Devotees reach Sannidhanam to offer prayers to Lord Ayappa for Mandala pooja on Friday morning while adhering to the COVID-19 protocols.
Mandala Pooja is known to be a ritual of the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage.
All the COVID-19 related norms are mandatory inside the premises. Social distancing is being maintained by the volunteers and wearing masks is compulsory.
The temple premises look deserted compared to other years, due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Around seven months after it was closed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the doors of Sabarimala temple were thrown open for devotees from October 16, albeit with certain restrictions.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had made it mandatory to carry a COVID-19 negative certificate while visiting the temple, while only 250 people are being allowed for darshan (visit) per day.
Meanwhile, Kerala recorded 6,419 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, the number of active cases in the state reaches 69,394, the state government said.
A total of 4,68,460 recoveries have been reported so far, Kerala Government informed.
The Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala opened on the second day of the annual Mandala Pooja on Sunday, days after the Supreme Court deferred a verdict on a petition seeking review of its judgment allowing the entry of women between the age of 10 to 50 years into the shrine, referring the case to a larger seven-member bench.
Devotees had started arriving at Nilakkal and Pamba from various parts of Kerala and neighboring states on Saturday morning but were allowed to leave for the shrine only by 2 pm. The pilgrims will be allowed to climb the 18 holy steps after the padi puja to have darshan. The portals of the hill shrine, located in a reserve forest in the Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, were opened for the two-month-long Mandalam Makaravilakku pilgrimage season around 5 pm.
Although women will be allowed entry into the temple, as the Supreme Court's 2018 order still stands, the Kerala government has decided not to provide police protection to women of the prohibited age group who plan to visit the temple.
Several ministers in the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet have said that law and order must be maintained and "women activists should be keep away from the Sabarimala temple".
Kerala Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran on Friday said that "This (Sabarimala shrine) is not a place for activism and the LDF government would not support those who make announcements about entering the hill shrine for the sake of publicity".
Those who want to visit the temple can procure a court order to enter the temple, he said.
Given this, Pune-based women's right activist, Trupti Desai, who last year tried to defy the centuries-old ban on entry of women and was eventually sent back after protests from devotees, said she would be visiting the temple regardless of being denied police protection by the Kerala government.
If women need protection to trek the hills, police should provide the same. Whether the government gives protection or not we will be reaching on 17 November to offer prayers," Desai said.
Law Minister AK Balan said if anyone tries to hamper the darshan of the devotees, the government would take strong action.
"If someone thinks that they can exploit the devotees by spreading lies and turn them against the government, let me tell you, it's not going to happen," he said.
Attempts by around a dozen women, including activists and journalists in the 10-50 years age group, to climb the sacred hills had come to naught last year as frenzied devotees of Lord Ayyappa heckled and hassled them and forced them to retreat.
However, defying protesters, two women, in their 40s – Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga, had entered the Ayyappa temple in January this year and offered prayers scripting history.
The state and temple precincts had witnessed frenzied protests by right outfits and BJP workers in 2018 after the LDF government had decided to implement the Supreme court's verdict of 28 September to allow women of all age groups to offer prayers at the shrine.
For centuries women in the menstruating age group of 10- 50 years were barred from entering the temple.
However, this year, even though the top court has not stayed its verdict on the entry of young women into the shrine while posting various petitions on the matter to a larger bench, the government is exercising caution
The CPM-led LDF government has made all preparations to make it a hassle-free pilgrimage. Kandararu Mahesh Mohanararu would open the sanctum sanctorum and perform the pujas.
AK Sudheer Namboodiri would take charge as the Sabarimala Melsanthi and MS Parameshwaran Namboodiri as Malikapuram Melsanthi.
The resting places for the devotees at Nilackal, Pamba, and Sannidhanam have already been set up along with medical, water, and toilet facilities. Over 10,000 police personnel would be posted in phases in and around the Lord Ayyappa temple for security purposes during the pilgrim season.
The temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa is the most famous and prominent among all the Sastha temples in Kerala, is situated on a hilltop about 4000 feet above sea level – Sabarimala. The devotees have to trek through difficult paths in the forest as the vehicles can go only up to pamba.