Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Fraud of Makara Jyothi and another Sabarimala Season!

Manoj

Another Sabarimala season is here! It will last for a couple months - until the 14th of January 2012, when the Sabarimala authorities light, as usual, the Makara Jyothi atop the Ponnambalamedu hills as a 'celestial' culmination of the season.

The devotees are everywhere – in the villages and towns, semi-urban centres and the metropolis. Covered in their trademark black dothis and shawls, they take temporary shelters in bus stations and railway platforms on their way to the hill shrine. You simply cannot avoid them.

Devotees trvelling to the Sabarimala shrine at Chennai railway station
After last year's tragedy involving the death of more than a hundred devotees in a stampede while witnessing the Makara Jyothi and the subsequent public confession of the temple authorities that the Jyothi was manmade, one thought that it would at least bring down the frenzy associated with the temple. Nothing of that sort is going to happen, it seems now. In Port Blair, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, which has a significant population of Telugus, Tamils, and Malayalis, the Sabarimala devotees are on the rise this year, I am told by my friend, Rajasekar, who understands the pulse of the town. If this is the case with the people of a remote island (it takes about three days by ship to reach Chennai from Port Blair or two hours by flight, which is expensive for lower middle class persons, who form the bulk of the devotees of the shrine), one need not speculate on the people of the mainland, where the accessibility of the temple is made easier by the public mass transport systems. The state transport corporations of all southern states ply special buses to the shrine to cater to the needs of the growing mass of devotees.

How does one explain this continuing frenzy? Is it that the devotees never heard about the temple's confession that the Jyothi was fake, that they were swindled for decades? Or, is it that their extreme devotion to the temple deity completely blinds them from seeing the truth?  One finds it difficult to understand.

We anyhow reproduce a few articles we published in our ezine (Bangalore Skeptic/Indian Skeptic) that we used to bring out earlier – for the purpose of documentation.



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Ram Puniyani

One has heard that faith can move the mountains, but this year a mountain could not stand the weight of faith. Tragically on 14th Jan, 2011, a hillock where thousands of devotees had congregated to have a glimpse of Makar Jyothi, due to the melee of the devotees, the hillock crumbled resulting in the stampede and death of 102 people. Makar Jyothi is supposed to be the divine light, appearing in the sky to pay tribute to lord Ayyapa. Similarly at the same place 52 people died in 1998 on the same date.

This raises multiple questions. It goes without saying that the government has to ensure that the civic arrangements have to be perfected even in the matters related to faith. Be it Kumbh mela or Haj, while the government should not interfere in the people’s choices, the civic arrangements can not just be left to the bodies managing these events. There is a small problem here, some managements are very rigid and one recalls that at Sabrimala, few years ago the temple authorities refused to let a woman IAS officer, who was supposed to ensure that arrangements are in place, was refused entry to the temple on the ground that women of menstruating age group (15-45) are not permitted to enter the temple as Lord Ayyappa is a bachelor!

Sabrimala congregation of the 14th April is the second biggest religious congregation in the country. While there are various diverse interpretation of the history of Sabrimala shrine and Lord Ayyapa, one thing is very clear and that is the devotees also pay the homage to Waver, a Muslim. He is addressed as Waver Swami by the pilgrims. The Hindus believe that they must first visit this Waver mosque.

Some dimensions of Sabrimala episode are very shocking to say the least. The divine light is supposed to be the Aarti, devotional ritual with a lamp and song, offered by Sages to Lord Ayyappa. As such the reality is that the light is due to the huge chunks of camphor placed in urns which are burnt by the state electricity board officials on that day. Earlier Adivasis used to create fire as a devotion to the Lord. Many decades earlier the Adivasi ritual was going in to oblivion. This ritual has been taken over by the Temple trust, Ayyappa Devaswam, and through the state complicity burning of camphor was started at good distance from the temple. It was propagated that it is a divine light and different stories started being associated with the light. Gradually it was popularized that watching the divine light is a good omen, for which thousands and later lakhs of pilgrims started making a beeline for the area. To have the vantage point of view the people started congregating on the hill, which is crowded to the hilt. This also brought in good amount of money as the offering to the temple trust.

 The government cannot be excused in any way for the lapse in the arrangement and being part of camphor burning to create ‘divine light’. The temple trust can neither be excused for continuing this fraud, nor for interfering in the Government work, when it makes the rule that Government female officials cannot enter the precincts of this place for making the arrangements. With such massive loss of lives, the responsibility of the tragedy should be squarely placed on the heads of the authorities concerned. One is shocked to know that the minister in charge of temple affairs in Kerala has been aware of this fact but has not done anything to stop the man-made light being propagated off as the divine light inviting the hoards of pilgrims from all over. TheDevaswom Minister G Sudhakaran openly said a couple of years ago that “"I was present on the Makaravillukku day at the Sabarimala last season. I saw the celestial star and it is at that very time that Makaravilakku is lighted. There is no doubt about it that it is lighted by the men.''   

This also raises larger questions about the acts of our authorities, including the religious trusts. While one respects the faith of devotees, what does one do if one knows clearly that the particular event is man made and is being passed off as a divine happening. Our Constitution instructs us to promote the rational thought and scientific temper. In Kerala various groups working for rational thought have been struggling to bring to light the truth behind this phenomenon. They have been campaigning to stop it, but to no avail. Faith often can be a big support system for society but one has also to know the difference between faith and blind faith. If we know the rational explanation about a phenomenon, should we sit over it or make it public. One also recalls that faith was constructed around the scientific phenomenon of ‘capillary action’ to spread the rumor that Lord Ganesha idol is drinking milk! And tons of milk went down the drain, with some top politicians endorsing the phenomenon, violating the basic norm of Indian Constitution.

