Sabarimala is a temple complex located at Sabarimala hill inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Perinad Village, Pathanamthitta District, Kerala, India. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimage sites in the world with an estimate of over 40 to 50 million (4 to 5 Crores) devotees visiting every year.
Sabarimala is a temple complex located at Sabarimala hill inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Perinad Village, Pathanamthitta District, Kerala, India. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimage sites in the world with an estimate of over 40 to 50 million (4 to 5 Crores) devotees visiting every year. The temple is dedicated to the deity Ayyappan also known as Dharma Shasta, the son of Shiva and Mohini, the feminine form of Vishnu.
The temple is situated on a hilltop amidst 18 hills at an altitude of 1,260 M (4,134 ft) above sea level, and is surrounded by mountains and dense forests. The dense forest, part of the Periyar Tiger Reserve, around the temple is known as Poonkaavanam. Temples exist in each of the hills surrounding Sabarimala.
The temple is open for worship only during specific days in a year. These are:
- Mandalam approximately 15 November to 26 December
- Makaravilakku or Makara Sankranti (14 or 15 January)
- Temple Annual Festival (mid to end March)
- Vishu or Mesha Sankramanam (usually 14 April)
- Travancore Maharaja’s Birthday (around 11 November)
- First five days of each Malayalam month.
See the temple opening and closing days for current year here.
What makes Sabarimala unique amongst Hindu temples in India is the 41 days vratam (penance) observed by the pilgrim before undertaking the pilgrimage. Vratam means pure thoughts, pure words and pure deeds. It is a process of self purification and includes the following key elements:
- Abstinence from food items that induce lower desires such as alcohol, tobacco, narcotic substances, any such dependency inducing substances, meat in all forms, fish and egg, onion and garlic. Reduce intake of food to the best of one’s ability.
- Refraining from using harsh, impolite words, untruth. Tuning oneself to use only pleasant language in all interactions.
- Invoking bhakti in everything one does; reciting shlokas, reading and listening to holy scriptures, listening to bhajans and divine music etc. Visiting any nearby temple.
- Keeping one’s body clean at all times, e.g., taking bath twice a day, wearing clean dress, keeping away from pollution
- Abstinence from sexual desires, in thought and deed
At the end of 41 days’ vratam, pilgrim fills a coconut with ghee, prepares offerings to Ayyappa and assembles them in a cloth bag called ‘Irumudi’ (literally means twin bundles) and undertakes the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. When the ghee is offered to the Lord as abhishekam, a portion of it is received as prasadam and the coconut is offered to the agni, pilgrimage is complete. The process of inner purification results in the devotee being one with the Lord himself, symbolized by the Upanishad Mantra: Tat Twam Asi: the divinity you see in the Lord and the divinity within Yourself are the same. This is a feeling that cannot be described in words. It is something one must experience himself.
Lord Ayyappa – Birth and History
Different versions of stories about the incarnation of Lord Ayyappa are in circulation. There is a Vedic or Puranic deity Harihara Putra, born out of the holy union of Siva and the feminine form of Vishnu called Mohini at the Samudra Manthan (churning of milky ocean) during the Koorma Avatar (incarnation of Maha Vishnu as Turtle) at the beginning of the present Chatur Yuga. Another legend is related to the killing of Vrikasura (Bhasmasura), during the second incarnation of Vishnu as Mohini, from a later period.
Then there is a historical person, Manikantan, related to the Pandya dysnasty of Madurai in present day Tamil Nadu. This is from a period 800 years ago. This legend is described below. Bhootanatha Upakhyanam, extracted from Brahmanda Puranam and retold in Malayalam by Shri. Kallarackal Krishnan Nair and another translation by Shri. P.N. Krishnanunni and a third book Bhootanatha Sarvaswam by Shri. Kurumulloor Narayana Pillai are considered as authentic references for Ayyappa the historical person.
The members of Pandya dynasty ousted by Tirumala Naicker, the ruler of the Pandya Empire spanning Madurai, Tirunelveli and Ramanathapuram lived in places like Valliyur, Tenkasi, Shenkottai, Achankovil and Sivagiri. They had also established their supremacy in parts of Travancore, and some of them belonging to Chempazhanattu Kovil in Sivagiri were given the right to rule the province of Pandalam by the King of Travancore, some eight hundred years ago. King Rajashekhara, the foster father of Lord Ayyappa belonged to this dynasty.
A just and precocious sovereign King Rajashekhara was held by his subjects in high esteem. Under him, the region was witnessing a golden age. But the king had one sorrow: he was childless and thus had no heir to inherit his throne. Both the hapless king and his queen prayed fervently to Lord Shiva for a child.
Around the same time, a demon by the name of Mahishasura (in the shape of a bullock) undertook severe penance (tapas) and consequently Lord Brahma was forced to grant his wish that nobody on earth could annihilate him. Emboldened by Brahma’s boon, Mahishasura commenced systematic destruction of people and pulverized tribes and communities. Terrorized and fearing his wrath, people fled to distant lands. Realizing that only a superhuman power could exterminate the wayward Mahishasura, the devas appealed to Goddess Durga, who killed him in a fierce battle.
Determined to avenge her slain brother, Mahishi, the sister of Mahishasura secured a boon from Lord Brahma that no being except the offspring of Vishnu (Hari) & Shiva (Haran) could slay her. In due course of time, Mahishi went to Devaloka and began harassing the Devas who in turn implored Lord Vishnu to intervene. As the boon was that nobody except the son of Lord Shiva & Vishnu could kill Mahishi, Lord Vishnu assumed the female persona of Mohini (beautiful lady) who was instrumental in the killing of Vrikasura (Bhasmasua). The Mohini avatar of Vishnu earlier was to help the devas get the divine prize Amrit, immortal nectar, came out of Samudra Manthan, churning of milky ocean, away from the asuras. The male child born out of the union of Mohini (Vishnu) and Lord Shiva was placed at the bank of Pampa river.
