Monday, December 26, 2011

Mullaperiyar Dam and Sabarimala: The religious roots of the Controversy

By Bharat Nair


Mullaperiyar Dam is located in the state of Kerala in India. It derives its name from the portmanteau of two rivers, namely, Mullai Ar (Mullaiyar) and Periya Ar (Periyar). The dam was the result of a treaty (lease indenture) signed in 1886 for 999 years between the ruler of Travancore and the Secretary of State, Government of India, (then under British colonialist rule) representing Madras Presidency.

This masonry dam, built with lime and Surkhi by the British Army Engineering Corps, was commissioned in 1895. After Independence, Indian states were reorganised and their boundaries rationalised. The areas surrounding the Mullaperiyar Dam ( originally part of the State of Travancore) were merged with Kerala, while the state of Tamil Nadu received full rights to own and operate the dam as per the lease treaty. Tamil Nadu continued to use water from the dam. In 1970, both the governments decided to renew the treaty.

According to the website of Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, the controversy about the dam began in 1979 when several news reports began appearing in Kerala press regarding its safety.  From then onwards, the Government of Kerala began to see this primarily as a safety issue while the Tamil Nadu government saw it as an attempt to violate the water-sharing treaty.

It is not the intent of this article to argue for or against a party in this dispute. In fact this is not about either the historical aspects of water sharing treaty between the states or the safety aspects of the dam.

It is a painful historic fact that in India, many a times, local issues and disputes have worsened due to its being hijacked by various disruptive forces, national or international. Whether this holds true in the case of Mullaperiyar dam needs to be checked thoroughly.

This article is an attempt to investigate the forces that lie behind this controversy.

Mullaperiyar Dam Controversy in the Media

It is interesting to note that in the news media, Mullaperiyar issues get highlighted only during certain months of the year. This trend looks more or less the same for the last one decade (2000-2009).

[Figures 1 & 2 give the ‘Google news search’ for the individual years from 2000-2009].

A quick look at these figures suggests that the number of news items appearing in the media on this controversy starts in October, peaks around December and then continues on until April.

The significance of this trend will look surprisingly familiar to a Malayali or a person from South India.  It is obvious that news items about the dam controversy appear only in the months that are significant for the Sabarimala pilgrimage of the Hindus. Is this a mere conincidence? Let’s see.

Sabarimala Pilgrimage:

The Sabarimala pilgrimage is one of the most ancient pilgrimages of India. The presiding deity of Sabarimala, Lord Ayyappan, is one of the most popular deities in South India. The temple is open for worship only during the days of Mandalapooja (around November 15 to December 26), Makaravilakku (January 15), Vishu (April 14), and the first five days of each Malayalam month.

Sabarimala pilgrimage finds mention in many historical records of foreign travellers as well as colonial administrators (though this fact is studiously avoided by both Western and Indian scholars).

‘Memoirs of Travancore’  written by William Henry Horsley in 1839 describes Sabarimala as “Chowrymully”:
“Among the other pagodas of celebrity that of Ayapen at Chowrymully attracts particular attention, vast numbers (and many even from the eastern coast) flocking to it at the period of festival in January, to present their vows and offerings, notwithstanding that it is situated in the wildest country possible.”

It is possible that some readers of this article will feel that this article is going to be just another conspiracy story with out any real substance. It may also be argued that this similarity in “news-trend” is most probably a result of either a natural or an accidental cause with no connection to Sabarimala issue.

But when one observes the recent over-earnestness of certain anti-Indian publications regarding the reporting of Mullaperiyar issues and  also the same yearly ritual of ‘hit pieces’ regarding Sabarimala coming around the same time of year, it would become clear to a sensible observer  that this cannot be a result of accidental or natural causes.  There is a hidden sense of purpose and deliberateness in these ‘hit pieces’ that most of the time these ‘news-stories’ come with highly misleading titles  and repetitive news  .

