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Sabarimala Pilgrimage tour

In the last half century a pilgrimage to Sabarimala has had a meteoric rise and the reason may be that Ayyappa has ushered in a monumental change—that of a casteless, classless, colourless oneness in the performance of worship… one in which non-Hindus also participate.

A colleague in a software company used to come to work riding his 3.5 hp motorcycle down Residency Road. He would veer off, park, go up the lift, enter office, then spew high tech stuff, punch keys, peer at monitors. Nothing unusual in Bangalore, dubbed the Silicon Valley of India. Except that he looked like an ascetic. For 41 days, he would come unshaven and barefoot to the air conditioned office, dressed in a black mundu and black t-shirt, sporting thick tulsi beads round his neck, sandal paste, kum kum (vermilion) and vibhuti (ashes) on his forehead. He would sleep on the floor, remained celibate, partook no meat nor alcohol, ate only once in a day during the vratam (austerities).

He was one of dozens I know in Bangalore, similarly dressed, on similar austerities, including the push cart fruit vendor, the dentist, the gardener, the corner chemist, the barber, the Ratorian, the orthopedic surgeon… in sum, from all walks of life. They all plan to go to the Ayyappa shrine atop Sabarimala (Mount Sabari), that phenomenally popular shrine in south Kerala.

There is a rejoinder, however. Ayyappa is celibate and women between the age of nine and fifty are barred. The men-only pilgrimage and the antiquity of the deity reveals a blend of myth and history. One version goes back to the period of devas (gods) and danavas (demons), when Mount Manthara was the churning stick placed on the back of the tortoise form of Vishnu. The snake Vasuki was used as rope to churn ksheerasagara (ocean of milk) to get at amrit (nectar) that would confer immortality. First came kalakootha (poison), which was promptly swallowed by the compassionate Siva to save the universe from annihilation. His throat turned blue and gave rise to the name Neelkantha.

Then the churning yielded various assets like kamadhenu (divine cow) and the kalpavriksha tree. But when finally amrit surged forth, the danavas were ready for battle of possession. To distract them, Vishnu transformed himself into the irresistible enchantress Mohini, so that the devas could have all of the nectar to themselves. The danavas were beguiled and the devas got their amrit. But Siva was equally attracted. Out of the union of Mohini (Vishnu) and Siva came Ayyappa, also known as Hariharaputra (Hari-Vishnu, Hara-Siva, putra-son). Siva left for his Mount Kailas, leaving the baby under a tree on the banks of the river Pampa.

The story moves from the heavenly characters to the childless king of Pandalam, a thriving kingdom in south Kerala. The Pandyan king Rajasekhara, out on a hunt, spotted the baby and brought it to the palace to his queen, who was overjoyed. She, however, later bore the king a son and so resisted Ayyappa being declared heir. To get him out of the way, she sent him to fetch tiger’s milk which she said was needed to cure her ailment. Ayyappa set out alone, starting at Erumeli (south-east of today’s Kottayam).

In the jungle, Ayyappa met Lord Indra who was harassed by the demoness Mahishi. A battle ensued and since Ayyappa was Hariharaputra, he slew Mahishi. A grateful Indra thereupon provided Ayyappa with a tigress’s milk and a tiger as mount. Whereas the conniving queen did not expect to see him back alive, the young god returned triumphant and forgave her. An abode atop Sabarimala was earmarked and that becomes the yearly destination of the likes of the black mundu clad hi-tech computer engineer of Bangalore. Pilgrims like him come from Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Karnataka and Kerala.

Ayyappa at Sabarimala is celibate and the story is that after he killed the demoness Mahishi, she reverted to her original form of a goddess. Smitten by the young god Ayyappa, she proposed marriage to him, but he said he would remain a bachelor unless pilgrims stop visiting his shrine. That is highly unlikely, as the two month season of mid-November to mid-January will see three crore pilgrims offering worship… and the numbers grow every year.

Since the shrine is atop a hill in a lush, forested and mountainous area of the Western Ghats, there are several options on routes. The most used is the one starting at Irumeli, reached by road, 78 km from Kottayam, which is the nearest railhead. It was at Irumeli that Ayyappa had set out to get the tiger’s milk for the ‘ailing’ queen. Pilgrims congregate here, ready to replicate his journey. They perform a puja under a guruswamy (chief devotee) and go in a group with him. They do the Petta Thulal (dance of the hunters) after painting their torsos, waving weapons, wearing arrows in their head bands. The ritual is in memory of the holy dance Ayyappa did on the mortal body of Mahishi. The dance indicates that the pilgrim has forgotten his self and he shouts Swamiya Saranam Ayyappa (O Lord Ayyappa I come to thee for refuge).

Irumeli has an Ayyappa shrine of the Lord in the form of a hunter with bow and arrow. But nearby is the Vavar shrine. Vavar, a Muslim warrior was once Ayyappa’s adversary and then a faithful follower who attained sainthood. The pilgrims light champhor and offer worship at the Vavar shrine, accept sacred ash as prasad. The dancers chant Ayyappa thin-thakka-thom in full throated cadence to the accompaniment of reeds and drums, casting off all their vanity and man made distinctions. Among the pilgrims are Christians and Muslims and they take the purificatory bath at Erumeli like everyone else.

The pilgrimage actually starts only after the Petta Thulal dance. The devotees carry in irumudi (iru-two, mudi-compartments), a bag that has a sealed coconut filled with ghee while the other compartment has food articles needed for the barefoot 48 km trek through valleys, rivers and forest. On the trek, the devotee subsists on an empties the eatables, exhausting the parabdha karma (worldly desires) and retains only the body (coconut) and the ghee (soul). The ghee when poured on the idol, signifies merging the soul with the Supreme.