On one of his hunting trips to the forests near River Pampa, as King Rajashekhara reclined on the banks of river mulling over the natural beauty of the surroundings and waterfalls, he heard an infant’s wails from the forest. Astounded, he followed the sounds and came upon a beautiful child furiously kicking its feet and arms. The king stood there, perplexed – he longed to take the child home to his palace.
Whilst King Rajashekhara beheld the divine child, a sadhu appeared from nowhere and instructed him to take the infant to his palace. Also the mendicant assured him that the child would mitigate his dynasty’s sufferings and that when the boy turned twelve, Rajashekhara would be aware of his divinity. As the child was wearing a gold chain with bell (mony), the sadhu directed the King to name him Manikandan, one with a golden neck.
Ecstatic, Rajashekhara took Manikandan home and narrated the happenings to his queen. They both felt that they had been blessed by Lord Shiva himself. All except the Diwan/minister who had entertained hopes of becoming the king after Rajashekhara, rejoiced in the royal couple’s happiness.
As a child, Manikandan was very intelligent and precocious. He excelled in martial arts and shastras and surprised his guru with his brilliance and superhuman talents. Peace and prosperity reigned in Pandalam. Eventually, Ayyappan’s guru concluded that the boy was no ordinary mortal but a divine being. Upon completing his studies, Manikandan went up to his teacher to offer guru dakshina and seek his blessings in turn.
As he approached his spiritual master for asheerwaad (blessing), the guru explained to Manikandan what he had already surmised about him, that he was a divine power destined for superhuman glory. The guru then beseeched him to bestow vision and speech upon his son who was blind and dumb. Manikandan placed his hands on the guru’s son and the boy immediately gained eyesight and speech. Requesting that this miracle be revealed to none, Manikandan returned to the palace.
Manikantan had learnt martial arts, organized local people, in the name of Yogams and taught them warfare and martial arts to prepare them against thieves, looters and enemies. He had killed Udayanan, a looter with base at Karimala, who had abducted the princess of Pandalam. When Vaparan, another warrior, a thief and looter attacked poor peole of Pandala kingdom, Manikantan fought with him, endowed him with good advices and finally made him a good friend.
Meanwhile the Queen had given birth to a male child who was named Raja Rajan. Sensing that these miraculous turn of events were somehow inextricably linked to Manikandan, Rajasekhara, decided to crown him King; he obviously considered Lord Ayyappan his eldest son. Everybody with the exception of the King’s Diwan got dejected. This wily minister, who secretly nursed kingly ambitions, hated Manikandan and devised manifold plots, including poisoning of food to exterminate the divine avatar. Manikandan had a few narrow escapes, yet his body bore an injury that none could cure. Finally, Lord Shiva himself in the garb of a healer cured the young boy.
His plans foiled, the Diwan told, injecting poison in the minds of the Queen that it was highly improper for Manikandan to succeed Rajashekhara, as her own son was alive who will have to suffer a lot if Manikandan were to become the king. Since Arthasastra considers that ends justify the means, he instigated her to feign illness; he assured the Queen that he would make his physician proclaim that she could be cured only by the application of a tigress’ milk. Manikandan would be impelled to go to the forest where he would fall a prey to wild animals, or even if he returned home without accomplishing the task, Rajashekhara’s love for him would not be the same as before. Blinded by her attachment for her own son, the Queen vowed to help the Diwan and pretended as though she was suffering from a terrible headache. The King grew alarmed and summoned his physicians who were unable to revive the seemingly ailing Queen. Eventually the Diwan’s accomplice physician declared that she would be cured of the malady only if the milk of a lactating tigress were made available. Rajashekhara proclaimed that he would hand over half his kingdom to anybody who could cure the hapless Queen.
The team of soldiers sent by Rajashekhara with the sole purpose of getting the milk returned empty handed. Manikandan offered to help, but the King would not heed his pleas to go to the forest, citing the boy’s tender age and impending coronation as reasons. Unperturbed, Manikandan requested his father to do him a favour. Rajashekhara, ever the indulgent parent relented immediately; the boy seizing the opportunity pressed him to let him collect the milk. Manikandan stalled Rajashekhara’s efforts to organize a band of brave men to accompany him into the forest; he argued that the tigress would leave silently upon seeing the crowd of soldiers. Reluctantly Rajashekhara bid farewell to his favourite son.
The Bhootagana/servants of Lord Shiva closely followed Manikandan as he entered the forest. But on the way, he chanced to witness the atrocities of the demoness Mahishi even in Devaloka. His sense of justice outraged, Manikandan hurled Mahishi onto the earth below; she fell on the banks of the Azhutha River. A bloody battle soon ensued and at the end, Manikandan mounted Mahishi’s chest and commenced a violent dance that reverberated within the earth and the Devaloka. Even the Devas were frightened. Mahishi realized that the divine being on her was the son of Hari and Haran, chastened, she prostrated before the young boy and died.
Following his confrontation with Mahishi, Manikandan entered the forest for tigress’ milk. He had a darshan of Lord Shiva who informed him that even though he had fulfilled the divine plan, he still had one major task to accomplish. Manikandan was reminded about his grief stricken father and ailing mother; also he was assured of Lord Indra’s assistance in obtaining the much prized tigress’ milk. Manikandan made his way to the Royal palace on Lord Devendra, disguised as a tiger; they were accompanied by female devas in the guise of tigresses and male devas as tigers.