The most difficult part of explaining matters of faith and opposing blind faith is the fact that faith is associated with religion and so a Benny Hinn will go on to give religious veneer to the well understood psychological phenomenon of hypnosis or hypnotherapy. Most of those struggling for social transformation for better society, better rights for deprived have opposed the blind faith and bypassed faith based understanding. Starting form Charvak of Lokayat tradition, to Lord Gautam Buddha, to the saints like Kabir, Tukaram to Mahatma Jotiba Phule and Dr Ambedkar all called for promotion of rational thought in their own way. Gandhi while recognizing the state of people in the society talked in the language of religion but kept the faith based rituals miles away. Nehru was most forthright in his opposition to the misuse of faith and talked for promotion of scientific temper, something which is not much in vogue in current times. Currently, misuse of faith is the order of the day. Nehru’s emphasis on scientific temper and his opposition to blind faith has been a major pillar for growth of Modern India. One must see the complex situation prevailing today where we need to respect the people with all their frailties and still try to also put forth the rational view of things in an honest way.



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(Indian Skeptic, March 2011)
‘Great!’ Robbie yelled. ‘Wonderful, brilliant. Suddenly a new theory, one that has never been mentioned before. One with absolutely no relation to the truth. Let the lying begin! We have a Web site, Koffee, and my sidekick Carlos here is going to keep a tally of the lies. Lies from the two of you, from the governor, the courts, may be even dear Judge Vivian Grale, if we can find her. You have lied for nine years in order to kill an innocent man, and now that we know the truth, now that your lies will be exposed, you insist on doing precisely what you have always done. Lie! You make me want to puke, Koffee.

John Grisham, The Confession, 2010

The edifice of Sabarimala pilgrimage has been built, over the years, upon the massive fraud of what is called Makara Jyothi. While improved transportation (State Transport Corporations of South Indian states ply special buses during the season, for example) has definitely made accessibility of the temple easier bringing more pilgrims from far-off places, the single most important factor in building the Sabarimala religious tourism to the present mind-boggling size is this so-called ‘divine jyoti'.

The revenue earned by Sabarimala temple exclusively during the last Makaravilakku season (December 2010-January 2011), according to India Today (Malayalam edition – February 2, 2011) is a staggering 131.25 crores! The revenue earned during the same period in the earlier years is as follows - 2007-08: 89.53 Crores, 2008-09: 113.20 Crores, 2009-10: 128.72 Crores! Is it then surprising that the perpetrators of the fraud - the priests, the Devaswom Board, the government, the caste and communal outfits, and everyone connected with the temple – would cry foul and try every trick of their trade to shield them from being exposed?

Even a court order will not deter them from telling lies, it now seems. Following the Kerala High Court order to come out with the truth (“Throw light on Makaravilakku: HC” –Deccan Herald, Bangalore, January 21, 2011) whether the ‘divine-light’ is a miracle or man-made, the Sabarimala authorities are concocting more egregious lies to keep the sheep of credulous devotees within their hold. Hence it is all the more necessary for us, the skeptics and humanists, to dissect their lies – the old and the new ones - for the benefit of the larger public.

The Print Media

For the first few days after the tragedy in which 102 pilgrims were killed on the evening of 14 January 2011 at the Pulmedu stretch of Sabarimala Hills, most of the print media (here I focus more on the English newspapers) said nothing about the fraudulent act. This is what they have been doing for decades. Then, following the High Court direction, they realized that it is no more expedient to shield the temple authorities in the name of religious belief.

The first newspaper, to my knowledge, that explicitly came out with a bold report on the fraudulent act was Deccan Chronicle (Bangalore). In its issue dated 17 January 2011, the paper said it all, and we quote:

Lights out: Nothing ‘divine’ about it

The so-called celestial Makaravilakku light in Sabarimala that evokes awe in devotees is created by officials, who burn load of camphor secretly at the Ponnambalamedu adjacent to the hill shrine and wave wet sacks over it to generate a twinkling effect.

Officials, priests, and even devotees in the know prefer that this ‘hoodwinking’ is not published among lakhs of illiterate devotees from Kerala as well as other states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The hysteric reaction of crowds to Makaravilakku was one of the reasons for the stampede that occurred on Friday killing 102 persons and the one in 1999 that kill 50 persons.

The only slip in the above reportage is that the newspaper decided to go by the recent claim of the Sabarimala authorities that the ‘miracle light’ should be called Makaravilakku and not Makara Jyothi, which, according to them, is a star that rises ‘miraculously’ above the hills during deeparadhana in the temple.  The reporter was perhaps not aware that this revised nomenclature was devised to confuse the pilgrims and to continue to rake in the moolah they bring in. It is also a devious attempt to create an impression among the devotees that the temple authorities had not committed any fraud all these years.

The Hindu, which did not give earlier any space to report the successful attempts made by rationalists in exposing the fraud, published a photograph taken at Ponnambalamedu (22 January 2011). The photograph shows the concrete slab built in the 1990s to conduct the sham pooja as part of creating the ‘miraculous’ camphor light. The most interesting aspect about this photograph is that it was taken by the correspondent (Radhakrishnan Kuttoor) in 2006. The question to be asked is why the newspaper did not publish the photograph earlier. Why did they wait for more than half-a-decade to publish it? Why did they wait for a major accident to occur and for the High Court to give a direction to the authorities to come out with the truth? It all speaks of how serious our newspapers are about the ethics of journalism that demands that the truth be brought to the notice of the public however unpleasant the news is.

