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 changethat of a casteless,
classless, colourless oneness in the performance of worship
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 tigers milk which she said was needed to cure her
ailment. Ayyappa set out alone, starting at Erumeli (south-east of
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 tigresss 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
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 tigers 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
Ayyappas 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
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
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.