The people of Pandalam panicked upon seeing the boy and the tigers and hurriedly sought shelter. Soon after, the Sadhu, who had first materialized before Rajashekhara in the forest, when he heard a child’s wails appeared again and revealed Manikandan’s true identity to the wonder-struck king. The King grew silent and pensive, as Manikandan approached the palace gates with the tigers. The boy descended from the tiger’s back and informed the solemn King that he could get the milk from the tigresses and cure the Queen of the mysterious ailment. Unable to contain himself any longer, Rajashekhara fell at the lad’s feet and begged for forgiveness, he had finally seen through his Queen’s pretense; her malady had ceased the moment Manikandan had left for the forest. On the day he returned from the forest, Manikandan turned twelve years old.
King Rajashekhara decided to punish his Diwan as the latter was responsible for his son’s exile into the forest. Manikandan, however advised restraint; he held that all had unfolded in accordance with the divine order, through the will of God. Also he reminded his father that as he had accomplished the task for which he had created himself, he would return to Devaloka without fail. Before his departure, the lad told the King that he as he was pleased by the latter’s unflinching faith and devotion, he would grant him whatever boon Rajashekhara requested for. Immediately, the King Rajasekara told him that they wanted to construct a temple in his memory and beseeched him to suggest a suitable place for the temple. Manikandan aimed an arrow which fell at a place called Sabarimala, where in the Sri Rama’s era a Sanyasini called Sabari observed tapas. Lord Manikandan told the King to renovate the existing Dharma Sastha temple in that place, built by Sage Parasurama, an avatar of Vishnu and then he disappeared. Manikandan then reached the Dharma Sastha temple, and merged with the murti of Dharma Sastha.
Later, acting upon the advice of Sage Agasthya, King Rajashekhara laid the foundation stone of the present temple at Sabarimala. Lord Manikandan, had stated emphatically that he would grace only those devotees who come for his darshan after observing forty one days’ penance or vratam. Devotees are expected to adhere to a way of life akin to that of a brahmachari, celibate, constantly reflecting on the divine. Whilst they make their way up the steep slopes of Sabarimala, they adorn themselves with three-eyed coconut filled with ghee, pooja materials and foodstuff on their heads called ‘Irumudi’, and bathed in River Pampa chanting ‘Swami Saranam’ and climb the divine eighteen steps of the temple.
Every year, millions converge upon Sabarimala irrespective of caste or creed, with garlands and irumudis, chant paeans to Lord Ayyappa, bathe in holy river Pampa, climb up the eighteen steps, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lord Ayyappa, the Dharma Sastha.
Nagarajav : The deity of Nagarajav is placed adjacent to the Sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) of Lord Ayyappa. Pilgrims after the Darsan of Lord Ayyappa and Kannimoola Ganapathi, make their darsan and give offerings to Nagarajav.
Vavarunada There is a place near the temple; east of Sannidhanam (the abode of Lord Ayyappa), dedicated to Vavar @ Vapuran (a warrior thief/looter turned a close friend of Lord Ayyappa) which is called Vavaru Nada. However, some people portrait him as a Muslim and his place at Sabarimala is considered as an epitome of religious harmony.
Malikapurathamma : Malikapurathamma is the most important upadevatha in Sabarimala. Malikappurathamma is considered as Devi Madurai-Meenakshi, the kula-devatha of pandya dynasty. There are two more beliefs on Malikapurathamma, that it is the demon that fought with Sri Ayyappan as Mahishi. Once the demon was defeated, a beautiful lady emerged from the body and wished to remain with Sri Ayyappa. Another belief is that the daughter of Sri Ayyappa’s guru became a Sanyasini and desired to remain with Sri Ayyappa. As per Tantric view, pilgrims have to worship Malikappuram as ‘Adiparasakthi’. Main offerings to Malikappurathamma are turmeric powder, (manjal podi), saffron powder, (kumkumam podi), jhagri (sharkara), honey (then), plantain (kadali pazham), and red silk.
Karuppu Swami & Karuppai Amma: The temple of Karuppu Swami is located on the right side of the Pathinettam Padi or the sacred eighteen steps. The temple of Karuppu Swami also includes the murti of Karuppai Amma. They both were people from forest who helped Lord Ayyappa in his divine mission and are believed to have divine power.
Valiya Kadutha Swami : The small shrine of Valiya Kadutha is located on the left side of holy steps. Valiya Kadutha is also an attendant of Lord Ayyappa.
Mele Ganapathi: Mel Ganapathi prathishta is adjacent to the sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum) of the Sannidhanam. Devotees offer part of the broken ghee coconut (ney thenga) to Sri Ganapathi in the fireplace (azhi). Ganapathi homam is the main offering.
‘Ulsavam’ is the annual festival held at Sabarimala temple during the Malayalam month of ‘Meenam’ or the Tamil month of ‘Panguni’ (March-April). The temple remains open for a period of 10 days during the ‘Ulsavam’.
‘Ulsavam’ begins with the hoisting of the temple flag, ‘Kodiyettam’. Over the course of the next days, several special poojas including ‘Ulsavabali’ and ‘Sree Bhootha Bali’ are conducted. The 9th day of the annual festival marks ‘Pallivetta’, wherein Sree Ayyappa goes on a ceremonial procession to perform the royal hunt at Saramkuthi. This is followed by the Sabarimala ‘Arattu’ or holy dip at the Pampa river.
Special poojas to mark ‘Panguni Uthram’ draws the annual ‘Ulsavam’ to a close. ‘Uthram’ is the birth star of Sree Ayyappan.
