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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Reflections on Sabarimala



A month after my pilgrimage to Sabarimala, I'd like to look back at it and ask "why". Why did I go? What does it mean to me? And, where do I go from here?

I consider myself a novice when it comes to making this pilgrimage. Last year being my first trip to this shrine, I had a very VIP experience. Nothing austere or worthy of being called penance. Just, well, a bit of a religious holiday in all-black attire without footwear. When we reached the actual temple compound, after walking uphill for a couple of kilometres, we were greeted by the throngs of devotees who had arrived to worship. In all fairness, it was a rather unholy mess, and as an initiate, I was rather shocked to not get one, singular answer about how we were supposed to go about conducting ourselves. I heard people instructing me to do one thing while all around me they seemed to be doing just the opposite, or at least following what I thought to be fifty slight variations that those instructing me didn't know existed. The crowds were maddening, and with the sea of humanity coming together at a bottlenecked eighteen holy steps, before being manhandled by security personnel who attempted to haul us up this critical part of the pilgrimage, it was impossible to keep my cool and continue thinking righteous thoughts. But, like I said before, I was a novice. This was my first time, and I was trying to take it all in. I managed to glimpse Lord Ayappa's idol -- this was part of the VIP treatment that saw us cut to the front of the line, and enjoy an extended gaze into the sanctum sanctorum -- and I felt good for having made this journey because it had suddenly come to me to want to do this, and I did it. A misplaced sense of achievement really, because I had it much easier than the multitudes who had spent hours in line waiting to see their God. Most of them had been there overnight! Still, in spite all the devotion, standing back and observing this melee of ritualistic madness, it was painfully apparent that people had lost all sight of their fellow man in their effort to reach the divine. The sea of humanity would mercilessly engulf the unwary devotee, without a trace.

When I went again last month, it happened to be during the anniversary of the Babri Masjid incident so there weren't as many people around. That's not to imply that the throng lacked any strength of number, however. And, we did arrive at the start of our holy journey near midnight; an "ungodly" hour to use this term, unfortunately. But making the climb, I was astonished to see that the vendors on either side of the path were in full swing. Sabarimala had gone 24x7! Or maybe this was always the case. Well, reaching the main temple compound, we were greeted by the same rush of devotees and the incoherent ways in which each of them perform worship. On my second trip, however, I managed to look at the idol of Lord Ayappa for a long time. Sure the security guard shoved me out of the way and said I was blocking everyone's view, but I was engrossed by the aura of the entire thing. So much so, that I didn't mind the shoving.

All things taken into account though, I was disappointed. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot of faith, and I'm not up for the whole obligation-to-god thing. I find that people are already planning to make the pilgrimage for the following year on their way down the hillside. It's almost like a holiday this. And, don't even get me started on the whole knowing the right way to do things part of it. There are people with over 20 years worth of experience making this pilgrimage who have totally different views about the "right way to do things" from each other. So, how is an initiate supposed to know what to do? Also, several reports of corruption in the Travancore Devaswom Board (the governing body that oversees the affairs of this temple), locals being forced out of subsidized business opportunities by nefarious syndicates, and the deterioration of the pristine environment due to gross negligence have put off of this for next year. I'd like this religious journey to hold a little more meaning for me, and I'm going to wait a bit before I go back.

Swamiye Sharanam Ayappa...
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