Only 5000 pilgrims will be allowed into the temple complex Thursday to offer prayers with strict Covid-19 protocols of wearing masks and social distancing in place, said officials of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB).

In contrast to last year, when nearly three lakh people thronged the Sabarimala temple premises, the festivities of Makaravilakku today, the most important day of the annual pilgrimage, will wear a subdued look as a result of the ongoing pandemic.

Only 5000 pilgrims will be allowed into the temple complex Thursday to offer prayers with strict Covid-19 protocols of wearing masks and social distancing in place, said officials of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which administers the hill-top shrine. Entry of pilgrims into the temple complex will be shut at noon.

Throughout the annual pilgrimage, only those who produced negative RT-PCR and antigen test results for Covid-19 were granted permission to climb the hill from the base camp of Pamba, ensuring little or no transmission of the disease.

TDB president N Vasu told reporters that though there is a significant reduction in the number of pilgrims this year due to pandemic restrictions, all security arrangements are in place to ensure that those who do visit the temple are able to make a smooth and happy pilgrimage. Adequate stocks of the principal offerings of appam and aravana payasam are available, he said.

Barricades have been erected at key points to regulate the flow of devotees in the presence of a heavy security blanket. Pilgrims who reached Sabarimala and offered prayers in previous days will not be allowed to stay back atop the hill for the Makaravilakku festivities.

Mohan K Nair, vice-president of the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham, a pilgrim group, said they have sent only 70 volunteers this year to assist pilgrims due to low crowds.

“Usually, we send more than 300 volunteers for Makaravilakku. But this year, due to restrictions, there are less devotees,” he said.

By evening today, the Thiruvabharana procession from Pandalam palace, carrying the sacred ornaments and jewels for the presiding deity, will reach Sabarimala where they will be given a formal welcome by minister for temple administration Kadakampally Surendran and top officials of the TDB.

Around 6:30 pm, the sanctum sanctorum of the temple will open for the auspicious Deeparadhana, with the deity wearing the sacred ornaments, followed by the sighting of the Makarajyothi in the Ponnambalamedu hills — the climactic moment of the annual pilgrimage.

But this year, people will not be allowed to assemble at places like Pullumedu, Pamba hilltop, Panchalimedu and Parunthumpara to see the Makarajyothi in view of the pandemic protocol.

Pathanamthitta district, the home of the Sabarimala temple, has been seeing a surge in infections in recent weeks and health officials have warned of consequences of large gatherings.

Revenue from pilgrim flow into Sabarimala during Makaravilakku season this year has drastically come down when compared to last year. This year, the TDB’s income was reported at Rs 6.33 crore up till January 12, compared to Rs 60.2 crores in the same period last year. This could force the TDB to ask the state government for additional financial assistance.

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