Makarajyothi vs. Makaravilakku

As the media was forced to unravel the fraud in aftermath of the tragedy, those connected with the temple started reinventing the origin of the ‘original’ Makarajyothi a la Makaravilakku! In this melee of statements many of them contradicted one another.

Kandararu Maheswararu Thantri, the traditional supreme priest at Sabarimala, now claims that “Makarajyothi is a star in the sky and Makaravilakku was a traditional’deeparadhana’ at Ponnambalamedu. The Jyothi is a celestial phenomenon, but the vilakku is a fire lit for the deeparadhana by people. In the past, tribal families used to light this fire” (The Hindi, Mangalore, 24 January 2011). The priest had made a similar claim in May 2008 too when Kerala’s public opinion turned against godmen and other spiritual fraudsters following the arrest of Santosh Madhavan alias Swami Amritachaitanya.

No less an authority than PRV Raja, President of Pandalam Palace Managing Committee, (the palace is traditionally associated with the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple) contradicted the claim of the priest. In a letter published in The Hindu (Mangalore, 22 January 2011).

According to Raja,

“…the term Makarajyothi is in used only for les than about 40 years in the 1000-year history and legends of the Sabarimala temple….

“The Pandalam Palace does not give importance to Makarajyothi, coined recently to serve vested interests. For his own reasons, the Tantri refers to the star as Makarajyothi. There can even be a hidden agenda to decrease the importance and sanctity of deeparadhana of Lord Ayyapa, with the Holy Ornaments brough from Pandalam. The term Makaravilakku is ancient. But it does not carry its original meaning now. It is unfortunate that even the Tantri has not cared to find out the truth in the controversy. Actually, by Makaravilakku is meant the festival on the day of  makarasamkramam including the procession from Malikappuram to Pathinettampadi with caparisoned elephant and other paraphernalia. Note that in many temples in Kerala, the festival days are known as vilakku….While facts stand thus, regularizing, strengthening and publicizing the once-in-many years visible light and elevating the same as Makaravilakku, ignoring the original Makaravilakku can be part of the hidden agenda.”  (PRV Raja’s letter is worth quoting in extenso and hence is reproduced at the end of this article)

Role of Travancore Devaswom Board

The lies of the Tantri can at least be excused on the ground that it is only a question of nomenclature. But the lies of M.Rajagopalan Nair, President of Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), does not deserve any such leniency. This gentleman was lying through his teeth when he told The Hindu (Mangalore, 22 January 2011), that

“the light sighted at Ponnambalamedu was man-made, but added that the Board (TDB) itself had no role in creating it. According to him, it is believed that in the olden days, forest-dwellers in and around Ponnambalamedu used to celebrate the Makaravilakku festival at the hilltop. The lighting of the lamp at Ponnambalamedu on Makaravilakku day has become an annual affair even after the forest-dwellers vacating the place in later years, he added”

We have the words of former Commissioner of TDB, PV Nalinakshan Nair, to nail the lie of Rajagopalan. According to The Hindu, in a letter to Justice (retired) R.Bhaskaran, Ombudsman for the Travancore and Cochin Devswom Boards, Nalinakshan Nair said that he himself, along with a few Devaswom officials, had visited Ponnambalamedu where the Makarajyothi was being lit every year.

The Hindu (Mangalore, 23 January 2011) quotes Nalinakshan Nair, who also served a term as an Additional Commissioner of Income Tax,

“Makarajyothi has a history of nearly 45 years. The lighting of the Makarajyothi had originally been done by a few families of the Malayara tribe. Officers attached to the Kerala State Electricity Board continued the practice when the forest-dwellers were evicted in connection with the Sabarigiri Hydro-electric Project. The TDB and the Police department took over the duty when the KSEB official too left the place at a later time.

“The Devaswom Executive Engineer at Pampa has been in charge of lighting the Makarajyothi. The expenses for this have never been debited as Devaswom expenditure.

“When asked why this ‘fraud’ was being perpetrated, the officers said that the ‘Jyothi’ was a signal to disperse the crowd gathered at the Sannidhanam and if the Jyothi does not emerge as expected, the pilgrims would be restive. The officers were trying to make a necessity out of a blatant falsehood.

“When it dawned on me that the TDB will never have the will to abandon the practice, I suggested that the Board should at least make it legitimate by incorporating it as a Devaswom ritual, for which expenditure could be debited in the Devaswom accounts and in course of time declare ‘Makarajyothi’ as a Devaswom ritual. My suggestion fell on deaf years and I left it at that later”

Kummanam Rajashekharan, General Secretary of Hindu Aikyavedi, a communal outfit, told The Hindu that

“Makarajyothi, and Ponnambalamedu which is considered as the original base of Sabarimala Temple, are realities and part of a strong religious belief. It was the TDB that had constructed a cement platform at Ponnambalamedu, where the ancient Ayyappa shrine of the forest-dwellers stood, a few years ago on the basis of the prescriptions at an astrological consultation (devaprasnam) held at Sabarimala earlier.

