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)

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.


22 thoughts on “On the Makara Jyothi hoax in Sabarimala

  1. Agreed….It is simply disappointing and hurting to know the fact that Makara Jyothi is man made….this is heights of craziness and fooling people…..Hope that the devotees now realize what the truth is……

  2. Truly, what an amusing observation on the nature of man and his morals. Belief (religious) and faith are by themselves based on matters that border on cheating oneself into a notion. If one were to be sold into a propaganda of a miracle in order to believe, does it amount to faith? and if the propaganda was proven to be false, should it really be a crime against this emotion called faith? or is this feeling of outrage because our vulnerability has suddenly been shown in its bareness and nakedness and we are looking franitically for an exit ?

    • Faith shouldn’t need miracles, but performing miracles is the easiest way to prove divinity. No wonder you will find every major religion/ religious text has miracles – from the Bible to the Quran, to our Hindu texts. I don’t know if miracles actually happen, I have never seen any phenomena that cannot be explained by science, but I have no problem if some people choose to believe in miracles.

  3. I ve heard from childhood that it is the Adivasi conducting their Pooja . As a child I ve thought of the place as a calm dwelling place of the tribals whose grand fathers might have have known Ayyappan in person . But surely as there are no tribals there now somebody else would be doing it now . Even though we would like it to be the tribals .

    It is true that now with LIve telecast and all it has been commercialized . ( We even got a call from a channel to place an ad for the 45 minutes for a huge amount . )

    I have also heard the star can be seen from the near by districts during this time of the year . Sirius is the brightest star in the sky . I am not an authority just a common Hindu . The point is information is available if you look for it and if you want to know the truth and if you don’t fall for the gimmicks and superstition . ( I have seen people changing castes or falling for it when somebody flashes a few points on the spirituality of their religion or poses a few questions on their religion. This happens only becoz of their ignorance and the fact that enough base is not given at their home . Enough base means to understand your beliefs rationally and to respect others’ )

    Anyway I believe and pray to the Supreme power which dwells inside me and is present every where . I would be gratified with praying at the temple any day . Makara Sankranti is just a change in the sun’s path . And was important when we were predominantly a agricultural society.

    If at all this happens on its own ( which by now I know for sure it is not ) I would be interested to know the science and phenomenon behind it . Just like I am fascinated by the Garuda ( eagle ) which accompanies the ‘thiruvabharanam’ every year and then goes away. I am keeping my eyes and ears open . If anybody know the secret please do share.

    I agree with you in all ways that it should be disclosed in public. Actually , the first thing that I said after knowing about the dreadful tragedy was that ‘ it is high time they make it public what goes on there ‘ . But it is also important that people accept that it is done for common good and not to scandalise a religion or belief. People should accept it as a part of History of Kerala . ‘That some tribals who lived there used to conduct a pooja at the time of Makara Sankranti and it could be seen from Sabarimala.’

    At this point I can’t help remembering the rush and stampede and fight that occurs in front of the shrines and temples or public functions or queues where no magic is involved and the only point is ‘to be the first’ . I think it all comes down to self discipline and that includes me.

    May the bereaved families find the strength to survive and peace in life . Nothing would change what they have lost .

    • You would think that someone with scientific curiosity would not have believed that the light was heavenly, and would have tried to find alternate explanations for it, right? It’s too bad that many people somehow believe that questioning certain things (or even trying to figure if it is scientifically possible) is a sacrilege. I wish more people realize that having a questioning mind is not wrong – how else will you differentiate between belief and superstition?

      Thanks for your other comment about my blog.

  4. Pingback: On Makravilakku | Krishnaleela

  5. “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.”

    You ask any Malayalee devotee/pilgrim and he’ll tell you that he never believed in this whole idea. The man-made Makara Jyoti lighting is a recent(read 40+ years) phenomenon which an average Malayalee never believed in. It was apparently lit-up earlier during tribals in Ponnambalamedu, then by KSEB and later taken over by TDB/Dept. of Forests. True that no Kerala newspaper or channel questioned the authenticity of the same, maybe because they/their target audience already knew the real facts.

