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Last week, the Kerala high court asked the state government to clarify the confusion around the spotting of a divine light off the Sabarimala temple during Makarasankranthi, an auspicious day in the Hindu calendar. The judges wanted to know if the phenomenon was man-made. The court's poser came soon after 102 pilgrims died in a stampede during the rush to witness the phenomenon, popularly known as Makaravilakku.
The crowd at the temple and its vicinity during Makaravilakku has long ceased to be of manageable proportion and many Sabarimala watchers had in the past warned that a disaster was waiting to happen. In fact, a stampede in 1999 during Makaravilakku had resulted in the death of 52 people. Clearly, the government, present and past, lacked the will to improve the situation.
The court's query on Makaravilakku has shifted the debate to a different plane. The inquiry is no more restricted to earthly matters like crowd management, but has moved to embrace issues like the myths and traditions concerning worship at the Ayyappa shrine. Of course, the court's intervention may help lift the lid on a fraud that most people in Kerala, including devotees of Ayyappa, knew but had refused to openly oppose. Also, it has prompted us to think how a government and the civil society - including the media - collaborated to manufacture a new myth about a traditional festival to improve its economic potential.
That various state agencies stage the Makaravilakku phenomenon during the festival has been known to the public for a while.
But public officials, including ministers, refuse to discuss the subject. Most politicians have either kept quiet or asked the court to keep off matters concerning faith, though this particular matter of faith is of relatively recent origin.
The phenomenon is just about 40-years-old. The president of Pandalam Palace Management Committee, an insider when it comes to temporal and spiritual matters regarding the Sabarimala shrine, has clarified that there is nothing traditional about sighting the Makaravilakku. And, the act of promoting the phenomenon, he argues, is tantamount "to exploiting the belief of the devotees, that devas perform deeparadhana (arti) at Ponnambalamedu (where the light is spotted) to coincide with the deeparadhana of Lord Ayyappa, adorning the holy ornaments".
So, why was this myth manufactured and why have people in the know, including Marxist politicians, been silent about its non-divine origin? Why were rationalists in the state who have been insisting that the 'divine' light is lit by officials of Devaswom Board, the public body in charge of running temples, laughed off, or in some instances even manhandled?
The obvious reason is there's too much at stake for the state in the Sabarimala pilgrimage. It is estimated that the revenue generated from this festival season (December-January ) will be to the tune of nearly Rs 132 crore. The local economy, otherwise largely agrarian, gets a big boost during the pilgrimage.
The government and other agencies see the Sabarimala pilgrimage purely as an economic proposition. They've worked hard to promote it as a unique event and exploit its economic potential even at the risk of diluting the spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage. The marketing of the Sabarimala pilgrimage was perhaps the first step towards selling Kerala as 'God's Own Country'. Brand Sabarimala has been devised and promoted as a package of faith, mythology, adventure and tourism. The Makaravilakku phenomenon was invented to add value to the brand. The officials who worked out the strategy married a ritualistic practice followed at an aboriginal site (Ponnambalamedu), situated on a plateau a few kilometers away from Sabarimala, with celebrations at the Ayyappa shrine. State agencies reinvented and started to re-enact the adivasi tradition, which was discontinued when the government acquired the site during the construction of a dam in the vicinity, for the believers as Makaravilakku (the light witnessed during Makarasankranthi).
Promotional campaigns were undertaken, especially in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, to popularise the event;the phenomenon, of course, was projected as a miracle. (The term vilakku in Makaravilakku originally meant just festival during Makarasankranthi). The media played a major role in spreading the mythology around Makaravilakku.
Whoever thought up the phenomenon knew the human psyche reasonably well. People love a good myth. Myths let us escape our rational selves occasionally and believe in things without seeking a rationale for it. Temples are mines of myths. If they are short of myths, the stakeholders and believers will collaborate to invent them.
The charm and distinctiveness of the Sabarimala pilgrimage owe a lot to its hoary traditions and rich mythology. What the promoters of Makaravilakku did was to invent a new myth that seamlessly fitted with the overall mystique of the place.
The intoxicating atmosphere of frenzied pilgrims and the night sky with the special star (which you spot that day because you look for it) made the perfect setting for the tale that gods come down to worship Ayyappa on Makarasankranthi and that's what we witness from the shrine in the form of Makaravilakku. But for the blatant misuse of public funds and personnel to market a manufactured myth to believers, the show and its invented mythology can't be but admired.
No doubt, the confusion over the divinity of the phenomenon must be cleared but the tradition of worship at the aboriginal site could be continued with. Better, leave the choice to the original custodians of Ponnambalamedu, to whom the site ought to be returned. In all probability, pilgrims will continue to trek the hill for their date with Ayyappa on Makarasankranthi as they do now even if the human hand behind Makaravilakku is publicised. The state government, of course, should restrict its role to that of a facilitator and regulator of pilgrims. But it surely must junk the present vision of the Sabarimala pilgrimage as just an economic opportunity to be exploited at the cost of the fragile environment that lends exceptional charm to the temple and the pilgrimage.
A dead river and blighted forests may not for long provide the best of setting even for pilgrimage tourism. And, human life is too precious to be left to chance and luck.
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