Kummanam Rajashekharan also claimed that the cement platform was constructed with the knowledge of Kerala High Court to conduct ceremonial offering there on the Makaravilakku day. This statement by Rajashekaran gives a new twist the whole story. If it is in fact with the knowledge of Kerala High Court that the TDB had constructed the concrete platform on Ponnambalamedu to light Makarajyothi, why did the court ask the TDB to spell out if it was indeed a miracle or lit by man?

Origin of Makarajyothi

Now that the temple authorities are forced to admit that the Makarajyothi is not a miracle, they have no alternative but to reinvent its origin! It is now claimed that tribal devotees of Sabarimala Ayyappan used to conduct an aarati at Ponnambalamedu at the time of deeparadhana.

G. Sukumaran Nair, secretary of Nair Service Society (NSS), a caste-outfit with huge financial and political clout in Kerala, said

“the lighting of the Makarajyothi at Ponnambalamedu is believed to have been part of a religious ceremony of the forest-dwellers in the olden days. The tribal people in the area were forced to resettle on the forest fringes later. Ponnambalmedu is the original base (Moolasthanam) of the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple and hence performing deeparadhana there should not be made a controversy”.

Kandararu Maheswararu Thantri, the supreme priest at Sabarimala, had also made a similar claim.

While making these statements they forget what the temple authorities themselves had propagated for decades – the myth that Ponnambalamedu was a place where no human being could reach; that if any one ever tried to do that tigers, the holy vehicle of Ayyappan, would eat them alive! None of the books ever published in any language by the Sabarimala authorities or the devotees of the temple ever stated otherwise.

The first ever write up that made this claim – about the tribal angle – was, to my knowledge, a rationalist periodical in Malayalam – Yuktivicharam, published by AV Jose of Yuktivada Pracharanavedi, Thrissur, Kerala. At least, no books or other printed materials brought out by the temple authorities had ever said so.

In the article published in Yukthivicharam (after visiting Ponnambalamedu on 14 January 1981), AV Jose says and I quote:

“The information we have is that before the officials of KSEB and Pampa Irrigation Project arrived at Ponnambalamedu, the tribal people belonging to Katar and Malayar tribes used to live there. To protect them from the extreme cold of December-January winter as well as to cook food, they might have lit fire in the evenings. The devotees visiting Sabarimala during Makaravilakku season might have taken it as a ‘divine light’ and started worshipping it as Makarajyothi. They might not have observed whether this light was there before and the day after Makarasankranti. When the Pampa irrigation project was implemented the tribal people left the hills. The Devaswom authorities, who wanted to use it to defraud the pilgrims, however, have made a permanent arrangement to light this ‘divine light’ on the day of Makarasamkranti” (Yuktivicharam, February 1981. These excerpts were later reprinted in the pamphlet Makarajyothis Enna Thattippu referred earlier).

This tribal angle to the Jyothi became, in a strange spiritual twist, a convenient excuse for the fraudsters to use once it became impossible for them to go ahead with the falsehood. As common an activity of the tribal people as lighting fire for the day-to-day activities like cooking meals or making a bonfire has now been turned into a religious ritual overnight – tribal devotes worshipping their deity Ayyappan! To some Ponnambalamedu has even become the Moolasthanam of the original temple!

Attempt to occupy forestland and threat to Periyar Tiger Reserve

While the role of TDB in lighting the Makarajyothi has thus become crystal clear from the above referred statements, they also give out some ominous hints – an attempt to occupy the forestland at Ponnambalamedu. By falsely claiming that Ponnambalamamedu was the “Moolasthanam” (original base) of Sabarimala Ayyappa temple or that there was Ayyappa shrine of the forest-dwellers, cast and communal outfits under the saffron umbrella are perhaps gearing up to occupy the reserve forest not only during Makaravilakku season but all the year around. The forest in and around Sabarimala has already been adversely affected by the influx of Ayyappa devotees and the ensuing ‘development’. Instead of reversing this, these worthies are eying yet another hill.

The Hindu (15 Febuary 2011, Bangalore) reports that as per notification (GOP No. 75/2007) issued by the Kerala Forests and Wildlife Department on December 31, 2007, “148 sq.km of forestland in the Ranni forest division adjoining the PTR-East and PTR-West forest divisions had been identified for inclusion in the Periyar Tiger Reserve (PTR)”. Quoting L.Krishnaprasad, Ranni Divisional Forest Officer, The Hindu reports that “the earmarked areas include the ecologically sensitive areas of Ponnambalamedu, Chenthamarakokka, Meenar and Varayadumotta”, which are identified as core or critical tiger habitats.

Tigers are endangered species and their survival depends on the conservation of their habitats which are fast shrinking as a result of uncontrolled human activities.  The only way to ensure their survival is complete seclusion of their habitat from any human activities.

Another species under threat is the Shola forests which are endemic to Western Ghats. The forest area, comprising Ponnambalamedu and surrounding areas, has, to quote The Hindu again,

“a vast expanse of biodiversity-rich shola forests, where there is abundance of moisture. Experts say ‘sholas’ are “Tropical Montane Forests’ interspersed with rolling grasslands in mountain tracts 1500 meters above mean sea level and are the continuation of the west coast tropical wet evergreen forests. Shola forests have high ecological significance in protecting the head waters of rivers. They have the capability of holding up water received by precipitation like a sponge, preventing rapid runoff. “(15 February 2011, Bangalore)
(Interested readers may refer the Wikipedia entry for more information on Shola forest. A google search also brings up a wealth of information on this plant and its ecological importance to Western Ghats).

