Fewer than 700 pilgrims arrived at the town in the first week of the pilgrim season
Scenes of pilgrims clad in black dancing to drum beats, decorated vehicles moving in and out without a break, and seasonal shops bustling with visitors… Erumeli becomes a beehive of activity when the annual pilgrimage season at Sabarimala takes off. But not this year.
The temple town, the key base station to the hill shrine, seems deserted, with fewer that 700 pilgrims reaching here over the first week of the season. This is a stark contrast to the estimated 25,000-odd pilgrims who passed through the town daily the previous season.
“The closure of the forest routes to Sabarimala, the daily limit in the number of pilgrims, and the condition that they should produce a COVID-19-negative certificate done 24 hours prior to reaching Nilackal have prompted the devotees to bypass Erumeli and head directly to the hill shrine,” said a senior official with the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB).
The decline in number of visitors to the two Ayyappa temples and the Nainar mosque have left the streets here, which usually throb in the spiritual frenzy of Petta Thullal, desolate. It also appears to have a considerable impact on the local business with most restaurants, shops, parking grounds and even toilet complexes, which operate only during the two-month season, remaining shut.
For instance, the TDB could lease out only 15 of the 74 items listed for auctioning this season while the income from auction, which crossed ₹3 crore last time, has not touched even ₹10 lakh.
“After the e-auction and open auctions evoked a near-zero response, we had to give out some of the essential items such as the parking ground, toilet complex, coconuts and the drum sets at a very nominal price. A couple of seasonal shops too have been opened which are being run more as an offering to Lord Ayyappa than for profits,” said Krishnakumar Warrier, Deputy Commissioner, TDB.
Jamaat too hit
The Erumeli Jamaat that owns parking ground and toilet complexes, and the household units which eke out a living by making articles for the pilgrims have also suffered losses.
The KSRTC, which clocked around ₹3.5 crore from its Sabarimala special services via Erumeli last year, too faces a crisis .
As against the 80 schedules operated with 35 buses in the previous season, the KSRTC has run only a handful of services in the Kottayam-Erumeli-Pampa sector so far this season.