The first step in unravelling this mystery would be to develop some idea about the published ‘literature’ regarding Sabarimala by the modern scholars, esp. the Western Scholars. A few of the important such papers/ books will be discussed here in this context.

Only a few books have been published regarding Sabarimala so far in English by Indian / Western authors. Of the Indian authors, books written by K.R. Vaidyanathan “Pilgrimage to Sabari” Published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978 and Radhika Sekar’s “The Sabarimalai pilgrimage and Ayyappan cultus” Published by Motilal Banarsidass, 1992 are the prominent ones. (Note: Radhika Sekar’s work was originally written for her Master’s thesis to University of Carleton and later published by MBD).

In the recent years quite a few foreign scholars have published research papers on Sabarimala. Amongst these, Remy Delage’s (a French geographer who have published a few papers in connection with “spatial dimensions” of Sabarimala Pilgrimage) and Filippo Ossello and Caroline Ossello‘s paper (‘Ayyappan Saranam’: Masculinity and Sabarimala Pilgrimage in Kerala) which deals with “gender aspects” of the pilgrimage are significant.

These works deserve greater attentions in this context as they are a pointer towards the western psyche regarding Sabarimala pilgrimage. As normal practice with Western scholarship, all these papers have irreverent comments/ descriptions of Lord Ayyappan such as “ambivalent diety” , “hyper-male diety”  and in a few places half-truths or plain lies . There are various remarkable things about these papers that can raise a few questions or doubts in the mind of a discerning reader.

“Mapping Out Social Change in South India” – A Geographic Information System and Its Applications (Chrtisophe Z Guilmoto, Remy Delage et al.)  is the result of a bigger project  “South Indian Fertility Project” (SIFP) funded by Institut Français de Pondichéry ( research centre of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs), Wellcome trust ( leading NGO of U.K)   etc. The objective  of this SIFP project is to “is to analyse the social and economic dimensions of demographic change through the study of spatial heterogeneity of fertility in South India”.

This paper  deserves to be read in full as its introduction to the subject, findings and the conclusion are relevant here. One also has to know why “mapping a religious pilgrimage” is a serious topic to be ‘researched’. Firstly Remy Delage in “Mapping Out Social Change in South India” asserts that “While in 1950s – 1960s, Sabarimala only attracted groups originating from Malabar Coast and the Tamil Districts neighbouring Kerala(Madurai, Virudhanagar etc), the pilgrimage today draws several million devotees coming mostly from the four corners of South India (Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh).”

Author/Authors do not cite any source for this nor is it clear as to how he reached his conclusion regarding the numbers and the geographical distribution of pilgrims of 50 – 60 period. However Remy Delage in a published paper titled “From Fieldwork to Research Theory on an Indian Pilgrimage”  (another paper on Sabarimala Pilgrimage) gives a number of “ten to fifty thousand persons”. Again, it is not clear as to how he has arrived at this figure. This particular paper can be considered as an important one for our purpose in another respect also as he gives out the “complete list” of primary and secondary references perused for his research. (Please note that the omission of one important primary source is very significant of which more, will be explained later).

“Mapping out Social Change in South India” primarily is an attempt at mapping the pilgrimage of Sabarimala. In this study, a definite interest is taken with respect to movement of pilgrims from the State of Tamil Nadu. A district wise break-up of Tamil Nadu pilgrims was done using a questionnaire survey during the pilgrimage. Using this limited data, GIS maps were created for visualising geographic origin of pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, for representing routes and major destination (holy places) liable to be visited by the Pilgrims en-route to Sabarimala.

Though throughout the paper, an attempt has been made to study the routes or visiting places of the pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, the conclusion that the author arrives at is totally ambiguous and unrelated. It would appear as if such a conclusion is given just to hide the real intentions. This is because, the maps, (even though data is taken from a non-representative sample) clearly indicate that, the neighbouring districts of Madurai, Coimbatore, Theni etc ‘produces’ the major portion of the Tamil Nadu Pilgrims to Sabarimala. This fact is a matter of common knowledge and does not require any Geographic Information System (GIS) to prove this. But the use of GIS, to map out the routes and the other holy places/temples frequented by pilgrims of Sabarimala is a novelty, the use of which would be highly beneficial for its intended readership.