Ponnambalamedu, one among the 18 hills, is located to the east of Sabarimala. It is considered as the origin (moola sthan) of Bhadra Kaali, the owner/adhi-devatha/mala-daivam of all the 18 hills of Sabarimala. It is believed that many ancient sages had performed severe tapas/penance for hundreds of years. The place is filled with positive energy because of this. The renowned female sage Sabari, the disciple of Sage Mathanga, had lived here in the Treta yuga, had once gave boon to ‘Vijaya Brahmin’, a childless devotee. Later Sabari met Lord Rama at Sabari Peetam and got salvation/moksham. The divine Makara Jyoti is seen from Ponnambalamedu during the sunset of Makaram 1st, every year, immediately after the deeparadhana in the Ayyappa temple. Millions of devotees eagerly wait with folded hands and sarana ghosham to have a darshan of this divine Makara Jyoti.
Malayidal: A pilgrimage to Sabarimala is all about test of senses. Pilgrims are expected to lead a simple pious life known as ‘Vratam’ for the successful completion of the pilgrimage.
Ideally, ‘Vratam’ starts from the day when the pilgrim adorns a maala denoting willingness to undertake austerity. This ritual is known as ‘Malayideel’ (Maala Dhaaranam) in local parlance.
The devotee may wear a bead chain with a locket of Lord Ayyappa. Once the mala is worn, he will be called as ‘Ayyappa’ God himself. The devotee has to lead a life free of worldly pleasures. Food is strictly vegetarian. Vices such as smoking, use of tobacco or narcotic substances in any form and alcohol are a strict no-no. The pilgrim is also required to lead a life of conjugal abstinence. Religious practices mandate that the Mala should be accepted after prayers from a temple priest or a Guru Swami; a person who has completed 18 pilgrimages to Sabarimala. Alternatively, the Mala may be also worn in the prayer room of one’s own home. The Mala is taken off only after conclusion of the pilgrimage.
Mandala Vratam: Mandala Vratam denotes austerity measures by followers and devotees of Lord Ayyappa for a Mandala, duration of 41 days. Simple and pious living sans any vices is called for during the ‘Vratam’ period. Wearing the Mala denotes the onset of ‘Vratam’. Devotees consider wearing the Mala on a Saturday or on the day of Utram, the astral sign considered auspicious. Utram is the birth star of Lord Ayyappa. The idea behind the 41 day ‘Vratam’ is to develop discipline and healthy practices and make it a habit. It is all about good habit formation through sustained efforts achieved through a combination of self-control and prayers. Black is the recommended colour for clothes during the ‘Vratam’ period as the colour denotes detachment from material things. Personal grooming such as cutting hair, shaving off facial hair, and cutting of nails are not done during this period.
Kettunirakkal/Preparation of Irumudi: This ritual is the preparation and packing of ‘Irumudi kettu’ for Sabarimala pilgrimage. It is prepared under the guidance of a Guruswamy. Only those who carry the Irumudi kettu on the head would be allowed to climb the 18 sacred steps to the temple, as they are the ones considered to have observed the austerities and thus eligible to climb the holy steps.
Other devotees have to resort to a different passage to the north to reach in front of the sanctum sanctorum for worship. During the Kettunira, after the initial prayers, the sacred offering of ghee (clarified cow’s butter) is filled inside a coconut, after removing the fibrous outer covering.
The draining of the water within the coconut through a small hole on the top and filling it with ghee is a symbolic act. It signifies the draining out of worldly attachments from the mind and filling it with spiritual aspirations/jeeva-atma. Coconut is called ‘thenga’ in Malayalam and now the ghee-filled coconut, an offering for Lord Ayyappa, is known as the neyy-thenga. It symbolizes body of the devotee/Ayyappa, the ghee inside is the Jeeva-atma and shell covering the ghee is physical body. First, the front compartment of the bag will be filled in with the neyy-thenga and other sacred offerings to Lord Ayyappa and the accompanying deities. The front compartment is now closed by tying it with a string. The filled in front compartment is believed to be vibrant with spiritual power. Then the other compartment is filled with food materials for one’s own use en-route and a few coconuts to be broken at various holy spots.
Petta-Thullal: Shree Dharma Sastha, during his incarnation as the son of Pandalam Raja, organised groups under the name ‘Yogams’, by selecting youngsters from the surrounding areas and gave them physical and mental training such as ‘Kalari’- a martial art – to prepare them for war against the demonic forces, for the purpose of saving pious people and protecting ‘Dharma’. Among the various Yogams, five Yogams, viz.
- Ambalappuzha Yogam
- Aalangat Yogam
- Muhamma Yogam
- Cheerappanchira Yogam and
- Manarkad Yogam…
were considered important. The first two Yogams continue to exist to this day.
Petta Thullal, is the ritualistic sacred dance (with Nadaswaram orchestra and Saranaghosham – chanting ‘swamy thinthaka thom, ayyappa thinthaka thom’) by Ayyappa devotees at Erumely, en route to Sabarimala. It symbolises the victory of good over evil in the i.e., slaying of demoness Mahishi by Lord Ayyappa. It denotes the beginning of the last leg of the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage season on 12th of January every year. Traditionally, Petta Thullal is performed first by the Ambalappuzha Yogam members.
The team comprising more than 1,000 devotees starts the ritualistic dance after sighting the kite in the skies around noon from the Kochambalam at Petta junction. The team will dance its way into the Nainar mosque across the road to pay obeisance to Lord Ayyappa’s trusted lieutenant, Vavar/Vapuran.
The ceremonial dance by the Aalangad Yogam begins in the afternoon after sighting the star in the daylight sky. The two teams after an overnight stay at the Valiambalam would trek to Pampa to participate in the Pampa Sadya (feast) and later in the Makara Vilakku festival at the Sannidhanam.
