SABARIMALA: With the annual 'Mandala Puja' just days away, the Lord Ayyappa Temple here has been witnessing a heavy rush as over one lakh pilgrims visited the hill top temple on Friday.
A steady inflow of pilgrims was seen at Sabarimala in recent days as the police had eased certain restrictions even as the prohibitory orders are still in place.
"As many as 1,12,260 devotees have visited the shrine and offered prayers on Friday. It is the highest head count after the annual season began this year," the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) said in a statement.
The pilgrim rush is expected to increase manifold in the coming days, it said. However, anxiety looms large in and around the shrine in the backdrop of reports that a group of 50 women, all below the traditionally barred age of 50 years, are set to visit Sabarimala on Sunday under the aegis of 'Manithi', a Chennai-based outfit.
Selvy, a member of 'Manithi', told a Malayalam TV channel that the group comprised women from different states, including Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Karnataka besides Kerala.
She said they had already written to the office of Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in this regard and informed about their plan to trek the hill temple.
The police Saturday confirmed that the women's group will offer prayers at the Lord Ayyappa temple, which had witnessed intense protest against the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict permitting women of all age groups into the shrine.
"As per the information, the group will reach Kottayam at around 10 am. They have not asked for any special security. "When they reach Nilackal, the base camp, and if there is any law and order situation, we will deal with it accordingly," a police official told PTI.
On Friday night, a 43-year-old woman devotee from Andhra Pradesh, who came along with a group of pilgrims to offer prayers at the Ayyappa temple, was stopped and sent back by police midway, citing security reasons.
Marking the culmination of the 41-day 'vratha' (penance), Mandala Puja, the first phase of the Sabarimala pilgrimage, would be held on December 27 at the Lord Ayyappa temple.
Kerala had witnessed massive protests by devotees opposing the entry of girls and women in the 10-50 age group into the Sabarimala temple since the Kerala government decided to implement the Supreme Court order.
Over a dozen women have so far made unsuccessful attempts to trek the holy hills. Four transgenders, who were earlier stopped from proceeding towards the Lord Ayyappa temple citing security reasons, offered prayers at the hill shrine under heavy police security cover earlier this week.
The Kerala High Court had earlier this month appointed a three-member committee, vesting them with powers to oversee law and order and other problems faced by pilgrims during the ongoing annual season.