Malini Nair, TNN | 21 Jun, 2014, 05.34AM IST
CHENNAI: From a distance, it is hard to figure out what the mess piled up on the banks of river Pamba is. The photograph is actually a surreal view of a sea of sodden dhotis abandoned by pilgrims as they end the hard trek to the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala.
This pile will soon degrade into pulp and join other junk and sewage waste that flows down this once-pristine river that feeds the Periyar Tiger Reserve. This will include water bottles, the oil drained from the smashed coconut shells and other kinds of non-degradable rubbish. This is what you see at the end of the festive season of December and January every year when a staggering 20 lakh pilgrims trek through the forested landscape of Sabarimala.
Veteran wildlife photographer NP Jayan worked for two years in the region, documenting the massive damage to its environment. Of the 7,000 frames he clicked, 70 are being mounted at the India International Centre in Delhi at a photo show titled Thathwamasi, Eye on the Periyar Tiger Reserve and Sabarimala.
“I have taken every pilgrim route in the area. Every one of them is littered with piles of refuse. The facilities here cannot even cope with 10 lakh pilgrims and we get 35 lakh on the final day of the season,” says Jayan, a nature lover who has also documented the damage caused to the Silent Valley national park in Kerala by mindless development.
Regulation of pilgrimages is a sensitive issue for obvious reasons but it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the devastation caused by excessive flow of the devout to India’s tirth yatras. Many such sacred sites are located in the midst of nature – rivers, mountains and forests and were protected from too much human intervention precisely because they were tough to access.
Sabarimala itself is called a kanana kshetram (forest temple), where the flora and fauna are as sacred as the shrine itself. “You cannot treat it the same way you do a popular urban temple. You cannot build concrete structures, roads and helipads and change the fundamental concept of what the shrine is meant to represent,” says former forest minister Binoy Viswam of the CPI. “The Travancore Devaswom Board appears to be only concerned with management issues and awarding of contracts.”
Environmentalists fear a disaster like Kedarnath. Experts had pointed out that the Himalayan tragedy was the result of excessive construction and development to cater to pilgrim needs. The Periyar forest reserve, known for its rich biodiversity and population of elephants and tigers, is threatened by the rampant development. “There are few tiger sightings here,” Jayan says, “a sure sign that the animals have been driven deep into the forest.”
There was a time when Sabarimala was a tough pilgrimage to pull off and drew far fewer believers. It wound through difficult and dangerous terrain inhabited by predators, was hard to access and women in reproductive phase of their life were anyway not allowed up. Today, access is easy, temple authorities have eased the ordeals of the climb, and the route is littered with shacks and commercial establishments. This pulls pilgrims from across the country, some of who travel the sacred route multiple number of times. “The problem is that the forest authorities and the establishment are wary of offending the bhaktas,” says Jayan.
Just four months ago the decaying carcass of an elephant was found in the Sabarimala forests. He had died of intestinal rupture caused by ingesting kilos of plastic waste. So far only plastic bags were banned inside the temple. There is now a call to extend the ban to all plastics. “It is now up to devotees to step up and take care of the temple’s environment,” says Viswam.