The annual two-month-long pilgrimage to the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala's Sabarimala started today amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Though the Sabarimala temple was opened on Sunday for the annual pilgrimage season, devotees were only allowed to enter the temple today morning with strict Covid-prevention measures in place.
Pilgrims were allowed to start trekking at 3am through a virtual queue system, temple officials said. Most pilgrims who reached today were from neighbouring states, said the Travancore Devaswom Board which manages the hill shrine.
Mask-wearing employees of the temple board and police personnel kept vigil along the trekking route to ensure devotees follow all the Covid protocols, which include a compulsory Covid-negative test, a fitness certificate and mask wearing.
Every year, lakhs of people visit the Sabarimala temple during the 62-day pilgrimage season. However, this year about 85,000 devotees would be allowed to offer prayers during the entire season, said the temple board to avoid crowding in view of the coronavirus pandemic.
Each day, only 1,000 pilgrims who have booked their "darshan" through the virtual queue system would be allowed to offer prayers. During Saturdays and Sundays, 2,000 people would be allowed "darshan".
To enter the Sabarimala temple, all pilgrims will have to carry a COVID-19-negative certificate taken 24 hours before they reach the base camps at Nilackkal and Pamba. COVID-19 kiosks have also been opened at the base camps for those who want to get tested.
Though wearing a mask is compulsory, pilgrims will be allowed to remove them while climbing up to the temple.
Though only those in the 10 to 60 age bracket are allowed to undertake the difficult trek up to the Sabarimala temple, devotees between 60 and 65 years of age will be allowed if they have a medical fitness certificate.
Only one route - through the Swami Ayyappan road - can now be used to reach the temple. Devotees will not be allowed to stay at the temple premises, as per protocol.
As per Covid protocol, only those in the 10-60 age group will be allowed to offer prayers at the shrine.
The Kerala health department has also made arrangements for rapid antigen testing at various centres, including all bus stands and railway stations at Thiruvananthapuram, Tiruvalla, Chengannur and Kottayam, where pilgrims arrive to proceed to the Sabarimala temple.
Doctors, including specialists, will be posted on a rotation basis for seven days each while all other staff will be posted on a rotation basis for 15 days from November 15 to January 19, 2021.