On a Mission to Make Sabarimala a Pilgrims’ Paradise

Around 40 million pilgrims visit Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple in Kerala during the pilgrimage season which lasts from November to January every year.

At the end of 41 days of self-purifying ritual known as ‘vrata’, marked by fasting, abstinence and prayers, they seek to cleanse their souls by taking a dip in the holy waters of river Pamba and having darshan of Lord Ayyappa after a long and arduous climb to the shrine.

But when such huge numbers of devotees visit the shrine during the pilgrimage season what often gets overlooked is the environmental hazard posed to the river and the surrounding areas resulting from unchecked disposal of waste and inadequate cleaning measures. This scenario is slowly but surely improving, thanks to the efforts taken as part of ‘Mission Green Sabarimala’ – a practical and optimistic project initiated by Pathanamthitta District Collector S Harikishore IAS.

“What began as an anti-plastic campaign last year has now assumed a wider dimension and become a mission to provide the best experience to each pilgrim while safeguarding the environment,” Harikishore beams as he tells us how ‘Mission Green Sabarimala’ has already started giving results despite being a social experiment of sorts.  The ‘plastic-free campaign’ launched in 2014-’15 focused on spreading awareness against the use of plastic. Multiple points of contact were identified like the KSRTC bus stations and buses, petrol bunks and trekking paths through the forest to disseminate messages highlighting importance of cleanliness and need to shun plastic materials, especially carry bags. Exchange counters were also set up where pilgrims could get their plastic bags exchanged with eco-friendly cloth bags. Almost 2000 exchanges take place every day.

Mission Green Sabarimala, which was introduced this year, is an evolution of the ‘plastic-free’ campaign and has been instrumental in bringing about positive changes. It has been successful in curbing the disposal of clothes in the Pamba river by pilgrims which was banned by the Kerala High Court. “Throwing clothes in the Pamba was never a ritual. It’s just an example of how a habit gets formed through the mob effect,” Harikishore said. Now there are eco-guards deployed with the twin objectives of educating the public and collecting the waste. There are school children campaigning at Pamba against the pollution of the river, which has also helped bring about a huge difference.

Those who wish to take part in the mission as a volunteer can register their names on the official website: www. missiongreensabarimala.com. Almost 300 volunteers have registered till date, and they will be given an opportunity to perform an hour’s service in an area of their choice. This is an opportunity for anyone who wishes to see a change for the better at Pamba.  There’s also an innovative ‘signature campaign’ in place where pilgrims pledge not to pollute the abode of Lord Ayyappa. Almost 3500 people put their signature on the canvas in agreement everyday.

In the words of Travancore Devaswom Board President Prayar Gopalakrishnan: “The work done this year by the District Collector’s team at Pamba has exceeded all our expectations and I am extremely appreciative of the signature campaign, which has without any doubt, driven the Mission Green Sabarimala’s message into the psyche of every pilgrim.’’

The mission doesn’t end with a mere spreading of awareness. It goes one step further and strives to bring about an improvement in the experience of pilgrims as well. With the support of the Kerala Water Authority, four reverse osmosis plants are being set up in Pamba. This is a welcome move in the wake of pilgrims discarding about 20 lakh used plastic water bottles every season in and around Sabarimala. Similarly, toll-free numbers have been made operational to help pilgrims share complaints about 300-odd shops in the Sabarimala area. Moreover, about 24 emergency medical booths have been set up along the 1.5-km stretch that pilgrims climb. This will hopefully bring down the number of fatal incidents during the arduous climb.

“Mission Green Sabarimala has seen almost 20 organisations coming together seamlessly, and each of their contributions have been immense. Kudumbashree, Shuchitva Mission, Department of Forests, KSRTC, Police department, SBT, RTO…the list goes on. Next year, we plan to go beyond awareness and start enforcing cleanliness strictly.” Harikishore sums up. Through Mission Green Sabarimala, the call to devotees is to embrace Responsible Pilgrimage.