Mani Mandapam & Rituals of 7 Days during Makara Vilakku
(As explained by Shri. Ratheesh of Kunnekkattu family residing at Ranni, who has traditionally inherited the rights to do these rituals)
Thiruvabharanam is the set of sacred ornaments of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of Sabarimala temple. The ornaments are made of gold. It is believed that these ornaments were made at the orders of the Pandalam King. Thiruvabharanam is kept at Srambickal Palace, which is close to the Valiyakoikkal Temple, inside the Pandalam Palace premises. At the end of the pilgrim season every year, the ornaments are taken to Sabarimala in a procession and poojas are performed on the vigraha adorned with the ornaments. After the season, the ornaments are taken back to the Srambickal Palace for safe custody. Thiruvabharanam and the caskets are made available for darshan at Srambickal palace during the pilgrim season (typically from 2nd week of November till the eve of the procession day) and at Valiyakoikkal Temple on the day of the procession.
The sacred Thiruvabharanam consists of 3 boxes (ornaments, dress materials and other items of Lord Ayyappa). The boxes are carried by a 12 member team on their heads to Sabarimala for the Makara Vilakku festival. The journey on foot takes about 3 days. This reaches at Sabarimala temple at the sunset time on the Makara Samkranti day. The first box containing the ornaments are taken to the sanctum sanctorum and poojas are performed on the vigraha adorned with the ornaments. Once the poojas are over, Sreekovil will be opened for darshan along with deeparadhana. Within minutes Makara Jyoti will be seen from the Ponnambalamedu, the hill opposite the temple.
The other two boxes of Thiruvabharanam containing a vessel (pot/kalasa/kumbham) made of gold, which is used on the 5th day for doing Kalabha Abhishekam to the Lord, and the other box contains 5 types of color powders (natural colors made of 1.Turmeric, 2.burned Husk of rice /umikkari, 3.Rice, 4.prepared from a medicinal, brownish-grey coloured tree called Vaaka, 5. red color mixture made of Lime and Turmeric – used for Kalamezhuthu/drawing of portraits of devatas) – prepared and sent by the senior most mother of Pandalam palace), and Thidambu of Ayyappa (face with moustache and eyes glittered with marataka/emerald) and two flags of Thalappara kotta and Inchipppara Kotta, to the Mani Mandapam, which is located in the temple complex of Malikappurathamma temple.
Mani Mandapam is a plain room and without any vigraha. It will be opened for 7 days only during the year for poojas and other rituals. It is considered as the Moolasthan/origin of the temple. Lord Ayyappa did meditation here and finally became one with the vigraha of Dharma Sastha inside the Sreekovil of the Ayyappa temple. On the first day of opening, Makara Samkranti day, special poojas are conducted around noon time inside Mani Mandapam. Next day after the Makara Samkranti, Kalamezhuthu will be started at Mani Mandapam after the deeparadhana. It will be finished before Athazhappooja (pooja at dinner time). Then the chaitanya/invisible energy/power of Lord Ayyappa will be invoked/(Aavahanam) and instilled in the Thidambu and taken on the top of decorated elephant in a procession with traditional torches and instrumental music (theevetti & vaadyam) led by Melsanthi/chief priest of Malikappuram temple, towards Patinettampadi. Then the story of Ayyappa and rituals to celebrate Makara Vilakku festival is sung in a traditional way. It is called Naayaattu Vili (call for hunting). After this the procession returns to the Mani Mandapam. Concluding poojas will be conducted followed by songs. Kalamezhuthu (drawing) will be removed in the traditional way. The same rituals will be continued for the next 4 days also. The Kalam/drawing for 5 days are different- first day Ayyappa as Brahmachari, second day as a warrior with weapons, third day as a young prince. A representative of Pandalam Palace, as father of Manikantan reaches here on that day and will be staying in the room (Rajamandapam), on the west side of the Mani Mandapam till the end of the festival and all the rituals will be conducted in the presence of Ayyappa’s father. The fifth day kalam will be as a King with full decoration & crown and the procession will touch not only the 18 steps but will go up to Saramkuthi, marking the end of the festival. It is made clear that in the procession of the five days, Lord Ayyappa is taken on the decorated elephant and not Malikappurathamma. The procession of Lord Ayyappa visiting Saramkuthi on the 5th day marks the Conclusion of the Festival. Lord bids farewell to all devotees at Saramkuthi and returns to his abode without the traditional torches and instrumental music. The Ambalappuzha Petta-thullal Yogam and Aalangat Yogam also will conduct some rituals at Mani Mandapam. They accompany Lord Ayyappa in procession to Pathinettampadi, do arathi and return to Mani Mandapam on the first day afternoon, one by one.
Guruthy is a red colour liquid, prepared mixing lime and turmeric in a large quantity of water in a broad and big vessel made of copper or alloy. The pouring of this guruthy after pooja in a traditional way is done as a Vazhipadu/offering/ritual to Godess Bhadra Kaali, the owner/adhidevatha of the mountains /Mala-devatha to increase the chaithanya/power/energy, as a parihara-kriya, every year. Guruthy tharpanam is performed on the sixth day after Makara-samkramam/7th Makaram month, after finishing Athazhappooja, in the courtyard of Malakappuram temple complex. Five kalams/drawings of devathas, representing Pancha-bhoothas are drawn, performed poojas and guruthy is poured /guruthy tharpanam in the traditional way. Guruthy tharpanam is performed at three more places, simultaneously to Malakappurathamma as Madurai Menakshi, Kochu kadutha swami and to Vavar/Vapuran
Trek to Sabarimala
Traditional Path- Route 1: There are several routes to reach Sabarimala including Erumeli route, Vandiperiyar route and the Chalakayam route.
The route via Erumeli is considered the traditional path as it is held that Ayyappan took this route to subdue Mahishi. It is also the toughest of the lot, requiring a trek of about 61 km through forest and hill tracks.
Devotees taking the Erumeli route pass through a series of spots before they reach Sabarimala. The journey starts with offering prayers at the shrines of Dharma Sastha and Vavar Swami at Erumeli.
