Tens of thousands of devotees chanted Swamiye Sharanamayappa as Makaravilakku — the “holy” light — appeared on Ponnambalamedu, a hill opposite Sabarimala, the abode of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala.
Television crews perched at vantage points to cover the event on Saturday, 14 January. One among them was the crew of Kairali Channel, funded and promoted by the ruling CPI(M).
“Ponnambalamettil Makaravilakku Thelinju” (Makaravilakku flashes at Ponnambalamedu), the channel said in its commentary, as did others covering the event. And a debate erupted on social media — yet again — on how the media is promoting superstition.
The critics launched a broadside at the media, saying it should exercise restraint and objectivity while covering religious events. They singled out Kairali.
The report contradicted a 2022 breaking news by the same channel: Bhakti sandramayi Sabarimala. Ponnambalamettil Makaravilakku Theliyichu. (Sabarimala drowns in piety. Makaravilakku was “lit” at Ponnambalamedu).
The critics pointed out the two words: “lit” which the channel had used in 2022 and “flashes” employed while covering the event on Saturday
They accused Kairali, which they claimed is supposed to fight superstition and false propaganda, of trying to appease social segments keen on promoting religious obscurantism.
The critics lauded a recently launched Malayalam news portal, The Fourth, for being objective by simply saying Makaravilakku was “lit” in the Ponnambalamadu forests for the devotees who thronged Sabarimala.
The social debate is the continuation of a long-drawn war between rationalists and devotees in Kerala who have been arguing whether the “miracle” fire visible three times at the end of the pilgrimage season is manmade or a divine act.
For many decades, lakhs of devotees have witnessed the flashing of the light, which was then claimed to be a miracle.
Devaswom Board clarifies
Incidentally, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, had withdrawn its claim that it was Lord Ayyappa himself who was flashing the light. The Board submitted to the high court that it is manmade. However, devotees from outside Kerala still believe it to be a celestial event.
Religious leaders, temple authorities, and organisations of devotees had attributed divinity to the “rare phenomenon” at Ponnambalamedu, even as rationalists challenged them and vowed to expose the forces behind the fire.
Successive governments have not attempted to unravel the mystery, but backed the religious narrative. Rationalists attempted to trek to Ponnambalamedu, but the police and Forest Department officials forced them back. Barricades were also erected around the area.
Also read: Kerala High Court stops sale of Sabarimala prasadam
The high priest too…
The mystery continued till 2008. It was unraveled when the high priest of Sabarimala, Tantri Kandararu Maheswararu, announced in no uncertain terms that the fire is manmade.
Orthodox elements had to remain tightlipped as CK Guptan and G Raman Nair, successive presidents of the Travancore Devaswom Board, ratified the high priest’s revelation. The then minister of devaswom, G Sudhakaran, too, confirmed it and ended the false narrative, albeit for the time being.
Tantri Kandararu Maheswararu said that the Devaswom Board staff lit the fire by burning camphor at a particular location owned by the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB). No Hindutva group questioned the priest.
Interestingly, successive governments, including the progressive Left, promoted superstition.
Rahul Easwar, the public face of the Tantri family that conducts the rituals at Sabarimala, accused the local media of spreading the false narrative to sell more copies.
He denied that the temple authorities had ever claimed divine status for the annual flashing of the light.
Easwar also contended that the Makaravilakku is often confused with Makarajyothi, a star (Sirius) seen on the first of the Malayalam month of Makaram.
He added that Makaravilakku is only the symbolic lighting of a lamp at Ponnambalamedu, where a temple had existed earlier.
According to the writings of P Ravi Varma of the Pandalam royal family, the custodians of Sabarimala, the celestial lighting theory originated about 50 years ago.
He said during his childhood, he got instructions from elders in the family to ensure that the light was lit and flashed three times on the final day of the annual festival.
While the Sabarimala myth has it that Lord Parasuram first lit the Ponnambalamedu lamp, it became a tradition continued by local tribespeople (Malayaras) for centuries.
After Independence, the forest and power department employees, who work in the hills, took over the responsibility of lighting the lamp. “The Ponnambalamedu hill is under the KSEB’s control and the state Forest Department,” atheists said.
“The area also has the presence of a some KSEB officials because of its proximity to a few hydel power projects. The officials assemble at Ponnambalamedu on the last day of the festival, perform a ritual and light the camphor fire as soon as they get a message from the temple around 6.30 pm. This happens at the behest of the temple authorities and the government,” said Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham.
“We have tried for years to expose the fraud, but whoever tried to approach the area runs the risk of being arrested or even killed. The authorities have done everything to perpetuate the belief that the appearance of the flame is a miracle. What we have always been certain has now become public knowledge,” said U Kalanadhan, a rationalist.
Who wants the divine angle?
Interestingly, Sabarimala has a long history of silencing those who talk against the lighting of the fire. In 1973, 24 people from Kollam in South Kerala trekked to Ponnambalamedu hill and burst firecrackers.
They were arrested for desecrating the place. Since they had not committed any crime as per the Indian Penal Code, they were later released.
In 1980, a group of rationalists from Thrissur also visited Ponnambalamedu and reported that the stories around it were fake. A year later, however, another such team was severely beaten up and driven back by the police on the orders of the then-CPM-led government.
The testimony, however, came from Raman Nair, who then headed the Devaswom Board under the Congress government.
“It’s the police and officials of the Travancore Devaswom Board who would jointly light the fire at Ponnambalamedu on the orders of the state government,” he said.
Despite the tantri and devaswom official asserts the fire is manmade, the debate still rages at the end of each pilgrimage season at Sabarimala, a temple that earns crores of rupees in revenue during the annual Mandala-Makaravilakku festival.