‘THATHWAMASI’ – A photo documentation around the Sabarimala forests

‘THATHWAMASI’ – A photo documentation around the Sabarimala forests


By N P Jayan

January 15, 2011.

It was the very next day after the ‘Makaravilakku’ (sighting the divine lamp) festival at Sabarimala, the most revered pilgrim centre in South India. The festival this time ended in a great tragedy. Almost 104 devotees were killed in a stampede and over fifty were injured.

While going to sleep late at night as I was preoccupied with a scheduled function of the Mathrubhumi, a leading national publishing house, all my thoughts were about the abode of Lord Ayyapan and the mishap that had happened. There were announcement on TV channels that the Kerala government had declared the following day as a mourning day. State ministers, including the Chief Minister and all the members of the Kerala Legislative Assembly had cancelled their official functions.

Dawn was just nearing when my phone rang. The man on the other end was then Principal Forest Conservator T.M Manoharan IFS. He was head of Kerala Forest Department and wanted me to do photo documentation on the “Pulmedu” stampede on the same line I had done the “Vanavas ‘project in 2006 -2007 on Silent Valley in the Palakkad district of Kerala. Though it took more than a year to tell the tale of vanishing animals and the flora fauna of Silent Valley, the work was well appreciated all over India and abroad. The expose through the exhibition had also played role in the cancellation of the Pathrakkadaavu hydroelectric project which was close to commissioning stage. He wanted me to a do a similar work on the Periyar Tiger Reserve, which is part of the Sabarimala forest region.

“Jayan can enter the forest like a bird getting into its nest and leaving it,” was his comment while giving me permission to enter the Sabarimala region. I could read the concern and hopes of a sincere and committed forest officer from his voice.
He wanted me to do a photo documentation of the Sabarimala forest and the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the wake of the tragedy in three stages: before the pilgrimage, during the pilgrimage and after the pilgrimage.

Though a photo journalist, it was my second visit to Sabarimala after thirty years. I was in the schools and watched the serenity and beauty of the hillocks and nature during my visit. William Wordsworth had written a lot on nature. Born to nature and brought up in it I had read it.

The greed of man and his vested interests has done great damage to nature and other living beings on earth. The stampede which should not have happened was just a manifestation of what is in store. So I had to do something and that too quickly. Experience has taught me that precautions taken by forest officials are of no use as the growing number of pilgrims year by year violate all the rules. Blind faith always wreaks havoc. But the faithful do not realise that they are hurting nature. My mission was to present the wounds inflicted on nature by the devotees.

I reached Uppupara on a rainy day in 2011. The sight at Pulmedu, where 104 Ayyappa devotes got killed in the stampede, which could have been averted had they cooperated with the forest department, was disturbing. The entire area was full of sandals and ‘rutrashams’ of those either crushed to death or injured in the mishap. Some of it could belong to those who escaped unhurt. They were the remains of a major tragedy. Words cannot describe what I felt at that moment. The very scent and shadow of death was lingering there. The heavy downpour of rain and the strong wind reminded me of the screams and tears of a hapless woman who had lost everything. Yes; the screams of nature which always go unheard.
Heavy rain continued for the next two weeks and it obstructed my further journey. The Sabarimala ‘Sannidan,” (sanctum sanctorum) always visible from Pulmedu during the main festival was shrouded by the mist. I could proceed only after two weeks. What awaited me on the way from Pulmedu to Sannidan was heaps of abandoned plastic carry bags and garbage. It was still there as the remains of the big tragedy that had happened a few weeks ago. The headache that the devotees who sneak into the forest seeking a short cut to reach Sannidan, giving to the forest officials cannot be explained.

Various varieties of flowers and plants having medicinal value can be found on the green pastures on the terrain. What were sticking out were the plastic bottles from among the wild orchid plants in full bloom. There are also many mountain springs. The devotees are rather afraid to embark on this route after the Pulmedu tragedy. But the sight of rubber plantations bordering the green patches look like giants ready to swallow the remaining greenery of the entire region. Indeed it is a heart-breaking sight for any nature lover. After all what avaricious men know about the ecological importance of this greenery. Unfortunately they don’t understand the truth that even his existence owes a lot to the rare plants on this stretch. Yet another threat to the green stretches are the flowering plants belonging to alien species that have started invading the region owing to the carelessness of devotees . Different varieties of flowers like arabian jasmine ( Chendu Malli), marigold ( bandhi ) and mustard flowers used for making garlands for Lord Ayyappa. The seeds from the flowers get spread and create a biological menace in the area.