About 4 km from Erumeli is Perur Thodu, a place where Ayyappa is believed to have rested during his expedition. This place is also important as it marks the start of the ascent/climb to Sabarimala. As a practice, pilgrims give alms seeking asylum in Ayyappa. The forest beyond Perur Thodu is known as ‘Poongavanam’ meaning ‘Ayyappa’s garden’.
The next spot in the traditional path is Kaalaketti, about 10 km from Perur Thodu. ‘Kaala’ in Malayalam means ox and ‘ketti’ is tying. It is believed that Lord Shiva tied his vahan ox here and witnessed Ayyappa slaying the Mahishi. Pilgrims offer prayers in the shrine here, lighting camphor and breaking coconuts.
About 2 km from Kaalaketti is Azhutha river, a tributary of the river Pampa. Pilgrims make it a point to collect pebbles from the Azhutha river before proceeding on to the steep Azhutha hill. The 2-km steep hilly terrain is considered very tough, making in one weep and cry. Kallidumkunnu rests at the summit of Azhutha. At this step, pilgrims throw the pebbles down, commemorating the act of flinging down Mahishi’s mortal remains.
Inchipparakota marks the descent of journey after successfully navigating the uphill terrain. At Inchipparakota, there is a shrine dedicated to Sastha known as Kotayil Sastha, where pilgrims offer their respects. The descent across the slippery path ends at Karimala thodu (canal) flanked by the Azhutha hill on one side and the Karimala hill on the other.
Karimala is the grooming ground of elephants and the pachyderms visit the Karimala canal to drink water. To protect themselves from the chilly weather and animal invasion, pilgrims set up campfires. Karimala is a hill with seven levels and the journey is undertook in stages. The 5 km ascent is very difficult and devotees course this leg of journey chanting ‘Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa’. The flat terrain on top of the Karimala hill offers scope for rest. The ‘Naazhikkinar’, well within a well in this place has fresh spring water, quenching thirsts and tiredness after the steep climb. At this spot prayers are offered to various deities including ‘Karimalanthan’, ‘Kochu Kadutha Swami’ and Bhagawathi.
After an exhausting descent of 5 km covering spots such as Valiyaanavattam and Cheriyaanavattam, one reaches the Pampa river. The significance of Pampa in the Sabarimala pilgrimage also draws from the belief that King Rajasekhara of Pandalam found infant Manikandan/Ayyappa here. Considered as holy as the Ganges, worshippers believe that the water purifies one from curse and evil. The Sannidhanam (the spot of the sanctum sanctorum) is around 8 km from the Pampa river valley. Neelimala, Appachimedu, Sabareepeedom and Saramkuthi are some of the spots en route. There is another lengthy, but less steep route made by a devotee as Subramaniam Road.
It is interesting to note that ascent and descents of the journey teach one to recognise that life is all about ups and downs, and one has to brave it all to reach the summit!
The common route, now being used by many is the road from Erumely to Pampa via Mukkoottuthara, Pampavali, Plappally, Nilakkal, Chalakkayam, Pampa.
Those who are coming through Tamilnadu through Cumbum, Theni places can reach sabarimala through Pulmedu (to check)
18 Steps (Pathinettampadi)
Pathinettampadi are the 18 divine steps to the ‘Thirumuttam’ of famed Sabarimala temple in Kerala state of India. These steps have a length of 5 feet, width of 9 inches and height of 9 inches. Earlier, these steps were made out of granite and later in 1985, it was covered by ‘Panchaloha‘, a composition of five metals such as gold, silver, copper, iron and tin. One who undertakes Sabarimala pilgrimage must mark his foots over these steps by carrying an ‘irumudikettu’ and undergoing a vratam (penance) of 41 days. The pilgrims who climbed the Pathinettampadi for 18 times needs to plant a young coconut tree at Sannidhanam and thereby becomes a ‘Guruswami’. In the past, devotees used to break coconuts on these steps which was later restricted and replaced.
The first five steps represents ‘Panchendriyas’, which are the five human senses such as eye, ear, nose, skin and mouth. The next eight steps represents “Ashtaragas’ which includes Kama (desire), Krodha (anger), Lobha (inordinate desire), Moha (attachment), Madha (pride), Matsarya (unhealthy competition), Asuya (jealousy) and Dhumb (braggy). The next three steps represents ‘Thrigunas’ or the three qualities of Sathva, Rajas and Thamas. The final two steps indicates Vidya (knowledge) and Avidya (ignorance of knowledge). These steps also symbolizes the eighteen hills that surrounds the Sabarimala temple which are Ponnambalamedu, Gaudanmala, Nagamala, Sundaramala, Karimala, Mathangamala, Mayiladummala, Sreepadamala, Thevarmala, Nilakkalmala, Thalapparamala, Chittambalamala, Ghalkimala, Puthusserymala, Kalakettymala, Inchipparamala, Sabarimala and Neelimala. One who cross all these steps become purified and attains eligibility to get the darshan of lord Ayyappa.
- Tamo guan
- Rajo guna
- Satva guna
- Vidya- wrong knowledge
- Avidya- ignorance
18 Hills (Mala)
- Sreepadam mala
- Pudussery mamala
- Kalki mamala
- Nilackal mala
- Thalappara mala
- Thevar mala
- Kalaketty mala
Facts on Sabarimala
- It is believed that the temple of Dharma Sastha at Sabarimala was consecrated by Sage Parashurama himself. Dharma Sastha is also known in the puranas as Hariharaputra i.e., the son of Hari (feminine form of Vishnu) and Hara (Siva).
- It is believed that Lord Ayyappa was a historical person. He took birth between 10th and 11th century as Manikantan in the Royal Palace of Pandalam. He merged with the deity of Dharma Sastha. The form of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala is that of a Naishtika Brahmachari (eternal celibate), in Patta Yogasanam, a yogic posture.