Here, the second connection between Mullaperiyar & Sabarimala emerges.

As per Wikipedia, “The dam’s purpose was to divert the waters of the west-flowing Periyar River eastwards, …………….taking the water from the reservoir through a tunnel cut across the watershed and Western Ghats to the arid rain shadow regions of Theni, Madurai District, Sivaganga District and Ramanathapuram districts of Tamil Nadu”

This would mean that the areas served by Mullaperiyar dam are exactly the same areas from where, originates the ‘major portion’ of Tamil Sabarimala pilgrims.

Now it’s the time to ask ourselves some what if scenario questions and its effect on Sabarimala Pilgrimage:

a) What would happen if State of Kerala tries to forcefully ‘take over’ Mullaperiyar dam citing ‘safety’ reasons or tries unilaterally to build another dam in the place of Mullaperiyar?

b) What would happen if Mullaperiyar dam ‘breaks’ or is ‘made to break’?
The answer to the first question would be extreme resentment from State of Tamil Nadu which will lead to immediate economic blockade of the two passes which will lead to a state of mutual hostility. The result would be highly disastrous for Sabarimala Pilgrimage as well as for the unity of the nation. The answer to the second question would also be extreme hostile reaction from the State of Kerala towards the Tamils which would certainly affect Sabarimala Pilgrimage as well as the cultural unity amongst them. Thus it can be seen that in both cases, it’s a win-win scenario for those who want to disrupt the Pilgrimage.

The scarier part in this Issue is that, the same effects can happen even if there is a feeling that two mentioned scenarios are going to happen. i.e. Even a misunderstanding that the State of Kerala is attempting to change the treaty unilaterally or the feeling that the dam is extremely unsafe can produce the same result of disrupting the Sabarimala Pilgrimage. This has been happening for the last ten years. It can be seen that to till this day, this issue has been ‘kept alive’ (thanks to our ‘liberal political & Judicial system) by various means. The latest one in this regard is a ‘Hollywood movie” named “DAM 999”  which is going to get released soon.

The producer as well as the director of this movie, Sohan Roy is a Malayali Entrepreneur who owns a marine company based in UAE. The very name of the movie suggests that it is related to the Mullaperiyar Issue. It is still unknown how this subject is going to get treated in the movie or even how the movie is going to fare in the box office. But surely it looks like another attempt to take this issue to a ‘higher level’. The news that it is going to be released in 4 languages with the possible involvement of Celebrities like Aishwarya Rai, Celine Dione and other top level artists from Malayalam film Industry gives some hints about this.

But now a genuine question can be raised as to how and why Sabarimala is so important that such great efforts are being made to destroy it. Who are its enemies? What are their intentions? Have they attempted to destroy it previously? If so, why there are no historical records for it?

Sabarimala Temple Arson

In order to answer this, we need to historically revisit the 1950’s. It would be seen that in all currently available books/ websites/ periodicals there would be a single line mention of temple fire in Sabarimala, which forced the then administration to rebuild the temple.  Some very few websites mentions this as a handiwork of some ‘miscreants’. The entire matter has been so described in those books that even perceptive ‘hindutvavaadins’  began to assume this incident as ‘a forest fire’ intentionally / unintentionally initiated by members of a ‘rival’ community primarily for financial / land grab attempts.

It should also be noted that even our foreign scholars of this subject maintain their silence on this. Remy Delage in his paper titled “From Fieldwork to Research Theory on an Indian Pilgrimage” gives a full mention of the efforts of two devotees who tried to ‘promote’ Ayyapa in India, particularly after the ‘Temple fire’.  Yet he also ‘forgets’ or ‘choose not’ to mention this very important source. This is when he includes all government publications as well as record from 1906 to 2000’s.

