For the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, Kerala's Sabarimala temple has reopened today. However, devotees will only be allowed to enter the shrine from Saturday with strict Covid safety protocol in place.
The famous hill shrine dedicated to Lord Ayyappa has been opened for the five-day monthly worship. The main pilgrim season, which drew thousands of devotees every day before the pandemic, begins next month.
According to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, devotees who wish to enter the shrine must bring a Covid-negative certificate taken no longer than 48 hours prior to "darshan".
Other protocols include a compulsory fitness certificate and entry only for people between 10-60 years of age. The rules add that customary bathing at Pamba river has been discontinued and overnight stay at base camps of the hill temple is also not allowed.
As Sabarimala reopens with restrictions on the number of people allowed - only 250 people a day will be permitted - there is a sense of cautiousness among devotees.
Chandra Shekhar, a 32-year-old sound engineer, has never missed the annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala in the last 20 years. He is apprehensive about testing positive after climbing the hill. "With all the effort of carrying the irumudi kettu (offerings), if we are checked again for COVID-19 and test positive, we will have to return the same way," he said.
"I am interested in going to Sabarimala. But because of this Covid testing we are still undecided," Rajesh, a mechanic, said.
The Sabarimala temple has remained closed since March. The decision to not reopen in June was taken after discussions with the chief priest of the temple, who had written a letter raising concerns over the increasing coronavirus cases and the likely impact on temple rituals if any devotee tests positive.
Kerala recently witnessed another surge in COVID-19 cases as the state recorded almost 8,000-10,000 cases a day in the last month.