Mystery fire at Sabarimala in 1950

Mystery fire at Sabarimala in 1950
A photo of Sabarimala temple taken by Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma in 1959. Photo: Manorama Archives
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There are many things about Sabarimala that seemingly defies logic or rational thinking. Say for instance the bright star, 'makarajyothi', that appears on the sky on Makaravilakku day, or the brahminy kite that unfailingly makes its appearance at the start of the 'thiruvabharanam' procession. But there is no Sabarimala event more mysterious, and for which no convincing answer can ever be dug up, than the fire that almost fully destroyed the hill shrine in May 1950.

It was the 'santhikkaran' of the temple who first reported the destruction. As he reached the top of the steep flight of 18 steps on June 14, the man might have witnessed perhaps the ghastliest sight. The sanctum sanctorum was broken into, and almost the whole of the temple was gutted. As for the Sastha idol, its head was severed and the left limb butchered. The Lord's fingers were also chopped and lay scattered.

Mystery fire at Sabarimala in 1950
A photo of Sabarimala Sannidhanam and the premises of the Lord Ayyappa temple taken by Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma in 1959. Photo: Manorama Archives

Wanton act of desecration

More than half a century ago, the temple was a solitary structure right in the middle of a dense animal-infested forest. There was no habitation for at least 20 kilometres around the temple. The Kollam DSP who visited the place on June 20, nearly a month after the incident, found that there were 15 violent cut marks on the brass-plated door that opens into the 'sreekovil'. This indicated forcible entry.

“The marks on the brass-plated door lead to the irresistible conclusion that the forcible entry into the sreekovil was for the purpose of breaking the idol and the weapon that was used to make cut marks on the door was the same used to break the idol,” K Kesava Menon, the deputy inspector general of police who was asked to probe the fire, wrote in his report. An axe found at the scene of crime had traces of brass on it.

Mystery fire at Sabarimala in 1950
The doors of the sanctum sanctorum of the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala. Photo: Manorama Archives

Theft was ruled out. Nothing valuable, silver or gold or other utensils, was missing. The possibility of the priests hushing up an accidental fire was also brushed aside. There were devotees at the spot when the priest closed the temple after the monthly pujas. All of them told the investigating team that the temple was intact when they left at noon with the priest on May 20.

There was tell-tale evidence that the vandalism was done on purpose, a deliberate act of arson. Most of the temple was made of less inflammable materials like brass, copper and wood, making arson a difficult act. “The perpetrators might have worked for at least five hours, that too continuously, to achieve such a level of destruction,” Kesava Menon's report said.

Mystery fire at Sabarimala in 1950
'Pathinettam padi', the 18 sacred steps at the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala. Photo: Manorama Archives

There were no witnesses. A Malaya Pandaram tribal, Nilakantan, is said to have seen smoke spiralling up from the spot where the temple was situated. Another group of tribals had been near the area on May 23 to collect minor forest produce. One of them, a 25-year-old man, Podiyan, had gone up the 18 steps and found the temple burnt down. Both Podiyan and Nilakantan were questioned and both were cleared. It took two months for the investigating team to trace Nilakantan as his forest-dwelling tribe had the habit of shifting residences frequently. Nilakantan, curiously, told the officers that he was going in search of a girl near the temple area when he saw the smoke. Fearing it was forest fire, he turned back.

Poachers main suspects

Eventually, suspicion settled on four groups of poachers who had knowledge of secret forest routes that led to the temple. They were the only groups that could sneak into the temple without getting noticed by the forest department officials or the Game Association. (Game hunting was a big time activity then in the forest around Sabarimala. The association was formed to regulate hunting inside the forests. Bison was the most preferred quarry.)

Mystery fire at Sabarimala in 1950
Pullumedu, a serene hilltop in the forest path to Sabarimala. Photo: Manorama Archives

All the poaching groups were questioned, and there were inconsistencies in their statements. A game watcher, Paili, was not able to convincingly account for his presence in the forest at that time. Still, no conclusive evidence could be gathered.

Eternal mystery

Kesava Menon lists three main reasons why none of the suspects could be hauled up for arson. One, the offence was reported only on July 17. By then the rains had washed away most of the clues like footprints and fingerprints.

Two, the first people to reach the spot was the priest and party. “What they did in their excitement and what they saw in their excitement, they are not able to describe appropriately later,” Kesava Menon's report said. Three, Kesava Menon was asked to take over the case only on September 8, a good three months after the destruction was first reported. By then the earlier investigation had unwittingly warned the suspects, giving them time to come up with fool-proof alibis.

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