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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Gold, Smoke and Plastic Devotees!

The Coimbatore-Palakkad highway must one of these days find entry in  the Guinness Book of Records for being under widening  or 4- laning ever since………….err the Big Bang! It has been WiP since time immemorial. My oft repeated and lame attempt at comedy that while it takes 2 hours to drive this 40 kms odd distance by car, I could possibly do the same in 90 minutes in a brisk jog is still not past its sell-by-date! The shocking aspect of this roadway to Gods Own Country story is while work is underway albeit snail paced in the Kerala side of the border, it is in the Tamil Nadu side where it has ground to a standstill for obvious reasons unlike the general rule of it being the other way round. Kerala 1, Tamil Nadu 0!


I am not heavily given to pilgrimage. I can count barely a handful among the plethora of religious/holy places in India that I have visited purely as a pilgrim. Among the more popular Temples (meaning richer temples) that I have visited are Tirupati, Vaishnao Devi and just recently, Sabarimalai. The last named ranks 4th in hierarchy and bank balance among temples in India I am told, with Shiridi rounding off the list. (Till the assets recently discovered at Padmanabhaswamy Temple at Thiruvananthapuram are audited and published, this ranking will hold good. Post the audit the last named will jump straight to top slot if the rumored value of the treasures discovered is true).


(For those who came in late, Sabarimalai Temple, the abode of Lord Ayyappa in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, atop the Western Ghats is one of the holiest Hindu shrines in India. The temple is open for only 4 odd days during each of the eleven months of the Hindu calendar. The twelfth month is the ‘Peak season’ for the temple, generally around mid-Dec to Mid- Jan period when the temple is open every day and attracts millions of devotees) 

I as a habit am not given to unnecessary outrage, a streak of chalta hain being predominant in my attitude towards many a thing in this country. However post my recent experiences at Sabarimalai, I will fail in my duties if I do not give a piece of my mind to the members of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) which is the organization responsible to manage and maintain the temple affairs. And post my first hand experience as a visitor, during ‘non-peak’ season to boot, I am confident of being very objective in my assessment of the TDB’s performance. Read on!


The first thing that hits you as you alight early in the morning on the banks of Pampa, the starting point of your ‘shortened’ trek up the Sabari Hills is the pressure of err…………..the call of nature! Once you manage to push back the pressure and manage a brisk walk for a few minutes, you will find yourself at the banks of the Pampa river and adjacent to a row of public ‘pay-n-use’ toilets. All pretty commendable till you enter one of them. I wouldn’t blame you if you felt that the toilets were built on the river rather than the banks. If the mounting pressure prods you to wade through the accumulated lake, you can then start the hunt for a bucket to fetch water and then try and deposit your ‘contribution’ with eyes firmly shut and nose tightly plugged!


The other claim to fame of Sabarimalai is that it is situated within what is officially Periyar Tiger Reserve Forest, encompassing parts of Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts of Kerala. One of the enduring and highly revered pictures related to Sabarimalai is the one of Lord Ayyapan as the young Prince of Pandalam riding atop a Tiger as Manikanthan. While I was fortunate not to run into one, what did catch my attention was the notices placed in strategic locations on the trek which had the national animal of India beseeching us to love it just the way the Lord did! (A curious thought strikes me here. Did I fail to see tigers because they were avoiding the route taken by the most ferocious animals created by nature, Humans or is it because there are no tigers left in the designated tiger reserve?)

Ayyappa! Where is the 'Vaahanam'?


However to give credit where it is due, halfway up the hill, one comes across a series of urinals at various spots right up until the Sannidhanam, the Temple premises. Kudos! (But a few signs along the way informing about their presence would have prevented the devotees from indulging in our favourite pastime of ‘watering the plants’ in the open!)


Two example of a wonderful departure from the routine that comes to my mind are Tirupati and Munnar.  Among the other excellent arrangements that these two destinations have managed is to make the respective hills plastic free. An oasis in the otherwise gloomy scenario that confronts us at most tourist destinations in India. Sabarimalai is also a declared plastic free zone. As regards the effectiveness of the implementation………………………..behold the picture below!


While many of the above mentioned issues may well be brushed under the excuse of ‘too many people, too little space’ (Money can’t be an excuse here) and all of them relate to the infrastructure or the lack of it, what take this to blasphemous levels is when you see the Temple employees indulging in smoking! Inside the temple premises!! Right under the ‘No Smoking’ signboards!! Swamy Sharanam!! Herewith hoping Arun Jaitley is much more severe come the next budget!


Dear TDB! Must you take the ‘Kallum mullum kalukku meththai’ so seriously? Or else please explain your deed of throwing concrete and stone chips all along the route so randomly and which are so effective in not living up to the chant that even mother nature would have been more sympathetic and less punishing to our feet!


If the TDB thinks that this is nothing but an exercise in nitpicking, let me assure them it is not. While conceding the thankless job they have of managing crowds often numbering a couple of lakhs in a few hundred square meters area, I think the Devaswom Board should immediately take a trip of Tirupati, a study-cum-pilgrimage, to understand how to manage not only the crowd but also the attendant facilities to ensure safe, hygienic, peaceful stay and darshan at the holy places. TDB should remember, unlike Sabarimalai, Tirupati temple is open 365 days and almost 24*7. The Tirumala Hills is a few hundred square meters too. And attract numbers which would be at par with Sabarimalai’s if not more..............daily!


Time I gave TDB a break and picked up gauntlets against that industry which is supposedly the epitome of India Shining. Sorry all you so called world class telephony companies. Your network in Sabarimalai is well…………………………..absent! The network that follows me in Sannidhanam when I am there next can be assured of my patronage!


You will not be able to miss a gold plated plaque at the beginning of trek route which grandly informs us that the gold plating of the vimanam of the Ayyappan Sannidanam is courtesy a certain Vijay Mallya. To refresh your memory, he is the same dude whose company has singlehandedly contributed Rs.4052.00 Crores to the Non-Performing-Assets count of various Indian banks. However to be fair to him, I think the contribution to Sabarimalai's kitty is likely to have been made much before he stopped paying salaries to many of his employees!

PS: There is more to Sabarimalai than just what is written here. Maybe one day!!!!

Chalta Hain: ‘Its Okay’ culture!
Swamy Sharanam: Chant meaning I surrender at your feet.
Kallum Mullum Kalukku Meddai: Popular chant while trekking. Literal: Stones and thorns are like beds. Figurative:  By your grace even the Stones and thorns massage my feet like soft beds.
Vimanam: Roof above the sanctum sanctorum
Vaahanam: Mount of the lord