40 per cent fall in pilgrims to Sabarimala from AP, TS

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Ongole: The number of Ayyappa devotees dropped by around 40 per cent this year from two Telugu stataes. Though the wreckage caused by the natural calamities like floods and Cyclone Gaja is the main reason for the drop in large number of people, the political uncertainty and violence taking place now in the God’s own country following the Supreme Court judgment allowing women into Sabarimala shrine, are affecting the plans of a large number of first timers.

Every year, it is estimated that more than 15 lakh people from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana visit Sabarimala in Kerala. Though the women, who are on menstrual cycle (age group 10 to 50) are prohibited from visiting the Lord Ayyappa shrine and touching the sacred 18 steps in Sabarimala, other girls and aged women, are allowed to accompany the male devotees to visit the shrine and seek darshan of the Ayyappa. Floods and Cyclone Gaja left a trail of destruction in Kerala, inlcuding in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, where Sabarimala shrine is located in the Pathanamthitta district.

This situation in Kerala made many people from AP and Telangana to rethink about the Ayyappamala this season. Jagarlamudi Murali Krishna from Nuzvid, who regularly visits Sabarimala in the last week of December, explained that there is a huge difference in the number of devotees visiting the shrine. He said that there used to be heavy rush to go through the Padunettambadi and visit the deity and it takes about three to four hours for the completion of darshan.

But in his trip this year, he spent hardly 30 minutes as there are not much devotees. He said that more than 40 per cent of devotees known to him dropped the idea of the pilgrimage this year. The aftermath of Supreme Court’s judgment to allow women of all ages into the Sabarimala shrine and the decision of the local government to implement it even by using security forces triggered controversy. The attempts of a few women to seek blessings of the deity were foiled by people opposing their visit.

The news of the continuing protests and violence in Kerala disturbed the plans of devotees from AP and Telangana. Though the elders are starting the journey with confidence on the Almighty, their families are concerned about their children and asking the Guru Swamis about alternatives to complete the Deeksha. Bhagavathula Rangaiah from Ongole, a Guru Swami who visited Sabarimala 33 times, said that though others are thinking about completing the Deeksha in local temples, while he is encouraging his disciples to complete it at the Sabarimala only.

He said that a few people are unnecessarily making Sabarimala a controversy. He said that it is the duty of all civilians to respect all religions in the country and their sentiments about few places where women are not allowed. He also condemned the notices given to the Sabarimala temple Tantri, the priest, for announcing that he would close the doors and not allow any woman into the temple.

The effect of the dropdown in the number of Ayyappa devotees visiting Sabarimala is also visible on the traders and tour operators. Thota Krishna, a bus owner cum driver from Guntur, said that he used to visit Sabarimala at least twice every year as the driver to devotees. But this year, he has received no contract yet.

D Anjaneyulu, a puja items shop owner in Ongole, said that he expected that there will be a slight reduction in the number of devotees at the starting of the season. But as the Ayyappa Deeksha period is about to conclude, he said that the difference is huge and he didn’t make enough money to pay to the distributors of clothes, bags, rudraksha and beads malas. He and everyone are hoping that the next year will be peaceful, as the political turmoil on Sabarimala likely to fade after the Lok Sabha elections.

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