In the absence of COVID-19 restrictions, which were in place the last two years, the famed Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala is all set to receive a huge turnout of devotees from Wednesday evening onwards when the shrine opens its doors a day ahead of the two-month long annual pilgrimage season.
Around 28,000 devotees are expected today at the temple on the eve of the annual Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrimage season, which begins on November 17, a source in the temple said.
On November 17, around 49,000 pilgrims are expected to turn up at the shrine according to registrations made on the virtual queue system, the source said.
Last year, the government had decided to allow only 30,000 devotees per day to have darshan through a virtual queue system due to prevailing COVID-19 pandemic situation.
The sanctum sanctorum of the temple will be opened at 5 PM on November 16 in the presence of chief priest (Tantri) Kandararu Rajeevaru by outgoing head priest N Parameswaran Namboothiri.
Later, newly selected head priests of Lord Ayyappa and Malikappuram temples will take over for performing poojas for the next one-year period.
The 41-day Mandala puja festival will conclude on December 27.
Extensive arrangements have been made by the police, the Health and Transport departments as well as the local administration to ensure that the huge numbers of devotees expected this year have a safe and smooth pilgrimage during this period.
A 24-hour Sabarimala ward, with 18 beds equipped with all state-of-the-art facilities, has been set up at the Pathanamthitta General Hospital where life-saving drugs, equipment and lab tests would be available free of cost, the Health department said in a release.
It also said that arrangements have been made to make sure that any pilgrim experiencing chest pain or cardiac arrest will be attended to within five minutes by health workers and transported immediately to a hospital.
Health workers have been deployed to help elderly devotees if they find it difficult to make the climb to the hill-top shrine, the department said.
To prevent accidents and provide assistance in emergencies on the over 400 kms of roads which form part of the pilgrimage route, the Motor Vehicles Department has come out with the ‘Safe Zone’ project.
The initiative was announced by State Transport Minister Antony Raju who said that as part of the project, MVD teams would be patrolling the pilgrimage routes 24 hours a day and a quick response team with ambulance, crane and recovery system has also been deployed.
Using the latest technology, the pilgrimage routes would be monitored from three control rooms set up as part of the project.
Aerial surveillance, deployment of more than 13,000 policemen, including Intelligence officials and commandos, and CCTV cameras are part of the arrangements the Kerala police has made to ensure a smooth, safe and secure pilgrimage to Sabarimala.
Setting up three temporary police stations, bike patrolling and arrangements to deploy the National Disaster Response Force and the Rapid Action Force, are the other measures taken by the police.
Pathanamthitta District Collector and Chairperson of the District Disaster Management Authority Dr Divya S Iyer on Tuesday also carried out an assessment of all the preparations along the main pilgrimage routes.
She and a team of officials also ensured that drinking water, sleeping facilities and toilets were available at all resting camps or edathavalams along the pilgrimage route.
The temple will be opened again on December 30 for the Makaravilakku pilgrimage, which will end on January 14, 2023. The shrine will be closed on January 20, 2023 concluding the pilgrim season.