Nothing celestial about Sabarimala’s divine flame; it’s man-made

The 'celestial flame' that appears in the dense forests east of the hugely famous Sabarimala shrine in Kerala is the biggest draw for millions of Ayyappa devotees in the southern states. At the culmination of the pilgrim season every year in January, this 'divine’ flame called makara-vilakku appears a few times in the forest driving the devotees into a frenzy.

This frenzy to catch a glimpse of the flickering flame last year had led to a stampede in which 102 people died in a hillock called Pulmedu. The main reason behind the mishap was the lack of transparency behind the spectacle. Temple authorities and quarters close to the temple, including the priests, never told the devotees that there is nothing divine about it and that it was a man-made flame, timed perfectly using modern communication techniques.

Majority of the devotees who visit the temple believe that this spectacle is celestial and the flame is divine. Despite the tireless efforts of rationalists and even moderate devotees in the state, the temple authorities, Hindu fanatics and others tried to perpetuate the mystery for decades till the tragedy happened.

Hindu pilgrims queue outside the Sabarimala Temple. Reuters

This year, the cloak of mystery on the light was off, thanks to the intervention of the courts and the pressure of civil society. Prior to the season, the temple authorities had to admit that the flame was indeed man-made. The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) which runs the temple, admitted for the first time in its history that the flame was a ritualistic offering (deeparadhana). However, the quarters close to the temple priests continued to obfuscate by conflating the flame with some celestial star which they claimed appear at the same time as the `makara-vilakku’.

The results were there for everybody to see this year. There were fewer people thronging the dangerous parts of the hills, like the ones that last year’s stampede victims went to, to take a look at the flame. Even the overall number of pilgrims has come down by about 30-40 per cent this year.

Rationalists in Kerala have been campaigning for transparency behind this `celestial’ phenomenon for years but the authorities always took a dubious stand for two reasons: one the enormous income of the temple each season (more than Rs 150 crore this year) and the fear of a religious backlash.

It is anachronistic that in a state that boasts of total literacy, a progressive society and a development model dominated by the Left, such superstitious practices still exist. While the position of the hardcore believers and temple authorities is understandable, the disturbing fact was the dubious stand of the successive governments. Even the previous Left Democratic government did not take a firm stand in stopping the sleight of hand until the tragedy occurred and the courts intervened.

It’s strange how faith and business interests wantonly perpetuate myths, half truths and falsehoods for narrow gains in a seemingly progressive state like Kerala. The Sabarimala tragedy and the subsequent revelation is a case in point. Activists in Kerala have been pressing for campaigns in the southern states to ensure that the pilgrims know that `makara-vilakku’ is neither celestial nor divine before they rush in.

Anyway, this season also witnessed an anti-climax of sorts. Although `makara-vilakku’ was scheduled (of course through astrological calculations) to occur (read: to be lit) on 15 January, some miscommunication among he people behind the spectacle led to a premature mini spectacle on 14 January. Temple authorities and others said it was only the light from a flash torch, while the police ordered an investigation into possible foul-play.


Updated Date: Jan 16, 2012 17:27 PM

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