Freeing of Ponnambalamedu from the clutches of Ayyappa devotees hence has wider implications than removal of superstitious beliefs of the masses, though very important the later is. Everyone – religious or otherwise - should raise their voice against the insane overtures of the Devaswom Board who are trying to permanently occupy Ponnambalamedu (there were no structures on the hilltop until the cement slab was built by the TDB in the early 1990s) on the pretext of religious belief.

The forest should be left alone – if possible, even the yearly lighting of the Makarajyothi at Ponnambalamedu should also be stopped.

To conclude, let me paraphrase the words of John Grisham quoted at the beginning of this article:

Wonderful, brilliant. Suddenly a new theory, one that has never been mentioned before. One with absolutely no relation to the truth. Let the lying begin! We have a Web site, and we are going to keep a tally of the lies. Lies from the Devaswom Board, the temple authorities, the ministers and politicians ... You have lied for decades and defrauded and killed innocent people, and now that we know the truth, now that your lies will be exposed, you insist on doing precisely what you have always done. Lie! You make me want to puke.
 

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(Indian Skeptic, February 2011)

It has happened yet again. Over 100 persons were killed and as many were seriously injured in an utterly avoidable tragedy at the ‘holy’ Sabarimala hills in Kerala on the night of January 14, 2011. According to newspaper reports, the tragedy occurred when the pilgrims were returning after witnessing the Makra Jyothi, the ‘miraculous’ appearance of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of the Sabarimala temple. A report in the Mathrubhumi daily (15 January, 2011) says most of the dead were from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka.

Exactly 12 years ago, on the night of 14 January, 1999 about 53 persons were killed in a similar stampede when the pilgrims were returning after witnessing the ‘divine celestial light’. The government then instituted an inquiry commission and nobody knows what precise actions were taken by the state authorities to avoid similar tragedies in future. The government has yet again instituted a commission to look into the latest one and as usual the report will be conveniently buried as the government fills it coffers with the blood-money of the poor and illiterate pilgrims by shamelessly promoting this nonsense of religious tourism by setting up an official magic show every year (See the Appendix-I below for details of the government-sponsored magic called Makara Jyothi).

Whoever be the inquiry commission members, one thing is sure - they will not touch the real issues involved. They will undoubtedly suggest various proposals to help the pilgrims to conveniently witness the ‘divine light’. Most of the proposals will be impractical because unlike the Tirupati temple (which attracts the highest number of pilgrims in India, the second being Sabarimala), the Sabarimala temple is situated in the middle of a forest. And if at all the government builds roads and other infrastructures for the convenience of the millions of pilgrims visiting the shrine every year, that will irretrievably ruin the ecologically sensitive Sabarimala forest; it will be an environmental disaster.

What is the way out?

As of now, I am told, the road to the Sabarimala temple is strewn with plastic bottles and other non-biodegradable waste dumped by the devotees. During the Makra Vilakku season, the ‘holy’ river Pampa turns into a stream of human excreta – because in the absence of adequate number of toilets, the millions of pilgrims defecate right along their holy river. They take bath in the very same river unmindful of the health hazards involved. Nobody keeps count of the people who fall ill (even die) as a result of the unhygienic hill surroundings. I am told, the well-to-do among the pilgrims do not spend much time in the hills – after visiting the temple they rush back to nearby town and stay in better hotels to spend the night.

Given that nobody can stop pilgrims visiting the hill temple, the only solution is limiting the number of people visiting the shrine every season, every year. In consultation with competent professionals (not religious heads), the government should impose an upper limit on the number of pilgrims visiting the temple.

When the government-sponsored fraud of Makara Jyothi was exposed by the activists of Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham in 1981 and as a result of the relentless campaign mounted by them for more than two decades, the temple authorities themselves came out with the truth. On 28 May 2008, the Sabarimala head-priest, Kanatararu Maheswararu Thantri, gave a press-statement that there was nothing miraculous in the Makra Jyothi and that it was man-made (See Appendix-III)

Unfortunately, this statement of Sabarimala authorities has not yet got wide publicity outside Kerala. For the vast majority of these pilgrims, the Makara Jyothi continues to be a miracle. The media who broadcast live the lighting of Makara Jyothi with frenzied background commentary say nothing about the drama being enacted at Ponnambalamedu to fool the millions. The state government who can and has every right to stop this fraud will not do so claiming that it is a question of faith. G.Sudharakarn, the then Devaswam Minister of Left Front Government, in fact said that they are just conducting a puja and the government had no business to stop it. This gentleman was unmindful of the fact that the land on which the lighting (or puja, if that is what they want to call it) takes place is the property of the government – it is not the property of either the Sabarimala temple or even the Devaswom Board. Hence the government can stop it if they want to. But no government – left, centre or right - will do that. If they do, that indeed will be a bigger miracle.

What is the way out? Now that they themselves have come out with the truth the Makra Jyothi is man-made, the government and the Devaswom board should take initiative to publicize the fact. This is what we expect from a Left Front government before they bow out in the next general election. Also, when they telecast the sighting of Makra Jyothi from the Sabarimala Hills next year onwards, they should also simultaneously telecast live the ‘puja’ (or whatever it be) conducted at Ponnambalamedu which appears to the pilgrims at the Sabrimala Hills as a celestial one. The telecast should not leave even an iota of doubt among the pilgrims that the Makara Jyothi is indeed man-made and not a miracle. This will perhaps reduce the frenzy with which the pilgrims view it. The Sabarimala will no doubt continue to attract pilgrims in millions whether there is a Makra Jyothi or not – as many of my friends who do not believe in this miracle but continue to visit the temple every year confirms. But the madness that we witness during the Makara Vilakku season may come down to a considerable extent. Let us avoid this entirely man-made recurring human tragedy.