What could be ‘so interesting’ in this report that all “our scholars” are conveniently forgetting it?? Why is it so difficult for researchers to locate this report??

It should not be so. As a matter of fact, there was an enquiry report titled “Sabarimala Temple Arson Case” which was later published by Government of Kerala in 1957.  This report (35 pages) is now available from a government owned website (Information & Public relations Department) (

Sabarimala Temple Arson Case: Enquiry Report was the report of the investigation of the same case conducted by Shri. K. Kesava Menon, Deputy Inspector General of Police, Special Branch, C.I.D. (On Special Duty). This report is significant for multiple reasons. Firstly, this report completely unravels the players who are actually involved in this issue.

Secondly this report extensively covers the “sentiments” of a certain community and proves that the most important reason for this temple arson was religious fanaticism. Thirdly had this report been studied and lessons learnt, Hindus could have avoided the ignominy of the “Nilakkal Agitation episode”  This is because this enquiry report categorically narrates this strange episode in detail –

“There is another back ground, which if viewed with the facts and the incidents mentioned above, will lend support to the possibility of an organised plan to destroy the Sabarimala shrine. In the month of Makaram, according to Ouseph, he followed a party of muthalalies consisting of Karimbanal Kochukunhu muthalali, Jnellamitthath  Kuttiachan, Podimittom Verghese, Karipparambil Devassya, Vadakkepparambil thomman and Pottamkulam Thomas, who left Erumeli in a Jeep and went to Kalaketti from where they went to Kollamuzhi by walk and halted. They directed the coolies to go into the forests and hunt. Then the muthalalies and himself went to Nilakkal in search of a church which they believed to be existing at Nilakkal. Though a search was made, they did not find any remnants of a church, but they saw only remnants of two or three temples.

It is surprising that at this period of the history of Travancore these muthalalies are searching for a church on the route to Sabarimala. It may be that either they want to establish by some evidence the existence of a church there or to renovate it or they are in search of a suitable place for building a church. Anyway the desire for a church near the Sabarimala orthodox route seems to have been deeply rooted in their mind as otherwise there was no necessity for all these muthalalies to join on this business. This it can be seen that since some time, the Christians have begun to deel the increasing number of low caste Hindus visiting the Sabarimala temple in ecstasy and devotion, which in all probability they would have thought if not checked would inevitably result in a check to the growing process of conversion of low caste Hindus to Christianity.

Further, the existence of a church at Nilakkal and Pampakadavu would in the long run attract Christians to colonise the area and thereby they could exploit these fertile regions and improve their financial conditions.”

That these exact things happened after a period of 30 years during Nilakkal agitation which led to their success in building their church at Nilakkal proves the extreme short sightedness of the Hindus.

Some other Excerpts from the Enquiry report:

1) ……………… the marks of violence on the brass-plate door of the Sreekovil together with the marks on the idol, raise the irresistible conclusion that the forcible entry into the Sreekovil was for the purpose of breaking the idol and that the weapon that was used to cut the Sreekovil door was the same used to break the idol. At the scene of occurrence, there was an axe and it is definite that that axe was used to cut the Sreekovil door, as traces of brass were found on the sharp edge of the axe and hence it has to be said that the fire was not accidental. ( Page 2 of the report)

2) The temple and its surrounding buildings were built up of wood, copper, brass, which were not easily inflammable, but they have been completely burnt. This is evidence enough to show that great effort has been made to set fire to the temple and speaks a deliberate action. ( Page 2 of the report)

3) The possibility of fire around the forest area enveloping the temple and thus bringing about the destruction of the temple is also out of the question, as there were no signs of any such forest fire around the area, and there were ample indications of a deliberate setting fire of the temple at the scene. ( Page 2 of the report)

