On the Makara Jyothi hoax in Sabarimala

When temple authorities lie, it is much worse than when ordinary mortals do.  When temple authorities tell big, fat whoppers, you wonder what the world is coming to, and how they think they can get away with it.

The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) has finally admitted to what the more cynical among us have always believed – that there is nothing miraculous about the “Makara Jyothi” that devotees crowd in the millions in Sabarimala to watch each year, usually on January 14th.  The Makara Jyothi is a somewhat predictable and punctual light, which adheres to TV telecast timings and is seen every year in the hills around Sabarimala, in pretty much the same area each year (so of course the TV cameras know in advance exactly where to point).  Yet, no one has seemed to know much about the light all these years.  If you asked any Sabarimala devotee, he would consider it a sacrilege to even question its authenticity – of course it’s a mysterious heavenly light, its annual appearance one of the reasons why Sabarimala has become so famous.

The TDB President said “”It is known to everybody that Makara Jyothi is a fire lit up by men at Ponnabalamedu“.   I don’t like to contradict you, sir, but I wonder  how it would be known to everybody when the TDB has never mentioned this fact before ?  Also, perhaps you have not met the millions of devotees who do believe that this light is  miraculous and celestial ?

In fact, the first signs of anyone in Kerala admitting the light was man-made was this letter from the Pandalam Palace management to the Hindu two weeks ago:   (The Pandalam kings have been the age-old patrons of the temple).

Greater opposition to this lies in the act of misleading the devotees by pouring extra divinity of a heavenly lamp into the flickering light while the government, the Travancore Devaswom Board and other vested interests keep mum, without openly declaring and publicising that the lamp is man-made. This is exploiting the belief of the devotees, that the devas perform deeparadhana at Ponnambalamedu to coincide with the deeparadhana of Lord Ayyappa, adorning the Holy Ornaments.

There is more from the Pandalam Palace:

Upon the belief of a deeparadhana and/or upon the sight of a light, if the devotees chant the names of Ayyappa, I do not find anything wrong. The controversy is in the matter of misleading people. Now that the tribals have been thrown out of their dwellings and the exhibition of the light has been taken over by vested authorities who ensure its quality, number of appearances and TV transmission, the sanctity of the show is lost.



Sabarimala temple (Pic courtesy: Flickr/Vinodhpc)

A little background – there are two lights that appear in Sabarimala on Jan. 14th – both of which are part of the “Makara Jyothi”.  One is a star that appears near the horizon at twilight.  The senior thantri says this is Sirius. Now, while we have  all had a soft spot for bright stars that appear in the sky right from the days of the Magi, there is, unfortunately, nothing either miraculous or magical about Sirius.  You don’t even need to undertake the arduous journey to Sabarimala to see Sirius, you can see it much more comfortably from your backyard, without having to elbow anyone or crane your neck.  Obviously, then, those millions don’t go to Sabarimala to see Sirius.

That leaves the other attraction – the light that appears on the edge of a hill slope (making people wonder if is it in the sky, or on the hill)  every year.  This light  also appears around the same time – twilight, but is much more fleeting, appearing only for a few minutes before disappearing.  The millions who chose to visit Sabarimala specifically on Makara Vilakku day, and not on any other day that the temple is open, do so because they believe they would be blessed to see this spectacle.  It’s because they believe that the appearance of the light is an annual miracle.

(Some people mistakenly call the second light as Makara Vilakku, but as the Pandalam Palace has clarified, Makara Vilakku is the name of the festival itself, not the lights).

The TDB had a chance to set the record straight decades ago. As a child, I remember reading an article in the now-defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India about two college students who were wandering around in the hills surrounding Sabarimala, including some areas that are off-limits to tourists.  They came across some lighting system deep in the forest, and quickly figured out that this was the famous “Makara Jyothi”.   The students were chased and threatened, but managed to escape.  That article created a huge controversy, but most people did not believe those college students, and even saw the article as an insult to their faith and so on.

The Travancore Devaswom Board should have spoken out then, if it really wanted devotees to know the truth.  But the Travancore Devaswom Board did not come out in support of those vilified college students, either then or anytime after that.  The TDB issued no statements clarifying that of course, what the students saw were the lights used to project the “Makara Jyothi”, or say that the Jyothi was artificial.  If  they had said anything, of course, today there would be no controversy about whether the Makara Jyothi is man-made or heavenly.  So why did they remain silent?  When newspapers and magazines were full of angry letters from people rubbishing the claim that the Jyothi was man-made, shouldn’t the TDB authorities have come out with the truth? What stopped them?

Was it, by any chance. the thought of the millions in lost revenue for the Sabarimala temple – not only from the devotee-tourists’ lodging and food and transportation, but also the TV telecast rights on multiple networks!

People have always loved to believe in miracles. Even otherwise rational people who are skeptical about most other things will believe in miracles when it comes to religion.  But we aren’t even talking about fly-by-night fake swamis here – we are talking about a famous temple that has existed for hundreds of years and attracts devotees in the millions.  We are talking about a temple that is famous for its strict adherence to religious belief, and to rules that no other temple has (the 41 day penance, the prohibition of young and middle-aged women from visiting etc.).  Surely, the authorities in such a temple would  not stoop to lying, or remaining silent in the face of lies,  merely because they would profit commercially from things left unsaid?

I have a lot of respect for Sabarimala devotees, and the rigors they undergo to visit the temple.  Devotees who visit Sabarimala do so because of their faith in Lord Ayyappa, and they don’t need additional marketing gimmicks to visit the temple.  Creating  hype around an artificial “makara jyothi”  and leading people to believe that it is some kind of modern-day miracle is nothing but a cheap publicity stunt, not something one expects of an authority like the TDB.

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