The rise and rise of volunteer power in Sabarimala

Five transformed individuals present their incredible experience in the Art of Living’s Pampa River Cleaning Project

Over 8000 volunteers have participated in the Art of Living’s Pampa River Cleaning Project, clearing tonnes of accumulated garbage from in and around the river and the forests on its banks. Five intrepid volunteers share their personal stories.

Women pilgrims do not enter the Sabarimala Temple as per traditional norms, but women are showing their reverence in a unique way.  Over 500 women volunteers have braved all odds to do their bit in the Pampa River Cleaning Project by manually removing dirt from the riverbed of the Pampa and by conducting awareness campaigns.

Ambika, 54, Art of Living Faculty
“Not once did we feel repulsed.”

“It was during the Annual Sabarimala Pilgrimage.  I reached Pampa to participate in the cleaning project after a 9-hour journey from Trichur District, Kerala. There were 10 volunteers with me. (7 men and 3 women). We were told to camp at the Sabarimala site. There was no proper bathroom facility, so we had to manage with makeshift toilets which our male colleagues had built for us. 

We were focused only on cleaning the Pampa. We picked up a lot of litter, trash and dirt, including human waste, from the riverbed. Removing the garbage was extremely challenging and difficult, but not once did we feel repulsed.  For me, Pampa is traditionally holy and epitomises our culture, we felt privileged, being a part of this initiative.

Hemalata, 23, Youth Leader (Yuvacharya)
“Thrilled at being able to do something impactful for the environment.”

“When I came from Malappuram to join the Pampa Cleaning Project, I didn’t know what was in store.  However, I was thrilled at the opportunity of being able to do something impactful for the environment. I was involved in sensitising people about the contamination of the Pampa River and its alarming consequences. I think my communication was effective, because I was working with people who felt deeply about the cause. That concern creates authentic communication. I felt people were receptive to me. It was an experience of a lifetime.”

Beena, 35, Youth Leadership Training Program faculty
“We created an atmosphere for a mass movement

“Initially, I was a little apprehensive of camping in an unknown place. However, everything fell into place. It was appalling to see how pilgrims dumped material in the Pampa. The difference in approach was not to just talk to them, but first attend to their state of mind. Dealing with the climate was a big challenge. During the day-time the temperature would rise to 45 degree C. The nights would be freezing and chilly. It was very exacting to live in these conditions, but we were full of enthusiasm and determination to work. We mobilised people for organising meetings, workshops, awareness campaigns and created an atmosphere for a mass movement.  Our schedule was hectic but I was always on the move, I ate what I was given, did what I was told and accepted any task that I was offered. I left after 10 days, the entire experience has made me more capable.”

Kumar Rajan, Project Member and Youth Leadership Training Program faculty
“I interacted with thousands of pilgrims and motivated them to change their mindset.”

Things seemed impossible when I arrived at Sabarimala. Dealing with a large number of pilgrims was a Herculean task. My job was to educate every pilgrim on keeping the river clean. We experimented with a lot of methods for engaging with the pilgrims. It was a unique experience; meeting every pilgrim personally, convincing him and getting him to listen. I interacted with thousands of pilgrims and motivated them to change their mindset. On the other hand, cleaning the river was at times tiring; because every season, new pilgrims would come and dump their belongings in it.

I spoke to Guruswamis, (temple priests devoted to Lord Ayyappa, who have taken the pilgrimage 18 times. Every group of pilgrims had a Guruswami accompanying them. The Guruswamis were not aware of the High Court ruling that dumping clothes was a punishable offence. To make them receptive before raising awareness was our goal. That is the true challenge of such a project. Talking to people is not enough. We have to bring a shift in the thought of the listener. During my stay, around 4000 volunteers came during one of the clean-up drives. We removed 25 tonnes of garbage from the river.

Testimonial: The True Pilgrim of Sabarimala

30 year old Ashwin Nandkumar stepped out of his comfort zone to embrace a tough life in the dense forests of Sabarimala. Having come to clean the Pampa for 4 days, Ashwin stayed for 75.

Moments of doubt

When I arrived at the Pampa base camp, my plan was to stay for a few days, have fun, climb the hill, capture a few selfies, and in between do some river cleaning and return home with an album of photographs. When I learnt that I would have to walk half a kilometer to use the public toilets, where crores of devotees had queued up, I wanted to run away. My mind started showing me clips of the 32-inch LCD TV and the cosy cushions in my living room, the clean, fresh hygienic food in my kitchen and the array of DVD movies that I am yet to watch.

The change of heart

The Herculean task of cleaning a river where an estimated 5.5 crore devotees throng through at a point in 108 days, felt like sheer madness. I decided to work for 3-4 days. In that time I witnessed how other volunteers who came there to clean were constantly at work. Their commitment was inspiring and invigorating. I was awed by their passion and commitment to removing muck and dirt from the riverbed. They say good work enthuses and invariably it happened to me. I decided to stay on. What followed was a rigorous adventure of 75 days in a tin-sheet tent, up against tough weather conditions and physical challenges.

Work in action
“I must have pulled out around 25,000 undergarments from the river
The core team of seven members were working 24/7 to raise awareness about the Pampa. We had launched a massive movement sustained through the spirit of volunteerism and social service. Every day, a busload of people would arrive at Sabarimala. We would always be there at the spot, where pilgrims took the ‘holy’ dip. Our primary task was to stop people from dumping clothes and explain that doing so would not bring them any spiritual merit. It was also painful to remove the waste from the river that was wet and heavy. I must have pulled out around 25,000 undergarments from the river.

The going gets tough
“It a cause that brings grit in a person. I would do my daily practices of yoga, Pranayam and Sudarshan Kriya.”

I had volunteered to stay for 3 days, and left at the end of the 75th day. Staying in a tin-sheet tent in a mountainous area was not comfortable. The temperature would rise to 45 degrees C in the day and the heat would beat down on us. The nights would be cold and chilly, with the water condensing. Everything would get moist, including my blankets. It was tough to sleep at night. It a cause that brings grit in a person. I would do my daily practices of Yoga, Pranayam and Sudarshan Kriya. This sustained my energy levels. I felt a shift in me, and participating in this project was rewarding.

Spirit of volunteerism
“People who live there started honoring our presence.”

The strength of volunteerism brought about a phenomenal personal transformation and environment transformation. Complaints turned into austerities, illness turned into valour and lack turned into abundance. There was a sheer inner strength that throbbed through us and people who live there started honoring our presence. From the government officials like the police, the cleaning staff and the Intelligence Wing, to the business and shop owners in the Pampa vicinity, everybody started coming to us. I felt empowered by my simple actions of raising awareness and cleaning and that was thought-provoking.

A journey unto eternity
I am a changed person now. I have worked for 16 hours at a stretch, gone without food, slept in dirt, spoken to hundreds of people, visited open toilets and even removed human waste. The whole experience has humbled and invigorated me.”