Sabarimala: Devotees, organisations up in arms as Devaswom Board looks to allow only virtual queue

The TDB decisions came after both spot booking and virtual queue led to large crowds of Sabarimala pilgrims waiting inordinately.

ByDileep V Kumar

Published May 09, 2024 | 9:00 AM Updated May 09, 2024 | 9:00 AM


The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) is looking to allow only virtual queues for devotees looking to visit the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala.

This measure, recommended by the TDB, has irked not only Ayyappa devotees but also organisations working for their welfare.

The TDP pointed out that restricting footfall was impractical and would affect devotees arriving from other states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Telangana.

Also Read: Kerala HC stays land acquisition notification for Sabarimala Greenfield airport

Only virtual queue at Sabarimala

Pilgrims waiting for darshan

The most significant change introduced by the TDB is a cap on daily footfall, which restricts entry to a maximum of 80,000 devotees.

Additionally, the board has decided to discontinue the spot-booking system introduced in 10 centres, which previously allowed pilgrims to register for darshan upon arrival at designated locations.

From now onwards, only those who apply via the virtual queue system can visit the Sabarimala shrine.

The TDB emphasised that these measures were necessary for the safety of pilgrims as well as for the conduct of a smooth pilgrimage.

It mainly cited the difficulties faced by the devotees during the last Mandala-Makaravilakku fest, which saw overwhelming crowds. It also observed that spot-booking had exacerbated the situation with the swelling crowds.

Last season, despite the Kerala government claiming the situation has been under control, devotees of Lord Ayyappa faced several hardships, forcing the Kerala High Court to intervene.

Reports said pilgrims to the hill shrine were made to wait in queues for hours — some even half a day — before they could proceed to the 18 gold-covered holy steps to the temple.

The unprecedented rush of devotees during the annual festival season this year has left both authorities and pilgrims frustrated.

The arrangements made in advance went for a toss as several pilgrims arrived at Sabarimala without booking slots on the virtual queue, an online system initiated to ensure a smooth pilgrimage.

Authorities tried the Tirupati-model crowd management, but failed as several pilgrims jumped the queue and took forest routes to Sannidhanam.

Sabarimala: No spot booking for darshan from 10 January, says apex temple body

‘Big betrayal’

A key concern was the impact on Ayyappa devotees who undertake the rigorous 41-day penance (vratham) and traditionally rely on the spot-booking system.

Pilgrims waiting for darshan

Critics argued that these devotees deserved the opportunity to complete their pilgrimage, and urged the board to reinstate spot-booking.

The Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham Trust is a social service organisation for Sabarimala pilgrims.

According to its general secretary D Vijaya Kumar, 99 percent of Ayyappa devotees will be against the newly introduced crowd management measures of the TDB.

He told South First that the Sangham would discuss the issue in detail, and even approach the court against it if the need arose.

“These new measures will mainly affect devotees from other states. These devotees who come in large groups mainly rely on spot booking. Instead of restrictions, the TDB could have enhanced the basic facilities at base camps and ensured their basic needs,” said Vijaya Kumar.

While saying that the TDB had betrayed the devotees from other states, he added that Sabarimala lacked an effective crowd management system.

“The root cause of the issue is the absence of an effective crowd management system. It is said Keralites follow the concept of Atithi Devo Bhava (A guest is akin to God) in letter and spirit. That is why the TDB should treat the devotees from other states with utmost respect and consideration,” said Vijaya Kumar.

Organisations like the Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam, Yogakshema Sabha, and Akhila Bharathiya Ayyapa Dharma Prachara Sabha have also come out against the proposed restrictions.

Also Read: Inadequate facilities, influx of devotees make Sabarimala visit painful

‘May prove costly’

Interestingly, an official of the TDB, who requested anonymity, appeared to concur on all these points.

He said the board’s decisions — concluding limiting Sabarimala-visitng devotees to just the virtual queue — would only help “kill the goose that lays golden eggs”.

The official to South First: “Sabarimala is a major revenue-generator for the state. However, a majority of the revenue comes from devotees who came from other states.”

He added: “The TDB’s decision to scrap spot-booking and adhere to the virtual queue may prove costly as the devotees from other states may find it difficult to follow the same.”

The official explained: “These devotees usually come by train or bus. How can it be assured that they will reach on time? Thus, spot booking is the solution. Instead of implementing blind restrictions, the TDB could have thought about enhancing facilities.”

According to the TDB, the new system will be enforced from this year’s Mandala-Makaravilakku season, which starts on 15 November.

The devotees and stakeholders are saying that the onus now falls on the board to address the concerns they raised, and ensure that the coming pilgrimage season goes ahead smoothly, with Sabarimala’s cherished traditions and spiritual essence upheld.

The Sabarimala shrine will open for the Edavam monthly pooja on 14 May. It will remain open till 19 May.

(Edited by Arkadev Ghoshal)