    Also, the average Malayalee’s belief and faith is way lower when compared to the pilgrims from other parts of (South) India, probably a result of the society which is slightly skewed towards the left side of the political spectrum. Or due to some other reason like better education and such.

    I believe this whole controversy was brought in to sideline the blame-game after the recent tragedy. And most of us fell for that.

    • You could be right. I am not a Malayalee, and I have never come across anyone who would even consider the lamp to be man-made. (I am pretty confident the busloads of pilgrims from other states, especially AP and TN who visit each year wouldn’t know). The Palace management’s letter to the Hindu was the first time I heard about the history of the Jyothi.

      I’m not sure this controversy sidelines the blame-game. Part of the reason why there are such huge crowds on Makara Sankranti day in Sabarimala is that people believe they get to witness a miracle. The much larger crowds, in turn, make crowd management more difficult, and so on.

  6. Beautifully expressed. I hopped over here after reading Ashwathy’s post on the same topic. Like I said at her blog, I choose to believe in the makara jothi/vilakku (I can never get it right :-)), exactly the way a child would whole-heartedly believe in the existence of Santa Claus despite knowing fully well, that there is no Santa. It is simply a question of belief and self-assurance. But yes, misleading people is not correct. If people know the facts and then make a conscious decision whether to believe or not, then that is different. But cheating ‘believers’ or trying to use religious sentiment and emotions just to increase TRPs or gain mileage is not right.

    • Exactly. It’s the misleading of people that I object to. I’m sure many devotees will still believe that the Makara Jyothi is holy, irrespective of whether it is man-made or celestial, and I can understand that. The point is that they should know all the facts about it, whatever they choose to believe.

  7. Lekhini , why don’t you include a like button for you comments ? I would like to ‘like ‘ your above comment 🙂

    Let me hop on to your other posts . I liked the way you express your thoughts 🙂

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  9. the TDB president is right. it is known to all pilgrims that the makaravilakku is lit by tribals. i’ve travelled with a lot of the sabarimala pilgrims – have yet to meet a person who believed it was a divine intervention. the media hype about the m vilakku had fooled nobody. the devotion and the mammoth crowd cannot be attributed to the makaravilakku.

  10. Excellent piece, Lekhni, very clearly and succintly put, and I agree with everything you’ve said. People can believe what they want, but for the government to deliberately mislead them is nothing short of criminal.

  11. “Excellent piece, Lekhni, very clearly and succintly put, and I agree with everything you’ve said. People can believe what they want, but for the government to deliberately mislead them is nothing short of criminal.”

    After seeing these kind of comments, Let’s ask ourselves these questions
    1) In kerala, where from 1950’s to present times, the Government is full of non-hindu members, Is it possible to pull of ‘such a deliberate thing’

    2) Or is this some sort of continous campaign which has a long history of its own

    3) Why is that in our secular media, the temple arson ( 1950) is rarely reported?

    • I am afraid I don”t know much about the history of the battle between the State and religion in Kerala. Your bullet points are fascinating – I didn’t know there were instances of arson directed at temples and so on. You should definitely write a blog post detailing your thinking on this.

  12. Lekhni,

    You can read the Temple Arson Enquiry report here. (www.firstministry.kerala.gov.in/pdf/bills/Reports/tmple_arsn.pdf)
    If you have the time , read through it in full.
    then google for ” Nilakkal Issue -1980’s.

    In this context, I would recommend another article “http://indianrealist.wordpress.com/2010/01/16/mullaperiyar-dam-controversy-and-sabarimala/”.


  13. I say that let the believers believe what they want to believe.No matter how much we discuss if some one truelly believes in something it will be very hard for that person to accept the alternate fact.

    And related to this hoax.Well India is known for such hoax all along.People now a days are not fooled so easily.Look at the India’s recent headlines for holy men getting busted…The Public is rising and if these fake institutions dont stop to fool people they sure will face the consequences…But on the matter of belef…I always respect what an individual believes and never have questioned them even if I knew they were wrong.

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