- Lord Ayyappa, explained to his father, the King of Pandalam the rituals, traditions, customs and poojas etc. to be performed and how the Sabarimala pilgrimage shall be undertaken, emphasizing the importance of ‘vratam’ and specified that the 18 holy steps to be ascended by a devotee with Irumudi on his head and women of reproductive age should not visit him.
- The report ‘Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States’ written by British historians Lieutenant Ward and Lieutenant Conner during 1816 to 1820 AD mentions about Sabarimala, its structure, opening dates for Pooja etc. It clearly explains that women who have attained the age of puberty and to a certain time of life i.e. between age 10 and 50 years refrain from visiting the temple.
- The judgment of Kerala High Court in 1991 by Justice Paripoornan and Justice K.B. Marar clearly recognised that ‘the restriction imposed on women aged above 10 and below 50 from trekking the holy hills of Sabarimala and offering worship at Sabarimala Shrine is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial’.
- Previously the temple was being opened for pooja and darshan only once in a year from January 11 to 15. However, knowing the wishes of God cleared through Devaprasna – the temple is now open from November 15 to January 20, first five days of each Malayalam month and for some occasions like Vishu (Mesha Sankramanam), Travancore King’s birthday, annual temple festival etc.
- The number of Ayyappa devotees visiting Sabarimala increased from 10,000-15,000 in 1816 (as per the above mentioned report) to 4 to 5 crores (40 to 50 Million) nowadays.
- The devotees hail from not only Kerala or the southern states, but from entire India as well as from 25-30 foreign countries.
- Any devotee who wishes to have a darshan of Lord Ayyappa starts the preparation on the first day of Malayalam month Vruschikam (starting of Mandala period) wearing a special sacred garland (mala) of tulsi, sandle or pearls under the guidance of a senior devotee called Guruswamy, observes strict 41 days Vratam, referring to pious observances such as fasting with clean and clear, body and mind and reaches Sabarimala trekking the mountains and climbing the sacred 18 steps with Irumudi on his head.
- The devotee on wearing the above garland – mala – gets the name of his God i.e., Ayyappa and sees Lord Ayyappa in other human beings and all living things and call them as Swamy Ayyappa.
- Sabarimala is the best example of National Integration. Unity in Diversity is clearly demonstrated here.
- There is no gender discrimination in Sabarimala, it is a only a restriction for entry to sabarimala for women between the age of 10 and 50, as prescribed by the Tantri/ chief priest. Lakhs of women called ‘Malikappuram’ outside of this age group trek to sabarimala and get darshan. It has been totally misrepresented as barring women from entering.
- When one devotee starts vratam wearing the sacred garland – mala/mudra, all the family members of his family also start observing the vratam. That means more than 50% of the Hindu families in south India are directly or indirectly connected to Swamy Ayyappa.
Tips to Ayyappa Devotees
- Ayyappa devotees who wish to go to sabarimala for darshan should first meet a Guruswamy and wear Mudra (special garland).
- Guruswamy is a devotee who has completed drashan of Ayyappa at sabarimala for more than 18 years and got enough experience about the pilgrimage.
- Observance of 41 days Vratha is very important. To take bath twice a day, in the early morning and at evening. The garland (mala) in the neck not to be removed till the end of the pilgrimage. After bath, wear vibhoothy, go to a nearby temple or stand in front of the photo of Lord Ayyappa in the Pooja room and chant “swamiyeesaranamayyappa” 108 times. Clothes of black, blue of saffron colour only to be used. However, devotees who have to wear uniforms as per the discipline of the school or workplace can do so, but on returning home, may change dress after bath.
- No haircut, no shaving. Eat fresh Vegetarian food only, not to eat previous day’s food. Try to take food from home only. If unavoidable, food from hotels may be taken, but make sure that it is clean, fresh and vegetarian only.
- Always think of SwamyAyyappa in mind and chant his name as far as possible. Do any activity in the name of Ayyappa. See ‘SwamyAyyappa’ in all other human beings and living beings and call them as ‘Swamy’ only.
- Avoid luxury, cosmetics, face powder, perfumes etc.
- Avoid mattresses, use mat or cot only for sleeping or taking rest.
- Observe strict Brahmacharyam, both physically and mentally.
- Take part in any spiritual activities being conducted in nearby temples/ places likeAyyappapooja, Ayyappanvilakku, bhajan etc. without waiting for invitation.
- Respect Guruswamy and observe the vratha under his guidance. After completion of the 41 days vratha, with the help of Guruswamy , fill coconut with ghee, prepare the Irumudi with the required pooja materials prepared in own house, if possible. Avoid plastic containers. During the journey to sabarimala also the Irumudi to be preserved with great respect and taken care off.
- After taking bath in the holy Pampa and trekking through the Neelimala, Sabaripeedam, Saramkuthy etc. and climbing the sacred 18 steps and getting darshan of Lord Ayyappa, open the Irumudi, conduct Neyyabhishekam, accept a portion of the ghee as prasadam, get darshanof upa – devathas, do pooja with the pooja items brought and spend some time at the sabarimala temple area with dhyanam/meditation.
- Pampa is a holy river, to be protected by us. Never contaminate the holy pampa. Never throw garbage or put own dresses in the pampa.
- Avoid plastic in the holy sabarimala and poomkavanam. If you were forced to take some plastic containers, never through the waste plastic at sabarimala.
- After returning home, take bath, do saranaghosham in front of photo of Ayyappa in pooja room or at nearby temple, then remove the garland (mala) and put an end to the vratha. (But never remove the mala on the way before reaching home).