What was sticking out were the plastic from between wild orchids, ruining the quiet and earthy beauty of the hillock, atop which the famous Sree Dharma Sastha Temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappan is situated. But my recent visit to the same place proved quite different as the entire area had undergone a drastic change. The very beauty and serenity of the place was missing. The abode of Lord Ayyappan has turned into a nauseating mess. What hurt me the most was the stinking smell emanating from the dung and urine and the sight of the wild boars eating feces.

Yet another thing that disturbed me was remains of crackers, plastic waste and nailed trees bleeding and crying for a rescue. How can man do such damage was the penultimate question.

Most disturbing and alarming were the concrete jungles at the hill top where Lord Ayyappan sought peace. Distortions in illegal constructions might have brought the wrath of the hurt mother earth. Local myth has it that Lord Ayyappan had to undergo ill- treatment from his step mother. He was asked to bring milk from a tigress. He is said to have brought a live tigress from the jungle and convinced all about his avatar. Those who seek blessings of Lord Ayyappan perhaps forget that the god they worship was a man of the jungle and a friend to the animals.

Lord Ayyappa’s abode was known for the hilly terrain located in Pathanathitta district of Kerala in India. As per mythology, Lord Ayyappa wanted to be a recluse and declared Sabarimala as his abode.

I am not running after a myth and strange stories. I just felt the wrath and ire of mother earth while witnessing the total devastation that had occurred in 2011.

A few yards down from Sannidan on a down track, tractors bearing name ‘Thatwamasi’ were carrying gas cylinders for hotels and motels. I was on the way to Pamba through Swami Ayyappan road to Arattukadavu, where idol of Lord Ayyappa gets a quick bath before the main festival, known as ‘Makaravilakku’ (sighting of divine lamp). The paradox is what I could read on a board put up by the forest department. They were words from the poem by late Kadamanitta Ramakrishnan, a celebrated poet and legislator. “Malatheenti Asudham Cheythyavar Thalalayillathozhukatte Attil,” (let the heads of those who had done injustice to the hills roll in the stream). How many of them who pollute Holy River Pampa by discharging human excreta, plastic carry bags and garbage have ever seen it?

The plight of holy river Pampa during the festival season is sad. Apart from the avarice of man, the cheap quality clothes abandoned by devotees get stuck in the dying river which almost becomes a ‘Kalindhi’ within minutes. How sad that a holy river that once ran free like a singing mountain bird is getting suffocated and becoming a burial ground of clothes and other wastes. Cleaning the river is leased out. But the company picks the clothes that it can recycle and leaves the undergarments which pollute Pampa.

The clothes collected by the company always return with added dye giving more pain to the holy river, as it happens to rivers close to all pilgrim centres, be it in India or elsewhere. Holy River Pampa is a life giving stream for millions of people downstream. It could even harm the people of Pathanamthitta, Kottayam and Alapuzha districts in Kerala. The river passing through Ranni in Pathanamthitta via Kottayam, Thiruvlla to Alapuzha gets merged in Vembanad Kayal, one of the largest backwaters, known for tourism and fishing. The cancer ratio reported from Alapuzha demands a scientific study on the Pampa pollution. The issue has to be included in the Ganga Action Plan.
The first phase of my tour of Sabarimala and Periyar Tiger Reserve began from Erumeli through the jungle path traditionally used by devotees who prefer to walk all the way to the hill shrine. One has to travel about 51 kilometers to reach Pampa River. Peroorthodu, Irumboonnikkara, Arasumudikotta, Kalaketty, Azhuthanathy, Kallidamkunnu, Inchipparakotta, Mukkuzhi, Kariylamthodu, Karimala and Valiyanavattom are the main places on this route. Huge trees almost touching the sky, steep and dangerous stretch and the thick dark green foliage render wild beauty to the path. Some of the most attractive sights in the region are on the two sides of this mountain path. But I could notice the wounds created on nature by man. Large number of bamboo poles used for building makeshift sheds was found hanging from the branches of trees. The bundles were covered in plastic. The slopes were razed down to build shops during the festival season. Plastic waste was found in abundance near the shops. Fluorescent lamps were seen nailed to the trees. A large number of trees have been cut for building shops and also for other purposes. The practice of using mercury for drying huge trees before felling them is also common.

