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The venue is Sabarimala, Lord Ayyappa's abode. And the incident in question, a decision to decorate the sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) with gold leaves.   Swami Ayyappa of Sabarimala has such a strong pull on aviation and liquor baron Vijay Mallya that every year he goes through the mandatory 41-day ritual of `no drinks, no meat' before heading to the hill shrine.

He's gone to Sabarimala over 20 times now with a group of friends. He walks barefoot the last 10km like an ordinary pilgrim before climbing the 18 steps for a darshan of the deity.

Mallya has gold-plated the roof of the sanctum sanctorum. This offering initially attracted criticism, but the Kerala High Court finally allowed him to donate 32kg of gold and 1,900kg of copper to gold-plate the temple roof. The exercise reportedly cost him Rs 18 crore.

Mallya and wife Rekha have also donated money to help gold-plate the pillars of Ayyappa temple at Jalahalli in Bangalore. Also, every aircraft that Kingfisher Airlines purchases first circumambulates Tirupati's Venkateshwara temple before being inducted for commercial operations.

By the way, using gold for religious purposes is nothing new in Kerala. The Guruvayoor temple, one of the most famous institutions in South India, is a glowing example in this regard. Christians, too, have been using gold in churches.
One of the severest critics of the Dewaswom Board's decision is Damodaran Potti, former Kerala assembly speaker and president of the Ayyappa Seva Sangham. "Devotees who undertake the rigorous trek to Sabarimala every year observe self-imposed penance for 41 days," he gives vent, "During this time they don't indulge in sex, alcohol or consume non-vegetarian food. Therefore, it is improper on the part of the Dewaswom Board to seek financial assistance (from Mallya)." Critics, meanwhile, accuse Mallya of engaging in the 'holy exercise' with business motives. His plans, they say, to put up boards advertising his group in the entire valley, where millions visit every year, was thwarted by the Kerala high court.
While permitting the UB group and Dewaswom Board to decorate the sanctum sanctorum, the court stipulated that the businessman should not use the 'offering' for commercial publicity in the valley. It allowed only one board stating that the sanctum sanctorum was done up as an offering by Vijay Mallya. This would exist at the Pamba river, where devotees congregate on the final leg of their pilgrimage.
UB brands are quite popular in Kerala, which has the highest per capita consumption of liquor in the country today.
Legend has it that the Ayyappa idol was installed by Parasurama at Sabarimala. The temple was initially maintained by the Pandalam palace. Later it was handed over to the Travancore administration, from where it passed on to the Travancore Dewaswom Board.
Interestingly, despite attracting millions of pilgrims every year and receiving billions of rupees in offerings, the temple does not have enough basic amenities such as drinking water, sanitary facilities and lodging.


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