Makara Jyothi

Let us now get on to the magic of Makara Jyothi. I reproduce two articles (with slight modifications) I wrote a few years back and published in Bangalore Skeptic (now Indian Skeptic). I also reproduce the commentary of Rajesh Ramachandran, the correspondent of NDTV, who visited Ponnambalamedu in February 2007 (Appendix-II). Though the clipping of the report is no longer available on the NDTV website (it used to be here: http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/videos.aspx?id=10648), if anyone is in need of it, they can contact me (bskeptic@gmail.com)




Appendix –I



TV Manoj
(Bangalore Skeptic, January 2007)

Makara Jyothi as seen from Sabarimala
Come December, a section of the people in South India goes crazy. The men (generally from the middle and lower middle class) who, during the other parts of the year, use the latest shaving gadgets, creams, and assorted liquids to have an “axe-effect” suddenly start roaming around with a fungus face. Some others (generally from the working class) toss away their footwear and strut around barefoot, unmindful of the health hazards involved. They strip themselves out of their colorful clothes – because anything other than black suddenly becomes anathema to them. Welcome to the Sabarimala season. This crazy behavior reaches its peak just before January 14. It is on that evening – between 6.14 pm and 6.40 pm, to be more precise – that the Government of Kerala, with their eyes on the revenue brought by the devotees from outside the state, perpetrates a massive spiritual fraud – Makara Jyothi - upon the public, every year.

 What the devotees believe

It is believed by the devotees that the Makara Jyothi appears miraculously at Ponnambalamedu (believed to be the abode of Swami Ayyappan, the presiding deity of the Sabarimala temple) and is the celestial manifestation of the god Ayyappan himself. Some others believe that the Jyothi is an arathi performed by the rishis and devas residing in the hills. The temple authority also takes great care to spread stories that the Ponnambalamedu is inaccessible to human beings and if anybody tries to reach there, he/she will have a miserable end.

Forest route leading to Ponnambalamedu
Concocted stories about sponataneous curing of incurable diseases or of blind persons who regained their eyesight after witnessing this Jyothi etc are planted in the media. The media, with a very few exceptions, trumpet these stories without bothering to investigate what is happening behind the meticulous appearance of the Jyothi, year after year. The credulous devotees who fall for anything if it comes with a religious tag flock to the temple to witness this miracle.

What actually happens?

The skeptics and rationalists have always challenged these cock-and-bull stories and had on numerous occasions exposed the fraudulent drama enacted by the temple authorities with the covert help extended by various departments of the Government of Kerala. The most successful attempt at exposing this fraud was made in the year 1981, when a bus-full of skeptics (activists of Kerala Yukthivadi Sangham) landed with fire crackers and cameras in hand, on the evening of January 14, at Ponnambalamedu, the very spot where this drama was enacted. The Yukthivadi Sangham printed a pamphlet, Makrajyothi: a Fraud (Makarajyothis Enna Thattippu) and sold lakhs of copies through out Kerala in the 1980s and 1990s. This brought about a dramatic change among the believers in Kerala as far as Makra Jyothi is concerned, though many continue to worship Sabarimala Ayyappan. What follows is based upon the pamphlet and it gives a glimpse into what had happened on 14 January 1981. It continues to be enacted in the same fashion, though the actual actors might have changed.
Platform on which Makarajyothi is lit

“Ponnambalamedu is a flat grass-land spotted with a few trees. About half a kilometer away from there was stationed a Jeep (Registration Number: KRV 989) belonging to Travancore Devaswam Board. A crowd of about 500 persons including women and children (mostly relatives and friends of employees of Kerala State Electricity Board, who manages the nearby Sabarigiri Hydroelectric Project) had come to the site to witness the lighting of the Makara Jyothi. At about 6.30 PM, V.R.Gopinathan Nair, the driver with the Kerala Electricity Board, and his accomplices filled a platter with camphor. At about 6.40 PM, when they received a signal (a flashlight) from Sabarimala, Gopinathan Nair lit the camphor and raised it thrice facing Sabarimala. Interestingly, the rationalists who assembled there also lighted some crude torches and firecrackers. The radio commentators and reporters of newspapers, clueless about the presence of rationalists/debunkers and their tactics, faithfully reproduced what they saw.

"There it raises the Makrajyothi; first as a lightning, then as a lamp or star and now as camphor light...there it raises, disappears, and then appears again..!" (Translation of a live Malayalam Commentary on Akashavani, 14 January 1981)

"Makara Jyothis appeared, not once but many times" (Mathrubhumi daily, 15 January 1981)

"Next to the Jyothis, there also appeared a number of small lights" (Deepika daily, daily, 15 January 1981).

These reports about repeated and multiple appearance of Makarajyothi (as against the divine number three!) on that day undoubtedly refer to the torches and crackers lit by none other than the debunkers.

Kerala Police guarding the route leading to Ponnambalamedu
Enraged by the exposure, the temple authorities instigated the officials of the Road Transport Office who then lodged a case against the owner of the bus used by the activists to reach Ponnambalamedu. (As no case could be registered against the rationalist activists, the bus owner was later fined with 1000 rupees for plying the bus in an unauthorized route without the prior permission of the Road Transport Office). From the next year onwards, this fraud is being perpetrated under the protection provided by the state police”.