The onslaught of man on nature here is terrible. Only those who consider nature, soil and water as an integral part of life on earth can really understand things like this.

The ‘ Vedi Vazhpadu,’ publicised as favourite for Sree Dharmasasthavu, also has become cruelty towards nature. In the olden days, the Vedi Vazhipadu, perhaps, was conducted to keep off wild animals. It is a large form of cracker used by farmers living in the region. But time has changed and electric lamps and the sound of generators have forced the wild animals to retreat into the inner forest.

The sight from Uppupara during nights is really fantastic. The light from the lamps give us the impression of seeing an illuminated town in the midst of the forest. Tender sticks of Madukka trees are used in the making ‘Kathina’ (a big variety of cracker). So Madukka trees are cut down in large numbers. This results in large scale destruction of trees. If only politicians always express concern over the decline in birth rates had at least one percent of this concern about deforestation!

There is one thing the devotees do not know. The number of venomous snakes caught from the Sannidhan is between 350 and 400. A person has been appointed here only for catching the snakes, which are later freed in the deep forest far away. The huge number of snakes here shows that after all forests are the habitat of reptiles and wild animals.

The sages of ancient India who had taught us about ‘Vasudaivakudumbakam,’ (all living creatures are members of the same family) did this even before Shakespeare wrote: “A touch of Nature makes the whole world kin”. It has become necessary for the modern man to follow the footsteps of such great people. The most important thing that we should remember is that a great tragedy similar to the one that happened in Amarnath can occur at Sabarimala at any time.

The toilet facility at Sabarimala used by around 35 lakh devotees a day is not enough. The human excreta from the leaking septic tanks are spread all over the place.

Quality of natural streams in a forest, hill and the valley depends largely on the structure and quality of the soil and also on the nature of the slope of the land besides the quality and nature of the flora and fauna of that region. Each of these factors is well linked and determines the nature and quality of the other. Any change to any of these factors affects the rest. The waste water from the septic tanks is not natural water. So it upsets the very structure and nature of the top layer of the soil. At present the structure of the Sannidhan and all the paths leading to it are covered with concrete, including roofs and slabs. This obstructs water from penetrating into the soil. What is most damaging is that more waste water finds its way to the bottom of the earth through the areas that are not covered by concrete sheets. This upsets ecological balance.

The vast destruction of trees for construction purposes makes things all the more dangerous. Indeed, Sabarimala has been turned into a water bomb that can explode at anytime in the form of a major landslide during heavy monsoon. The death of 66 devotees on Chandranandan road in 1999 and the great tragedy at Pulmedu in 2011 point to such a possibility. It is a known fact that anybody would react when pushed to the wall. This is happening in the case of nature.

It is often said that prevention is better than cure. Protection of Sabarimala and its sanctity should be more important to the pilgrims than anything else. Lord Ayyappan is the god of the jungle. So the sanctity of Sabrimala will be lost if it is turned into a township like Guruvayoor. Concrete structures, helipads and tarred roads for cars to reach the Sannidhan is not required at Sabarimala. The feeling of oneness with nature should be the very aim of pilgrimage, especially a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The meaning of pilgrimage to Sabarimala is Thathwamsi, the core of Samaveda. This forest, its wild animals and human life get united with God. The whole problem will end if we understand this message.

My memories of visiting this holy place as a child devotee are vivid. It was a pilgrimage so close to nature. I trotted enjoying the awesome beauty of the jungle through the jungle path. There were no concrete structures, no plastic waste at that time.

It is not the government or the Devaswom board that should come forward to protect Sabarimala. Millions of devotees visiting this place should take it upon themselves as their duty. To borrow Mahatma Gandhi’s words- “You must be the change you wish to see in the world”. Those visiting Tirupathi might have noticed the care shown by both the administration and devotees in the protection of nature.