Anti Sabarimala Activities
From a remote, obscure, difficult to reach pilgrimage spot, over the last 75 years, Sabarimala has become one of the most popular pilgrimage centers in the world. Sabarimala now attracts about 40 to 50 Million (4 to 5 Crores) pilgrims a year. These pilgrims represent a microcosm of the Hindu society i.e., they belong to all castes upper, middle, backward, dalit, vanvasi as well classes / social backgrounds from the rich to the poorest of the poor. They come from all over the country, especially the southern states. Its popularity poses a big hurdle to Christian missionaries in their expansion efforts through proselytisation. This has resulted in various challenges, some open, some clandestine, some overt, some covert. This narration is an attempt to present a true picture of the challenges.
- Sabarimala temple was burnt down and the vigraha of Ayyappa was broken to smithereens, on the night of 16th June, 1950. Government of Kerala appointed an one man inquiry commission headed by DIG Kesava Menon. The commission submitted a comprehensive report to the government, clearly unravelling the conspiracy by fanatical Christian elements. But government developed cold feet and did not table the report in the state assembly. It was shelved silently and the culprits were not brought to justice.
- On 29th March 1983, a wooden cross was planted overnight on a piece of private land at Nilakkal, just 200 m from the Nilakkal Mahadeva Temple. Nilakkal is within the 18 hills (Poomkavanam) of Sabarimala. Catholics claimed that this was the spot where St Thomas, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ had built a church in 52 AD. On May 19, the state government headed by K Karunakaran granted one hectare of land for a church at that spot. The entire Hindu society took on the government and after a protracted agitation lasting a year, the fraud was thwarted and the planted cross was removed. The myth of St Thomas has been clearly debunked as a fraud, but it still gets resurrected by fanatical groups.
- In November 2000, a report suddenly appeared in a local newspaper that tail of a rat and a beedi butt was found in sealed cans of ‘aravana payasam ‘ (sweet rice pudding), sold as main ‘prasadam’ at the Sabarimala temple to millions of pilgrims, in two separate instances. Devaswom Board, the government body that manages the temple affairs presented contradictory reports and tried to evade its responsibility. The truth was never unraveled.
- In 2006, a small time Kannada film starlet Jayamala claimed that she had touched the vigraha of Lord Ayyappa inside the sanctum sanctorum at Sabarimala Temple. The Devaswom Board arranged a devaprasnam (finding out the wishes of God through an astrology procedure) by a controversial Unnikrishna Panicker. This led to many controversial fall outs, lot of mud slinging and tarnishing of the temple customs and rituals.
- Off and on, controversies are engineered that ‘Makarajyothy’ (the sacred light that appears on a hill opposite the Sabarimala temple on the Makara Samkranti day) is fake.
- Some fanatical groups routinely raise a big hue and cry that Mullapperiyar dam in the district is structurally unsafe and poses a danger of bursting. This has been debunked several times, but every year the controversy is raised again before the pilgrimage season. This raises doubts in the minds of Hindu devotees that it is a plan to dissuade pilgrims.
- Some fanatical groups have of late been circulating a fake story that a christian priest named Veluthachan from Arthungal church (in Allappuzha dist) had given training in martial arts to Lord Ayyappa. The controversial Vavar Masjid at Erumely and Vavar Nada at the Sabarimala Temple have also been clever attempts to fool the gullible pilgrims and extract donations from them. These fraudulent narratives gain currency because of support from a section of the secular government that has set its eyes on the income from the temple.
- In 2006, Indian Young Lawyers Association led by one Noushad Ahamed Khan filed a public interest litigation petition before the Supreme Court challenging the Sabrimala Temple’s custom of excluding some women. The Association argued that the custom violates the rights to equality under Article 14 and freedom of religion under Article 25 of female worshippers. On 28th September 2018, a 5 member bench of the Supreme Court held that the custom of restricting the entry to women of menstruating age was unconstitutional. The ill advised and controversial judgement led to a massive uprising by the Hindu devotees. Some controversial remarks the honourable judges that (i) a temple is a public place (ii) deity in the sanctum sanctorum even though is a juristic person, has no life therefore has no fundamental rights of its own (iii) court would appropriate for itself the right to judge if a custom was essential to the practice of religion. These remarks smack of lack of knowledge on temple worship and by themselves are pernicious. Peaceful agitation by Hindu devotees including millions of women was met with by massive brutal repression by the state police and administration.
- Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam was instrumental in organising the resistance movement across India under the banner of Sabarimala Karma Samiti and Sabarimala Action Council.
- The Court was saddled with 65 petitions challenging the verdict of 2018 on the grounds of faith, as devotees believe Sabarimala’s presiding deity Ayyappa to be celibate. The petitioners include the Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam, National Ayyappa Devotees (Women) Association, the Nair Service Society, the All Kerala Brahmins Association etc. All the Review Petitions were heard in open Court by the Hon’ble Apex Court and those who could not address the Hon’ble Court were given opportunity to submit their written arguments. The Hon’ble Supreme Court pronounced its judgement (3:2 verdict) on these Review Petitions on 14.11.2019 the Majority bench comprising Hon’ble Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice A.M.Khanwilkar and Justice Indu Malhotra referred the cases to a larger bench, Justice Nariman, authored the dissenting judgment for himself and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and dismissed the Review Petitions.
- The Supreme Court in January 2020 named a nine-member bench to examine matters related to the entry of young women into the Sabarimala temple. The bench will comprise Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justices R Banumathi, Ashok Bhushan, LN Rao, MM Shantanagoudar, SA Nazeer, RS Reddy, BR Gavai and Surya Kant and would hear from January 13 matters related to the pleas against its 2018 Sabarimala judgement.
- The court is likely to examine several matters related to the verdict and petitions, including the interplay between freedom of religion granted under Articles 25 and 26 of Constitution and other provisions, especially in Article 14, that grant right to equality before the law and equal protection of the laws.