The NDTV expose

Last year, in February 2007, Rajesh Ramachandran, a correspondent of the NDTV filed a report from Ponnambalamedu - a first ever expose by a national TV channel. The correspondent took the viewers through the jungle to the very spot where the ‘miraculous jyothi’ is lit every year. The video clippings accompanying the report show the police barricade guarding the road leading to Ponnambalamedu. The place now has a neat concrete slab to perform the puja prior to the lighting of the divine miracle.

And here is the report:
Appendix –II

NDTV Reports On Makara Jyothi

 

"Sabarimala miracle claims disputed

NDTV Correspondent, Thursday, January 11, 2007 (Ponnambalamedu)

Makaravilakku or the festival of divine light at Sabarimala draws the second largest number of pilgrims in the country. Devotees say the appearance of the light three times is a miracle but some say it is a set up.

Every Makar Sakranthi at 6.30 pm the summit of a hill opposite the Ayyappa temple lights up. Government broadcasters Doordarshan and All India Radio cover the annual event live. The divine light or Makarajyothi draws a million devotees according to the Devaswom Board, which runs the temple management. Pilgrims stream in from several states, some of them hold on to vantage positions for several days to witness the event.

"A light appears on the hill, it's a miraculous thing and that is why pilgrims are coming," says the President of Tranvancore Devasnom Board Raman Nair.

Not a miracle

A former employee of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) Shivananda claims the light is not a miracle. "When I got transferred to the Pampa division of KSEB near Sabarimala, I got an opportunity to actually see this light being lit in 1981," he said. "A Devaswom Board assistant engineer Karunakaran Nair, two policemen and two labourers had come there. They had one or two kilograms of camphor and an aluminium vessel. The light was lit by a KSEB driver VR Gopinathan Nair," Shivananda explains. This version of the light is widely known in Kerala but rarely discussed.

Devasnom Minister G Sudhakaran says, "nobody has examined it, government never inquired into it, we are not planning to inquire into that because that is related to the faith of devotees for hundreds of years." "As far as the temple is concerned as far as the belief is concerned it is not good for the government to inquire " Sudhakaran said.

But as the pilgrims increased in the mid-eighties the enterprise drew in more personnel and resources including a large contingent of police making it harder to conceal. Till the early 1980s igniting the light was confined to a small group of KSEB employees who helped the Devaswom Board.

Another former KSEB employee says, "when I went there in 1986, the police had completely cordoned off the area. They let in only a few people whom they knew well. Officials from Devaswom Board lit the light".

Closely guarded site

A forest road runs from Vandi Periyar, 100 kms from Kottayam. Of Kochu Pampa, midway to Sabarigiri hydel project a mud track goes inside the reserve forest. The forest department closely guards the road. The key to a barricade on the road is with the nearest forest check post a couple of kilometers away. The forest department reportedly opens the barricade and lets Dewasom and police officials into Ponnambalamedu where the miracle is set up.

"Makarajyoti is the biggest ritualistic fraud in the country which has disastrous social and ecological impact," Dr PM Rajan Gurukkal, director of the School of Social Sciences said. "On that day many people remain in vulnerable positions unmindful of the danger to see the state sponsored magic. The core of the whole activity is commerce. It generates a lot of money and a miracle attracts a lot of people".

In 1999 a stampede among pilgrims gathered to see the light left 52 people dead."

(Though the video clipping seems to have been removed from their website, the text o the report can still be accessed. Here is the link: http://www.ndtv.com/convergence/ndtv/story.aspx?id=NEWEN20070000611)


Appendix –III

In our January 2008 issue (See MAKARA JYOTHI – a state sponsored fraud, Bangalore Skeptic, No.1) we documented the true story behind the ‘divine light’ (rather, ‘divine fraud’) of Makara Jyothi at the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala. We reported that the fraud had been perpetrated by the authorities of Sabarimala temple with the active support of various departments of Government of Kerala (including the state police) upon the credulous devotees for decades. We narrated in detail the story of the successful attempt made by the rationalists in 1981 to expose this massive fraud. That year, the rationalists photographed the entire sequence of events leading to the very lighting of the ‘divine’ Jyothi. We also brought to the attention of our readers the expose made by the television news channel NDTV 24 X 7 on 11 January 2007, when its correspondent, Rajesh Ramachandran, filed a report from Ponnambalamedu itself with appropriate visuals. (The readers may recall the myth prevalent among the Sabarimala devotees that Ponnambalamedu is the abode of Lord Ayyappa and is not accessible to human beings).

Unfortunately, the reports of none of these exposes reached the teeming multitude that throng the hill shrine every season; especially those devotees belonging to the states other than Kerala. The governments (both the Left and the non-Left), with their eyes on the huge revenue brought into the state by the devotees, continued to perpetrate this fraud, season after season, year after year. Since 1982 this fraud has been perpetrated under heavy police protection. The rationalist activists who attempted to visit the place again in 1982 and later were roughed up by the police. The lighting of the Makara Jyothi also resulted in heavy human casualties at Sabarimala itself. In 1999, for instance, 52 devotees were killed in a stampede while witnessing, to use the eminent historian Dr. Rajan Gurukkal’s pithy epithet, the “state sponsored magic”.