The trekkers need two days of intense walking, two nights camping out in the wilderness. They have halts including the one at Kalaketti, the exact spot where Mahishi was slain, and at Kalidumkundru, where the devotees throw stones in symbolic burial of the mortal remains of Mahishi. Thereafter, they reach Pampa, at the base of Sabarimala.

But I did not go on the 48km trek. I took the easier way out, taking a bus to Pampa. Pilgrims who walk from Erumeli, and those like me who come by vehicles, merge on the banks of the Pampa river and cross by a concrete bridge. Lamps are floated on the river and it is believed that Ayyappa joins the devotees who take food on the banks of the holy river.

From Pampa, there is a 7 km ascent on a dirt track to the hill top shrine. I found the 3 km climb up Neelimala steep and wondered at those who could go up without footwear, because the path had pebbles, mud and stones as big as footballs. Appachimedu, the first halt, was a welcome respite where I bought branded mineral water in sealed bottle and watched pilgrims throw balls made of rice powder down the valley to propitiate evil spirits.

A kilometer further, came Sabaripeetom, named after the tribal women who had offered hospitality to Rama in his time of exile. The spot was where she observed severe penance and attained heaven. This place has a peepul tree where pilgrims remove arrows from their head bands and thrust them into the tree trunk to mark their presence. The arrows provide evidence that pilgrims do keep coming and Ayyappa is thereby able to put off marriage.

Some devotees, walking barefoot, even had one bandaged foot and yet overtook me. Their yells, wali, wali kodu (way, give way) still ring in my ears. While I was breathless, they continued their loud, rhythmic Swamiye Saranam… Ayyappa Saranam.

I reached the top of the hill, where the plateau is known as Sannidhyam but since I had not carried an irumudi, I was not entitled to climb the sacred eighteen steps of the shrine. They represent the eighteen chapters of the Bhagavad Gita, and some say the represent the eighteen types of weapons Ayyappa had used to vanquish the demoness Mahishi. They are said to have been built by the mythical Vishvakarma, and nowhere else are the steps of a shrine held as sacred as those at Sabarimala.

I watched the devout going up those steps in a religious frenzy, as though some magic was drawing them. Then I had to take a longer route round, going north, to reach the srikovil (sanctum sanctorum) to join the queue for a darshan of Ayyappa. The queue snaked round the shrine and all over the plateau. I was jammed between devotees who were to my left, right, front and back. We moved as though of one mass, but there was a spiritual calm.

The srikovil is small, the roof recently plated with gold by the corporate UB group, and the idol of Ayyappa is only 2.1/2 ft. tall, but has a commanding presence full of prana (life). The darshan was exhilarating. Ayyappa squats in a yogic asana, wears a band round his knees with fingers in chinmudra position. There left hand is extended and round his neck there is a little bell. The devout ahead of me were overcome with emotion, some in tears, others saying they did not even remember climbing those holy eighteen steps. As I moved after having darshan, I was dazzled by the gold plated roof in the cornice of which, a golden Ayyappa rode his tiger.

I had gone when the shrine had just opened for the two months (Nov 15-Jan. 15) season. But during Makara Vilakku festival, usually January 14, a regular yearly miracle is said to occur when Ayyappa indicates his presence by a celestial light that is visible in the sky from Sabarimala. To view this, there come a million pilgrims, full throatedly shouting Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.


Kottayam is a major railway station from where the road is 78 km to Erumeli (a 5 hour bus ride) but getting space in the bus is the usual scramble. From Erumeli, the 48 km trek should be attempted by the very fit and usually with a group, under a guru. Gurus can be located by asking around Ayyapa (Sastha) temples in your city/town. By road, from Erumeli to Pampa takes 5 hours. From Pampa, the climb is 7 km, the first 3 km of which are steep. Bottled drinks are sold on the climb up. For those unable to climb and for the infirm, dolis (litters) with four persons are available at Pampa to carry people up (Rs. 400). At the hill top or Sannidhyam, most people do not spend the night. They start climbing from Pampa at midnight, reach in the morning and return to the plains by evening. At Sannidhyam, accommodation is alfresco or railway platform style, under a hangar-like roof near the shrine. Toilets are 300 meters away that have unsatisfactory hygiene. Guest houses and other accommodation is possible (Rs. 100-450) by writing to the temple authorities several weeks in advance. Address: Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthapuram-3, Kerala. You must carry their reply with you to get accommodation. There are restaurants, tea shops, religious goods shops & good medical facilities at the hilltop.

¤ Ajmer Sharif ¤ Amarkantak ¤ Amritsar
¤ Bodhgaya ¤ Chidambaram ¤ Chitrakoot
¤ Dargahkaliyarsharif ¤ Dharamsala ¤ Dilwaratemples
¤ Dwarka ¤ Gangasagarmela ¤ Garhwal
¤ Goa ¤ Guruvayur ¤ Hardwar
¤ Jageshwar ¤ Jambukeswaram ¤ Jambukeswaram
¤ Kailashmansarovar ¤ Kamakhya ¤ Maheshwaromkareshwar
¤ Mathura ¤ Parashuramkund ¤ Pilgrimagecenters
¤ Pilgrimagesofsikhs ¤ Rameshwaram ¤ Rishikesh
¤ Sabarimala ¤ Shatrunjayahill ¤ Shivapur
¤ Tawangmonastery ¤ Thirukalikundrum ¤ Tirupati
¤ Travelofgods ¤ Trichur ¤ Tripureshwari
¤ Tungnath ¤ Vaishnodevi ¤ Varanasi
¤ Vrindavan ¤ Yamnotri