The famed Lord Ayyappa temple here opened to devotees Saturday morning after remaining closed for over six months due to the coronavirus pandemic, with a few worshippers wearing masks and carrying COVID-19 negative certificate offering prayers.
The temple, which opened for the monthly puja on Friday evening, will allow pilgrims to offer prayers till October 21, the first five days of the new Malayalam month 'Thulam'.
Rapid antigen tests are being conducted at Nilackal for those not carrying a negative test report for COVID-19.
This is the first time since March 25, when a nationwide lockdown came into force, that pilgrims are being allowed to offer prayers at the hill shrine.
As many as 246 people have booked through the virtual queue system for darshan on Saturday. Each day only 250 people will be allowed inside the temple.
Only those between 10-60 years, having a medical certificate stating that they were fit to trek the holy hill, are being allowed to offer prayers.
COVID restrictions at Sabarimala
Amid the ongoing pandemic, all staff, officials and devotees are instructed to strictly abide the COVID-19 protocols as dictated by the State and the Health Department.
• All pilgrims who wish to visit the temple for darshan should register with Kerala Government's 'Jagratha' web portal and make the bookings through the Kerala Police virtual queue system.
• Pilgrims would also have to produce a certificate showing that they are COVID-19 negative and a medical certificate certifying that they are fit enough to make the Sabarimala trek, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said on Thursday.
"The insistence on the certificate of good health should not be seen as harassment of devotees. On the other hand, it was for the safety and protection of the devotees," Vijayan said.
• The devotees should have masks, sanitizers and gloves.
• They are not permitted to walk in groups. Entry is only through Vadasserikkara and Erumeli routes.
• Hospitals are up and running at Nilakkal, Pamba and Sannidhanam. Paramedical staff has been appointed in these hospitals. Doctors will be deployed today.
• All routes, save for the Vadasserikkara and Erumely route, all others have been closed to restrict the passage to Sabarimala.
• Devotees will not be permitted to take the ritualistic dip in the Pamba river. Showers have been installed at Pamba for the devotees to take baths.
• They will not be allowed to take rest at Erumely and Idathavalam.
• Traditional petta thullal (ritualistic dance involving pilgrims' mainly first-timers to Sabarimala) and processions with more than 5 persons have been prohibited.
• Artefacts, masks, wooden arrows and other objects used for traditional processions should not be taken on rent.
• Pilgrims are prohibited from entering Manimala, Meenachil rivers and other water bodies in the area.
• The showers installed near Valiyathodu in Erumely will be avoided this time because of the heavy flow of water. These showers will be shifted and set up at some other place.
• Bathing rooms and toilets should be used strictly complying with COVID protocol.
• If needed, pilgrims will be subjected to antigen tests.
Security at Sabarimala
The state police have also taken elaborate measures to ensure that devotees coming to the temple strictly comply with the COVID protocols.
Over 200 police personnel will be deployed at Sannidhanam alone. In addition to this, there would also be heavy deployment of police in Nilakkal and Pamba.
The commandant of the Kerala Armed Police (KAP) Fifth Battalion K Radhakrishnan has been appointed as the Police Special Officer to oversee security, a release issued by the state police said.
The Pathanamthitta district police chief and the KAP third Battalion commandant will assist the special officer.
Jayarajan Potti appointed Sabarimala chief priest
VK Jayarajan Potti was on Saturday appointed 'Melsanthi' (Chief Priest) of the Lord Ayyappa temple here for one year from November 16, when the Mandala Puja season commences.
Raji Kumar M N Namboothiri was selected as Chief Priest of the adjoining Malikappuram Devi temple.
The selections were made by drawing lots from a panel of priests shortlisted after interviews conducted by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which manages the hill shrine.
They will take over as Chief Priests on November 16, on the eve of the 41-day Mandala season starting from the month of Vrishchikam of Malayalam calendar,TDB sources said.
Restrictions for annual pilgrimage:
Travancore Devaswom Board Special Commissioner has submitted a detailed report before the High Court recommending a series of measures, precautions and do’s and don'ts to be complied with during the annual pilgrimage season in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic.
The report recommends that pilgrims should be allowed to enter Sabarimala temple only through a virtual queue system during Mandala-Makaravilakku season besides limiting the number of people arriving at Sannidhanam at a particular point.
In his report the special commissioner M Manoj urged the high court that police and authorities concerned of devaswom board may be directed to strictly comply with COVID protocol.
Private vehicles should be allowed access only up till Nilakkal.
The directorate of health services in association with police and devaswom board should prepare comprehensive COVID guidelines for Sabarimala, Nilakkal, Pamba and Erumeli and they should give wide publicity for the same. The people coming from other south Indian states should be provided with exact information from time to time.
Major recommendations of the report
Entry and stay:
• COVID negative certificate is mandatory for obtaining virtual queue pass.
• Those below the age of 10 years, above the age of 60 years and those having chronic health issues should avoid visiting Sabarimala.
• Resting and stay should be avoided at Sannidhanam, Pamba and Nilakkal.
• All staff linked with hotels including those associated with annadanam should have mandatory Covid negative tests. Adequate sanitation facilities should be put in place at the eating areas.
Social distance and precautions
• Avoid crowding or queues in Sannidhanam including Pathinettam Padi and maintain social distancing norms.
• The following facilities will be available at Check Point Nilakkal; virtual queue registration counter, KSRTC ticket counter, police security check counter and medical checkup counter of health officials.
• KSRTC drivers’ cabins should be segregated. If there is a system of getting tickets before boarding the bus then conductors could avoid contact with passengers.
• Devotees should avoid taking bath in Pamba and Erumeli.
• Ensure prasadam distribution is undertaken strictly complying with social distancing norms.
• The filling of irumudi kettu at Pamba can be avoided.
• Crowding at the devaswom office in Sannidhanam and the offices of melsanthi and tanthri should be avoided.
• Devotees bringing ghee for abhishekam should submit the same at the counters at Sannidhanam and in place of that receive ghee on which abhishekam has been performed .
• Police may be directed to use the queue complex along the Sharamkutthy path.
• Testing kiosks to be set up at Nilakkal, Pamba and Sanidham and if required facilities for antigen test will be put in place at these places.
• In the event of pilgrims, staff, thantri , melshanti and others developing Covid symptoms then they need to know what should be done.
• The maintenance works at the hospitals in Sannidhanam, Neelimala and Appachimedu should be completed.