Priest’s confession

Now, for the first time the Sabarimala priests themselves have come out with the truth. On 28 May 2008, Kantararu Maheswararu Thantri, the head priest of Sabarimala, said in a press statement that there was nothing divine in the “Jyothi” and that it was man-made. The immediate back ground to this belated confession was the violent protests witnessed in Kerala against all kinds of godmen and other spiritual quacks following the recent arrest of Santhosh Madhavan alias Swami Amritachaithanya, a self-styled godman.  The media, which shamelessly promoted this ‘miracle’ for all these years and refused to give any coverage to rationalists’ attempts to expose the fraud, has now started to come out with the truth.

Unfortunately, even while reluctantly coming out with the facts, the temple priest tried to further befuddle the readers and the devotees rather than to clarify the issues. The tantri in his press statement said that the devotees confused Makra Jyothi with Makara Vilakku, and that Makara Jyothi is a star that appears on the sky whereas Makara Vialkku is man-made. What has been called Makara Jyothi is in fact Makara Vilakku that is man-made whereas Makara Jyothi is a star appearing in the sky, which is still a miracle! Confused? That precisely is what they want. Confound the devotees, retain the flock and rake in more money.

There however has never been any confusion so far, not only among the devotees but among the Sabarimala authorities too. All the books and reports published by the Sabarimala authorities themselves unequivocally claimed that this “miraculous” light indeed was Makara Jyothi. The media – print, radio, and television – have always referred to this flicker of light as Makara Jyothi. The term Makra Vilakku has generally been used to refer to the whole festival celebrated in Sabarimala in the month of, as per Malayalam calendar Makram. In Malayalam, the Makara Jyothi also is sometimes called Makra Vilakku. But there has never been any confusion as to what Makrajyothi was, until the priest came out with the press statement. Do a ‘google’ search on Makra Jyothi and it will directly take you to this “miracle” – nowhere else.
.
The question to be asked in this context is why the temple authorities did not earlier clarify for the benefit of devotees the difference between the ‘real’ Makara Jyothi and the so-called Makra Vilakku. Why this sudden realization now? The answer is the priests, the Dewaswom Board, and the government can continue to assert that the Makara Jyothi is still a miracle, though they now will be pointing to a different direction, towards a star! It is you, the devotees, who made the mistake and we, the authorities, are pristine innocent! You now look at the star, a miracle and continue to fill our coffers!

The role of media

The media do not fare better. While lambasting the government for misleading the devotees for years, the media does not bother to devote even a line for self-criticism. Don’t the media have a responsibility to explain to their readers why they had not sent their investigate reporters to unearth this monumental fraud? Don’t they have a duty to inform their readers why they had blacked out all these years well documented exposes made by the rationalists? Is it not a simple truth that it was with the active support of the media that this fraud has grown into gargantuan proportions that it is today?

The media not only refuse to admit their complicity in perpetuating the fraud, but continue to parrot the absurd claims made by the temple authorities. The New Indian Express, for instance, states in their editorial that, to quote, “two more connected events still evade scientific explanation: Just before the Vilakku appears a star rises in the sky and a kite hovers over the temple!” (See NIE, dated 29.05.2008). The truth is there is no miracle in these. The star that the editorial refers to, can be seen not only from Sabarimala but from elsewhere too. It does not appear just on the day of Makarajyothi, it is always there. As to the hovering of a kite, kites are a common species of birds abundant in these parts and they are normally attracted by filth for which Sabarimala is notorious. Moreover, kites can easily be tamed (the readers may note that kites are very efficiently used in falconry in the Middle East) and hence it is always possible for the temple authorities to release a trained kite right on time for the devotees to shout hysterically “Swamiye Saranamayyppa”!

Minister’s summersault

The most pathetic statements came from G.Sudhakaran, the state Minister for temple affairs; shameless because he is a CPI (M) MLA. He not only parroted the statements made by the temple priest to deliberately befuddle the people, but given his own justification for the perpetration of the fraud – “Makarajyothi and Makaravilakku are not the same things, the later of which is man-made. Religion could not be subjected to rational analysis and our government did not want to go with the rationalists on this issue” (Mathrubhumi daily, Kannur edition, 29.05.2008). It is this same gentleman who told NDTV just a little more than a year before that, to quote, "nobody has examined it, government never inquired into it, we are not planning to inquire into that because that is related to the faith of devotees for hundreds of years” (see the transcripts reproduced in this issue of Bangalore Skeptic).

How has the minister suddenly got enlightened about the human-hand behind the “miracle” which according to him“nobody has ever examined”? Why did he feign ignorance about sending a posse of policemen by his own government to guard the creation of this fraud by employees of various government departments, including his own, on a land owned by the government? What is in this fraud that takes it beyond the purview of a rational scrutiny as the minister claims? Can we be faulted if we suspect a collision between the priest and the ministry in giving a pres statement deliberately to confuse and continue to defraud millions of people?


4 comments:

Hi,
The makara vilakku flashes are about QUANTUM ENTRAINMENT and “pure awareness “ to activate the autonomous nervous system.
Punch into Google search SABARIMALA MAKARA VILAKKU VADAKAYIL
Capt ajit vadakayil
..

However every one should accept the fact.Awakening script.

punch into google search-

SABARIMALA MAKARAVILAKKU, THREE LIGHT FLASHES , VEDIC QUANTUM ENTRAINMENT VADAKAYIL

capt ajit vadakayil
..

Let people believe .. At least it is not causing harm to anyone.

Religions exists on beliefs , be it any for that matter, so let be this as well.

Let people come , pray , spread positive energy ..it will only do good to the society, so please stop digging deep, there are many other important things to look into.

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