Sabarimala (Kerala): A week after the Sabarimala temple opened for a two-month pilgrimage season, the number of pilgrims has touched a new low due to political protests as well as tightened security.
According to official figures, while five lakh pilgrims visited the temple during the opening week in the last season, this time the figure is just 1.42 lakh.
The sale of 'appam' (local variety of cake) and 'aravana' (jiggery payasem) to pilgrims has also dropped, forcing authorities to slow down production.
The main reason for this has been the tightening of the rules for pilgrimage by the police following protests by Hindu groups since September 28 when the Supreme Court allowed women of all ages to enter the temple that hitherto banned girls and women aged 10-50.
The apex court on November 13 refused to stay the September verdict.
The Left Democratic Front government led by the CPI-M has been trying to implement the apex court's verdict even as the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and several Hindu groups are up in arms against it.
On Wednesday, 72 pilgrims who were arrested after they protested at the temple were released from the jail after they secured bail.
But the protests have helped the pilgrims in one way -- they are able to pray before the deity in a leisurely manner.
During this time in the previous season, the flyover leading to the sanctum santorum of the temple was packed. This week it looks deserted most of the time.
"I am coming for the past 18 years. This time, I could go up the hallowed 18 steps by touching all the steps with both my hands which I could never do all these years because of the rush," said one pilgrim, beaming with happiness.
"I have already had 'darshan' of the deity four times and am getting ready for a fifth time."
Minister of Devasoms (temples) K. Surendran told the media on Thursday that the situation was smooth in Sabarimala and there had been relaxations of the rules.
"For the real pilgrims there are no issues and no problem. The restrictions are only for anti-social elements," he said.
After the Kerala High Court's intervention, the ban on going up to the temple from Pamba has been lifted.
Any dip in the number of pilgrims to Sabarimala affects the Travancore Devasom Board - custodian of the temple - as the revenue generated from Sabarimala is used to meet expenses of about 1,200 temples under its jurisdiction.