Human, All Too Human

In a stunning revelation, the Sabarimala temple authorities admit that the miraculous fire is a work of human hands


FOR DECADES, devotees have thronged in their lakhs to Sabarimala, South India’s foremost place of pilgrimage, to bear witness to an annual miracle. Each year, on the last day of the mid-January Makaravilakku festival, the mysterious fire that gives the festival its name flashes thrice in the forests of the Ponnambalamedu hill, across from the ancient Ayyappa temple. Religious scholars, temple authorities and devotees have unanimously ascribed a divine source to the phenomenon, much to the annoyance of rationalists who have repeatedly attempted to expose its real cause. Successive governments, regardless of political persuasion, have put their weight behind foiling such efforts, however, and have ensured that police and forest department barricades around the area kept the secret protected.

But the rationalists, it seems, have finally carried the day as none other than Sabarimala’s high priest, Tantri Kantararu Maheswararu, has divested the Makaravilakku of divinity, stating in no uncertain terms that it is the work of human hands. Backing him are CK Guptan, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, and former board president G. Raman Nair. Confirmation has also been issued by Kerala’s Temple Affairs minister, G. Sudhakaran.

“It is very significant,” exults Dhanuvachapuram Sukumaran, a leading atheist who has led several fact-finding teams to Ponnambalamedu. “This is the first time the government has come clean on what the rationalists have said all along — that the Makaravilakku is no miracle but a fire made by burning camphor.

The catalyst for the temple’s unexpected statement came two weeks ago when CPM fellow traveller and Kerala Tourism Development Board chairman Cherian Philip urged the Left Front government to “disclose all truths” related to the Makaravilakku and dissociate itself from promoting religious falsehoods.

His demand was made in the context of the government’s launching a massive drive, across all religions, against so-called godmen and faith healers. Philip’s rejoinder: “It will be difficult to view the government’s move against godmen as sincere if it continues to support superstitions such as Makaravilakku.”

Philip’s provocative remarks caused apprehensions of a possible Hindutva backlash, but, to the astonishment of all, the Sabarimala clergy have practically endorsed his views. Talking to TEHELKA, Maheswararu’s grandson Rahul Easwar, the public face of the Tantri family, denied the temple authorities had ever claimed divine status for the Makaravilakku. “‘It was a misunderstanding in the minds of misinformed people,” he said, adding that the Makaravilakku is often confused with the Makarajyothi, a star seen on the horizon at the conclusion of the festival and believed to be the celestial manifestation of Lord Ayyappa. “The Makaravilakku is only a symbolic lighting of a lamp on the Ponnambalamedu, where there was a temple once,” he says. Avers P. Ravi Varma of the Pandalam royal family, considered custodians of Sabarimala, “The celestial theory appears to have originated about half a century ago. To us, the temple declaration brings nothing new. During my childhood, I have heard elders in my family giving instructions to ensure that the light is lit and flashed three times.”

Easwar claims he is not sure who lights the lamp today, but those who have campaigned against attributing divinity to Makaravilakku say this could not be so. While Sabarimala myth has it that the Ponnambalamedu lamp was first lit by Lord Parasuram, it became a tradition continued by local tribespeople for centuries. At some point after Independence, forest and power department employees, who work in the hills, took the ritual over. “The Ponnambalamedu hill is in the control of the state forest department,” states prominent atheist, MP Sadasivan. “The area also has some Kerala electricity board officials present 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 at around 6.30pm. This is happening at the behest of the temple body and the government.” Neither the state tourism minister nor the temple authorities are countering this allegation.

Calling Maheswararu’s declaration “a very welcome development in the battle against superstition,” U. Kalanathan, president of the Kerala Yukhtivadi Sanghom, an atheists’ association, also speaks of the dubious role the State has played over the Makaravilakku in the past. “We have tried for years to expose the fraud, but whoever tried to approach the area ran the risk of being arrested, or even of being killed. The authorities have done everything to perpetuate the belief that the appearance of the flame is indeed a miracle. Now, what we have always been certain of has become public knowledge.”

That Kalanathan is not exaggerating is evident from previous governmental efforts to silence questions around the Makaravilakku. In 1973, 24 people from Kollam in South Kerala managed to scale the Ponnambalamedu hill and burst firecrackers. They were later arrested for “disrupting the sanctity” of the place. Since they had not actually 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 clinching testimony, however, comes from Raman Nair, who headed the Devaswom board during the previous Congress government, and who claimed “it was the police and officials of the Travancore Devaswom Board who would jointly light the fire at Ponnambalamedu on the orders of the state government”

It is estimated that about 30 million devotees attend the Makaravilakku festival every year, flocking to the Periyar Tiger Reserve to turn the forest abode of the hermit god into a sea of worshipping humanity. Lasting 41 days, the festival culminates in a frenzy of joy when the Makarajyothi appears — in 1999, this resulted in a stampede in which 53 pilgrims were killed.

THE SABARIMALA temple has been at the thick of quite a few controversies for several years now. One of the most famous was over the ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 entering the temple, to preserve its sanctity for Ayyappa, a bachelor. Last year, however, Kannada actress Jayamala made headlines claiming she had visited the sanctum sanctorum and offered prayers when she was in her 20s. Another storm was created after one of the senior- most priests was caught at the house of a high profile, Kochi-based sex worker; he has subsequently been barred from performing rites. The Kerala State Human Rights Commission has also had to intervene to ask the Travancore Devaswom Board to allow male employees at the temple to wear underwear while counting the temple donations. Earlier, staff entering the counting chamber had to strip themselves of all clothing, except their dhotis, after the authorities found that money was being smuggled out, concealed in their undergarments.

However, for a temple as anciently revered as Sabarimala, such issues leave no mark on its worshippers. While the latest controversy has undoubtedly come as a shock to millions, rationalists and devotees alike may delight that a pointless fraud has been put to rest.

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