Why the old forest path is still risky for Sabarimala pilgrims

Why is the dangerous traditional forest path to Sabarimala so popular?
Sabarimala pilgrims at Kuzhimavu. File photo

Erumely/ Mundakkayam: Sabarimala pilgrimage is marked by rigid penance and arduous journey. Every year lakhs of pilgrims undertake a long forest trek to reach the hill temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. A few pilgrims die on the way often due to cardiac arrest as they trudge along the undulating hills and narrow forest path on to which wild animals intrude. A few days ago a pilgrim was trampled to death by an elephant on this busy path and the Kerala Forest Department issued a warning subsequently.

Even though fraught with danger, a trek through the traditional forest path cannot be avoided by large number of Sabarimala pilgrims and their number is growing every year. A few accidents or tragedies on the way can never dissuade devotees from proceeding through the thick forests on the fringes of Kerala's Pathanamthitta district.

From the first day of the ongoing pilgrimage season till last Sunday, as many as 2,29,143 pilgrims passed through the traditional forest path, according to the data with the Forest authorities.

It is pointed out that the appearance of wild elephants is becoming more frequent outside the forest as plants like ‘channa’ and ‘vyara’ which are the favourite of the animals are no longer available in plenty in the deep woods. The elephants, facing a shortage of their preferred meal, come to the traditional forest path to the Sabarimala Temple in search of the leftovers of the food carried by the pilgrims.

Incidentally, the traditional forest path, which passes through the Periyar Tiger Reserve, is opened only during the Mandala-Makaravilakku season.

A long walk

The distance of the forest path from Erumely to Pamba is 37 km and the stretch through the Periyar tiger reserve alone extends to 21 km. After the ‘petta thullal’ at Erumely, pilgrims reach the Kalaketty Temple and take a dip in the Azhutha River before venturing into the forest. Other devotees coming via Kuzhimavu walk also walk to Mukkuzhy.

The forest beyond the Azhutha River is the area of the tiger reserve and the next 21 km is protected forest. There is plenty of wildlife, including elephants, here. The trekking path passes along Kallidamkunnu, Inchippara, Vellacheenithavalam, Mukkuzhy, Vellaramchetta, Puthussery, Karikilamthodu, Karimala, Valiyanavattom and Cheriyanavattom to reach Pamba.

As the time taken to cover the Azhutha-Pamba path is around seven hours, solo pilgrims too have been asked to avoid this trek.

Areas free of wild animals in the forest include Erumely, Peroorthodu and Irumboonnikkara which are inhabited by humans. From Koyikkakkavu, pilgrims enter the deep forest but the presence of wild animals, except bison, is negligible here. The bison is often harmless.

Avoid night trek: Forest Dept

With wild elephants often straying to the forest path, the Forest Department has imposed restrictions on pilgrims at night. Officials said that the path is dangerous especially from 5 pm to 6 am as the population of elephants had registered an increase. Moreover, other wild animals are also present in large numbers, they added, and cautioned pilgrims to maintain a safe distance from the wild creatures.

The Forest Department has advised pilgrims to avoid this stretch at night as the path has several steep climbs and descends which are difficult to negotiate in the dark, apart from the presence of wild animals. Considering the curbs on night travel, it is pointed out that it could take three days to reach Pamba from Erumely.

Curbs opposed

On the other hand, activists of the forest protection committee blamed the severe restrictions imposed by the Forest authorities for the presence of elephants on the path. According to them, wild elephants would keep away from the forest path when there is an uninterrupted flow of pilgrims. Elephants can sense the chanting of the pilgrims round-the-clock along the traditional forest path and would move to the interiors of the forest, they claimed.

According to Rajeev Kumar, a pilgrim hailing from Chennai who has been trekking to the Sabarimala Temple through the forest path for the last 30 years, safety could be ensured by maintaining austerity while preparing for the pilgrimage and exercising caution in the forest. “Remember that in the forest, your own safety is of prime importance. Also, follow the directives of the police and Forest officials,” he said.

Devotees need to remind themselves that they were engaged in a pilgrimage and not a trek to a tourist spot, noted Pradeep, another pilgrim from Chennai.