4) The temple and surrounding building as already mentioned having been built of mostly non-inflammable materials, could not be easily set fire to and on a modest calculation, the perpetrators could have worked at this at least for four to five hours continuously, as evidenced from the emptying of the ghee tins and utilising cloth and other materials to set fire to the temple. Further, there were signs of occupation of the temple premises by a party. They have made use of the provisions that were stored in the temple including coriander. These clearly show that great labour has been undertaken in committing this act. ( Page 3 of the report)

5) After having explained that theft was not the motive of the offenders, the next point for consideration is to find out what else is the motive and who could possible have that motive. From the examination of the scene of occurrence and attendant circumstances, it was possible to come to a conclusion that the offence was a deliberate one well conceived and executed. There was a touch of open vandalism and desecration was the only purpose. The breaking of the idol after forcibly entering into the Sreekovil by cutting open the door with an axe indicates ferocity. With this background, the whole point has to be viewed ( Page 3 of the report)

6) Offenders have to reach the temple through such routes and familiarity and knowledge of the surrounding forest area and routes are essential requisites for such an expedition. Though it will not be correct to state that there are no Hindus who are not acquainted with the place and route, it is reasonable to consider that Christians have got more familiarity and knowledge than the Hindus in this direction, as they and they alone occupy the places at the base of these hills and they are the only persons who hunt and poach in the vicinity of the temple day in and day out. In short, they have more facilities to commit this crime than any other community; and it is in evidence that they have hunted and poached in the vicinity during the relevant period.

The forest lands and the areas either at the beginning of these routes or lying along these routes are all cultivated not by the Hindus but by the Christians. The Hindus have not and cannot have so much of opportunities as the Christians. A Christian has absolutely no regard for a Hindu temple or idol. To him a Hindu idol is either a piece of stone or a block of metal. In short, he attached no sacredness for any Hindu idol or temple except that he may admire as a work of art. It is otherwise for a Hindu. ( Page 4 of the report)

7) This offence is not at all the work of a mad man as evidenced from the method or manner in which the temple was set fire to and idol broken. The Hindus have no influence over the area and any party of Hindus cannot get into forests without being noticed by Christians. ( Page 4 of the report)

8) A party of Hindu coolies who had gone to collect minor produce had satisfactorily explained their movements and a thorough verification was made. They had no hand in this. The Hindus have no purpose whatsoever by destroying this ancient sacred temple. It is from this temple that Hindus get a large income. It is this temple that brings unity among all classes of Hindus.  ( Page 4 of the report)

9) Further, if the Hindu Mandal wanted to dot it, they would have as well done this before the Kaviyur  reconversion or even before the Hindu Mandal Convention at Quilon. Finally, if the Hindus have done this, certainly information would have come out by this time regarding the perpetrators, because, psychologically at least one of the Hindus would have become terror-stricken and blurted out the details to somebody. It was because the offence has been committed other than by the Hindus, no information has so far come forth. This is borne by the fact that a Christian or a Muslim has absolutely no feeling for the destruction of Hindu idol or temple. This again is a point of Psychology.(  Page 5 of the report)

10) History has repeatedly shown that such sacrilegious acts in spite of the devotion of the Hindus towards such ancient temples and idols have been committed with a view to challenge the basic existence of the Hindu temples. This is not only due to the fanaticism in the wake of hatred but also due to a desire to put a stop to the influx of a large section of humanity into the folds of this ancient religion. This is one of the sacred temples which draw due to its sanctity thousands and thousands of devotees of all castes and creeds to offer their prayers to GOD AYYAPPA.

