Pseudoscience & Religion

Sabarimala – The Recurring Tragedy Caused by State-sponsored Superstition

It has happened yet again. Over 100 persons were killed and as many seriously injured in an easily avoidable tragedy at the ‘holy’ Sabarimala hills in Kerala, on the night of January 14, 2011. As per 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 as 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 the future. The government has yet again instituted a commission to look into the latest incident and as usual the report will be conveniently buried as the government fills it coffers with the blood-money of poor and illiterate pilgrims by shamelessly promoting this nonsense of religious tourism, 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 for sure – no one will 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, it will irretrievably ruin the ecologically sensitive Sabarimala forest; it will be an environmental disaster.

What is the way out of this mess?

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 bathe in the very same river, unmindful of the health hazards involved. Nobody keeps count of the people who fall ill (or even die) as a result of the unhygienic hill surroundings. I am told that the well-to-do among the pilgrims do not spend much time in the hills – after visiting the temple they rush back to the nearby town and spend the nights in better hotels.

Given that nobody can stop pilgrims visiting the hill temple, the only solution is limiting the number of people visiting the shrine every season, each year. In consultation with competent professionals (and not the 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 stepped forward and came out with the truth. On the 28th of May 2008, the Sabarimala head-priest, Kanatararu Maheswararu Thantri, said in a press-statement that there was nothing miraculous about the Makra Jyothi and that it is a man-made fire (See Appendix-III).

G Sudhakaran, the then Devaswom Minister, speaking to NDTV

G Sudhakaran, the then Devaswom Minister, speaking to NDTV

Unfortunately, this statement by the Sabarimala authorities has not received wide publicity outside Kerala. For the vast majority of the pilgrims coming from other parts of the country, the Makara Jyothi continues to be a miracle. The media reports that 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, which 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 Devaswom Minister of the Left Front Government has in fact said that the people are simply conducting a puja and that the government has no business stopping 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 so. If they do, that indeed will be a bigger miracle!

MJyothi as seen from Sabarimala

Makarajyothi as seen from Sabarimala

What is the way out of this mess? Now that the very priests who run the show have come out with the truth that the Makra Jyothi is man-made, the government and the Devaswom board should take initiative to publicize the fact. This is at least 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. Sabarimala will no doubt continue to attract pilgrims in the millions, whether there is a Makra Jyothi or not, as many of my friends who do not believe in this miracle but visit the temple every year confirm. But the madness that we witness during the Makara Vilakku season may drop by a considerable extent. Let us help people to avoid this recurring, entirely man-made 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 by Rajesh Ramachandran, a correspondent with 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, so if anyone is in need of it, they can contact me.

Appendix –I

MAKARA JYOTHI – A State Sponsored Fraud

Come December, a section of the people in South India will go crazy. The men (generally from the middle and lower middle class) who, during the other parts of the year, use the latest gadgets, creams, and assorted liquids to maintain the “axe-effect” begin to roam around with a fungus face. Some (generally those from the working class) toss away their footwear and strut around barefoot, unmindful of the health hazards involved. They shun all their colorful clothes, because during this season 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 in 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 rumours that Ponnambalamedu is inaccessible to human beings and if anybody tries to reach there, he/she will suffer a miserable end.

Concocted stories about spontaneous 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 very few exceptions, trumpet these stories without bothering to investigate what is happening behind the recurrent appearance of the Jyothi, year after year. The credulous devotees, who fall for anything that 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 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 throughout 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.

“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 devaswom 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 multiple appearances 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.

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. (Since 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).

The forest route leading to Ponnambalamedu

The forest route leading to Ponnambalamedu

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.

Policemen guarding the route to Ponnambalamedu

Policemen guarding the route to Ponnambalamedu

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 along with two policemen and two labourers, had one to investigate. They had one or two kilograms of camphor and an aluminium vessel. The flame was lit by a KSEB driver, VR Gopinathan Nair.” Shivananda explains. This version of the fire is widely known in Kerala but rarely discussed.

Devaswom 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.”

Sudhakaran said.

“As far as the temple is concerned as and far as the belief is concerned it is not good for the government to inquire “

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 road takes you into 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.

(The video clipping seems to have been removed from the website, but the text of the report can still be accessed. Here is the link)

Appendix –III

Makara Jyothi is man-made: Priest’s Confession and a Minister’s Summersault

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 have come out with the truth. On 28th of 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 background 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 unequivocally claim 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 platform on which the Makarajyothi is lit.

The question to be asked in this context is why did the temple authorities not clarify earlier, for the benefit of the 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 innocent! You now look at the star, a miracle and continue to fill our coffers!

The role of media

The media does 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 for all these years the 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 mainstream media not only refuses 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,

“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 gave his own justification for the perpetration of the fraud – “Makarajyothi and Makaravilakku are not the same things, the later being 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,

“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 did the minister suddenly get enlightened about the human-hand behind the “miracle” which we properly examined? Why did he feign ignorance about sending a posse of policemen from his own government to guard the creation of this fraudulent body 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?

Manoj T.V. is the Executive Editor of the Indian Skeptic monthly E-zine.

About the author

Manoj TV


  • When majority of the well educated higher class people themselves are superstitious it is difficult to enlighten the masses. Mass media like TV, films must imbue a culture of rationality which is currently lacking. The popular view among people is that a person of faith is good person instead of an ignoramus.

  • Manoj,Excellent article..The more people are made aware how human trickery sustains and vitiates popular religion, the better it is for the secular cause.The reaction of CPM ministers is not surprising at all. Their creed is politics and power and not opposing religious superstition. They turn on their ‘rationalist’ switches only when it suits their political interests. Even their Marxism or Socialism is a sham. If we rationalists think that communists could be our allies, we are fooling ourselves.Regards

    • Though the temple authorities now claim that the Makarajyothi has been there from time immemorial, the Makarajyothi as we know it today (lit by Devaswom Board authorities) started appearing definitely after 1965, when the Pampa Irrigation Project was implemented forcing the tribal people to leave the Ponnambalamedu hills.

      It seems, the tribal people who lived on the hills might have lit fire to protect themselves from the inclement weather of December/January winter. This might have been taken as a divine light by the pilgrims who visited Sabarimala during this season. After the tribal people were forced to leave the place,the Devaswom authorities decided to continue this to defraud the public by lighting the ‘divine light’ every year.

      – Manoj

  • Whatever be the intent of this article, the writer seems to be a bit class (read caste) specific. So it is:

    “The men (generally from the middle and lower middle class) who, during the other parts of the year, use the latest gadgets, creams, and assorted liquids to maintain the “axe-effect” begin to roam around with a fungus face.”

    Now, the only justification for avoiding the ‘elite’ upperclass that he could mentione woudl be a direct correlation between these sects and the education that they get. Well, in that case, is it the belief or the believers to be blamed or used to carry out his experiments of his humorous side (the axe effect – funny? don’t think so. kind of like a good effort but not good enough.) Rest all – good. You have news from various media and some screencaptures of a TV news channel. Brilliant job. So, what’s your contribution in this entire page you have written?

    • I have not done any survey, but my feeling is that the vast majority of those who visit Sabarimala come from the poor and the lower/middle class. The rich has other avenues – yoga retreats, sudarshanakriya, Ravishankar and other assorted swamis and expensive ‘chic’ cults.

      Not original? It was an experiment in remix.

      Not humorous enough? I am shocked! I had been imagining myself to be the reincarnation of PG Woodhouse, though he died a few years after I was born.

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