released during the pilgrim season. The Unni Mukundan starrer movie had shaken up the spiritual pride in the minds of the Ayyappa devotees in Kerala. The movie was released on 30 December 2022 in selected theatres and many people in the film industry expressed their concern over such a movie’s box office fortunes in the present political setting of the state. A normal movie produced with a minimal 3.5 Crores expenditure has now bagged more than 50 Crores all over the world. Malikappuram, as it is titled, is a movie made on the innocent devotion of Kallu, an 8-year-old girl who lives with her parents in meager circumstances. The word Malikappuram holds a special spiritual status in the Malayalam vernacular. It is used to address a girl who is taking the pilgrimage to Sabarimala for the first time. This is an unusual vocabulary that is attributed to the Sabarimala temple and its pilgrimage alone. Kallu’s preparations to set out on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala get frequently distracted and she ultimately starts her journey to Sabarimala with her friend Piyush. With the amazing characterization of both the children, the movie was first predicted to end as a children’s movie. But the spiritual churning the movie has taken the ordinary people through was astounding. In the second half of the movie comes Unni Mukundan in his lead role Ayyappan and his entry takes the movie to another level. The God-sent man or call him God-like, takes strides with the kids to the abode of Lord Ayyappa and his mysterious role in the movie with his human and divine mix of characterization made the movie a favourite of the family audience. Malikappuram is all set to hit theatres in different languages including Hindi. Though cancellation calls against the movie were rampant in the social media by the jihadi-left-liberal lobby, Ayyappan’s story outsmarted the Vijay starrer ‘Varisu’ and Ajith’s ‘Thunivu’, the Tamil blockbusters in Kerala and became a devotional blockbuster. Malikappuram is the Kantara of Kerala.
Sabarimala needs to be seen from a slightly different perspective. The spiritual behaviour of the temple and the pilgrimage to the holy shrine are yet to attract national attention, especially in the northern part of India. The temple comes under the direct administration of the Travancore Devaswom Board. The Board came into existence as per the provisions of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, of 1950. The revenue from the Sabarimala shrine is used for the welfare of small temples under the Devaswom Board with scant revenue. The state government is blamed for its filling the state’s exchequer with the temple money and huge campaigns were set in motion to educate the people to not make donations to temples run by the Devaswom Board. This was also accentuated by the statement made by retired Supreme Court Justice Indu Malhotra. She candidly expressed her grave dissatisfaction with the Communist government’s belligerence in capturing the Hindu temples. Her verdict favoring the royal family for continuing its custodian rights concerning the Sree Padmanabha Temple at Thiruvananthapuram was widely praised. She had also opined in favor of the temple traditions in Sabarimala, wherein the traditions denied women entry at a particular age. She viewed that traditions that existed for centuries should not be toppled in the name of civil rights.
In Hinduism, prayer is a personal spiritual exercise. It doesn’t advocate collective prayer meetings like any other religion. It elevates the seeker to grow into the size and eminence of the divinity with no mediator meddling with his spiritual aspirations. Every spiritual place which attracts pilgrims indubitably accentuates this notion of belief system. That between the divine and the devotee there is no space for a mentor or a mediator and Sabarimala offers this spiritual semblance to every devotee who strides hard through the forest path of roughness and his spiritual demeanour throughout the preparation for a pilgrimage transforms him to realize the divinity in him. On reaching the abode of Lord Ayyappa he realizes that the process of penance and sacrifice has taken him through the vivid expressions of divinity and the essential Ayyappa consciousness he is blessed with at the temple premises elevates him to the stature of divinity itself. The Upanishadic dictum ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, which means “you are that divinity you were in search of” is practically revealed to every pilgrim once he reaches the shrine. The movie Malikappuram has not only been a devotional blockbuster but the celluloid surprise has motivated thousands of new devotees to take a pilgrimage to Sabarimala this year. (The author is a freelance journalist, and has penned down the book “India @ 75 – A Contemporary Approach”. He can be reached at email@example.com)