Long before the Father of the Nation preached temple entry for all untouchables, this ancient temple stood as a beacon light and guidance to the whole of India. For example, the low caste Pulaya and the high caste Brahmin rubbed shoulder to shoulder and offered prayers in this ancient temple. In the present day, in the wake of partition and communal tension among different communities, exhibiting the ugly signs of enmity against one another, this Makaravilakku stood in all its solidarity voicing forth the union of all Hindus into one fold and the fact stood as the foundation stone on which caste, creed and colour had to be shed away in the worship of the all-pervading God. (  Page 6 of the report)

11) Investigation having pointed out the hand of Christians on circumstantial evidence, the details of which I have given below, it is natural to believe that the above facts related to the motive are not inconsistent with the evidence gathered. I am emphasising this point to show that the case was investigated as an ordinary Arson case on other important circumstantial findings with a view to trace the offenders, in which the motive point was not taken into consideration to begin with, and after investigating this on the lines mentioned above, and having arrived at conclusions, the motive point came in naturally in the wake of investigation. (  Page 8 of the report)


1) Presently, Sabarimala temple reportedly gets better security coverage. Serious studies need to be made about Government’s view of threat perceptions to Sabarimala.

2) There were reports in the press regarding certain explosions on 27-12-2009 near Sabarimala which caused panic.  On 5th Jan 2010 PTI reported arrest of a LTTE  man at cumbum. This is a serious development to be considered. It is a widely known fact that a certain “Universal” religion was one of the sponsors for this terrorist organisation. The fact that most of these types are out of jobs now and sitting idle in T.N camps should be taken into consideration. Any attempts of LTTE to infiltrate to the either forests or the shelter camps for refugees near Kerala / T.N border needs to be monitored.

3) The protection of Mullaperiyar Dam needs to be strengthened. The fact that the adversaries can go to any length for their nefarious deeds is to be acknowledged.

4) Let us remember what H.G Wells says in his book ‘Crux Ansata’   “I think that it stands for everything most hostile to the mental emancipation and stimulation of mankind. It is the completest, most highly organized system of prejudices and antagonisms in existence. Everywhere in the world there are ignorance and prejudice, but the greatest complex of these, with the most extensive prestige and the most intimate entanglement with traditional institutions, is the[ XXX]. It presents many faces towards the world, but everywhere it is systematic in its fight against freedom.”


1. Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India

2. Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India

3. JOURNAL OF KERALA STUDIES, PUBLISHED BY UNIVERSITY OF KERALA, Vol. XXXI, March-Dec 2004, pp. 1-66 (William Henry Horsley’s Memoir of Travancore (1839): Earliest English Treatise on the History of Travancore
Achuthsankar S. Nair,  University of Kerala)

4. “Stop Pilgrimage promotion in Sabarimala: Study” (P.Venugopal) : The Hindu, Dec 26, 2001

5. From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 24, Dated June 21, 2008 publishing repetitive news regarding Sabarimala on 2nd January 2010

6. Remy Delage-  Pilgrimage and Environment in South India — A Research of Compatibility Between Conflicting Ideologies ; Mapping Out Social Change in South India — A Geographic Information System and Its Applications

7. Filippo Ossello and Caroline Ossello — ‘Ayyappan Saranam’: Masculinity and the Sabrimala Pilgrimage in Kerala,2003

8. Filippo Ossello and Caroline Ossello — Ayyappan Saranam’ – [“The resultant child,Ayyappan, product of two males, was born from Vishnu’s thigh. Shiva and Vishnu were ashamed” – This story of ‘shame’ is un heard of and most probably  a wilful lie]



11. See

12. See-

13. Mullaperiyar Dam. (2010, January 7). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:27, January 10, 2010, from

14. Film Review,Oct 2009 –The Hindu

15. Malayala Manorama Website (20-Dec-2009)

16. Rajeev Srinivasan, Rediff -“The settlers are almost entirely Christian. In their enthusiasm, some Christians actually set fire to the Sabarimala temple in the 1950s: it was a nuisance to them in their attempts to grab the surrounding forest”

17.  Menon, K Kesava Sabarimala Temple Arson Case: Enquiry Report. Kerala — Trivandrum: The Govt.Press, 1957

18. Report can be downloaded from

19. For more details see

20. Malayala Manorama

21. PTI

Source :

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