Mullaperiyar dam is also part of Periyar Tiger Reserve and Tekkady Lake which is the reservoir of the dam. Like Sabarimala, the Tekkady Lake and the surrounding forest are regions seriously affected by human intervention. Boating through the lake along with senior forest officials was altogether a different experience. I came to know more about the dam during that boat journey. They told me that the dam was built by Major John Pennycuik, a British Engineer. He had built it with his heart. He had to sell his ancestral property to construct the dam. There is also a temple dedicated to him in Madurai. This dam is safe for another 200 years. Even a slight rise in water level will result in submerging of a vast forest area. This might result in endangering rare plants and animals found in this region alone. The ganja cultivation did much damage and is felt in Tekady Lake. Large scale felling of trees has resulted in soil erosion. The after math of landslides further creates a larger problem. The residue forms solid soil bricks making boating difficult in summer. Tragedy is sure if the boat driver is not cautious about the danger ahead. A rise in the water level of Mullaperiyar dam would be equivalent to the story of a thirsty crow filling a pot with pebbles to quench its thirst.

The resorts surrounding the lake raise yet another problem of major pollution. The entire waste, be it from the toilet, kitchen or elsewhere in its periphery gets dumped into the lake causing more concern. To the resort owners, this lake would mean dumping space, but little they realise that the Periyar Tiger Reserve is dying because of their inability to read heart beat of nature. Not Tekady lake alone, same is the plight of back water like Vembanad, Sasthamkotta etc.

While probing the possibilities of tourism with an eye on foreign currencies, be it dollar, pound or Euro, the local populace have to take pain to maintain the ecological balance

I could complete the photo documentation of Periyar Tiger Reserve in connection with the Pulmedu tragedy, which lasted almost three years. I thank the forest officials for their support. Even daily wages workers and watchers helped me. The lone financial assistance for the project was from the Wild Life Trust of India. With no money coming, I had to work on a shoestring measure. Love for nature alone stood by me all those days.

I had no notions while entering the Sabarimala forest with a camera. The smell and scent of the terrain which I had been to as a child devotee gave the go ahead. I never wanted to preach on the mountains about the pros and cons. I just wanted to do a similar tell tale through the eyes of a camera as was done in the case of my first project on the famous Silent Valley. My lone mission was to bring the core issue to the attention of the public. My heartbreak at the sight of Sabarimala in the wake of the Pulmedu tragedy led me to write this article.

Plastic bottles and carry bags stick out from Pookavanam where once wild and rare orchids flowered and smiles on us. Gods must be crazy. Even elephants eat plastic carry bags and defecate them undigested. But there was a tragedy in the death of an elephant which died owing to plastic carry bags which blocked its intestine. This once again haunted me as even elephants that were cautious eaters were getting killed. The danger is looming large.

The smoke from incinerators at Sannidhan working round the clock reminds us of the factories. Here I saw a true picture of what carelessness and man’s greed can do to nature. The wounds will keep on bleeding until and unless we wake up.
Time is left for us to return to nature and to its labyrinth. The umbilical cord that connects man and other creatures on earth with the forest cannot be shed so quickly.


Posted on

May 13, 2014


  1. Rethydevi

    Birds had to resort on to plastic bottles . There are no trees around, Nature has got deteriorated sharply due to human activity. Thats tru!

    • NP Jayan

      Thank You Rethy, Support from people like you are invaluable in our attempts to protect and preserve Nature. Welcome on board – All hands on deck 🙂

  2. premchand


  3. sudheendra

    Dear Jayan,
    This series is an eye opener.really sad to see how ignorant people are towards a place they believe is sacred.This filth is going to create a problem to the flora and fauna of the area.

    • NP Jayan

      That is what we are trying to convey to the people. Thanks for your support and involvement.

  4. Savie Karnel

    Dear Jayan, Some of your pictures bring out the breathtaking beauty of the Sabarimala Hills, while some others bring out the heartbreaking reality.

    • NP Jayan

      Thank you… Let us hope , the sudden shocking wake from the tranquilizing beauty of Nature to the nightmarish destruction Man has caused, will move many a minds .


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