Sabarimala lies within the Periyar Tiger reserve in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. The temple at the hilltop is the abode of 'Ayyappan' - foster prince of Pandalam royal family and believed to be of divine origin. The region is abuzz with fervent 'Swamiye Saranam Ayyappaa' chants between mid November and mid January, when millions of devotees visit the temple. It remains closed for most part of the remaining 10 months.
For me, the most important message from a Sabarimala pilgrimage is 'Tat Tvam Asi' or 'Tatvamasi, which is interpreted differently by many. But, I feel it all boils down to 'God lies within' - simple, yet profound. What could be more enlightening to a pilgrim coming after a long journey in search of god? The practice of referring to all Sabarimala devotees as 'Swami', must be a reminder of this philosophy. In fact, many of the traditional chants ('Saranam Vili') also refer to the duality of 'Swami' and 'Ayyappan'.
The temple is also known to be impartial to all castes, creeds, language and even religion. There is no 'non-hindus not allowed' board on display here. Any body who has observed the required austerities to visit 'Ayyappan' is treated similarly at the shrine. Since, everybody follows a simple lifestyle and dressing as part of the Sabarimala pilgrimage it is even difficult to figure out if the person walking by along with you is a millionaire or a daily wage labourer!
The one aspect where there is a bias is in the gender! The fact that women aged between 10-50 is banned from entering the temple premises is slammed as regressive by many. This had been a subject of debate for a while now. Even Ayyappa devotees are expected to stay away from women as part of the preparations to visit Sabarimala. Traditionally, menstruation is considered taboo and a 'Swami' should not even cross paths with a woman in her periods. Apparently, this is because 'Swami Ayyappan' is a celibate and is unhappy about any women presence in the premises. In general, ostracizing women during her periods is a common practice in many hindu rituals and its time that we have a re-look at such archaic thinkings.
Another criticism levelled against the temple is about the ecological aspects. Located amidst a reserved forest, the shrine is criticised to affect wildlife conversation. The amount of waste dumped in to Pampa river is also alarming. Numerous man-animal conflicts were reported from the region over the years and its only bound to increase, considering that the number of devotees is rising year by year. Apparently, in the last few years there was some effor to reduce the pollution and create awareness.
Pilgrimage to Sabarimala actually starts a lot earlier than the day of travel. One should go through a 41-day 'vritham' to be eligible to visit the temple. Once again, there are multiple interpretations of how the 'vritham' should be carried out. The basic idea here is to practice abstinence and cut out on all indulgences and luxuries to lead a focussed life on bare essentials. Apart from staying clear of any women, abstinence also include non-vegetarian food, hair cutting, shaving, cutting finger nails, foul language and most of the known 'vices' like tobacco, alcohol and gambling.
To keep the focus, regular pooja, healthy routine and temple visits are also highly recommended. So, devotees are expected to rise early, have a cold water bath and do pooja / visit temples before having food. Similarly, a bath and pooja / temple visit is expected after sunset too before having food. During the 'vritham', devotees are also expected to not use footwears and wear only traditional clothing in plain black. The 'vritham' traditionally starts with wearing of a 'Mala' (a garland made of Rudraksha or Tulasi beads). As professionals, it is tough to follow some of the conditions above. So, some people only go through the 'vritham', but delay wearing of the 'Mala' until about its time to go to Sabarimala.
I have seen families pushing men to undertake the 'vritham' and visit 'Swami Ayyappan', expecting that they will shed some of the bad habits - say excessive drinking. Infact, I remember comments from a colleague about 'Rakshasa' turning to 'Manushya' once the 'vritham' starts. Isn't it wonderful to see a drunkard (seen lying next to the toddy shop on most evenings) changing overnight and starting to visit the local temple twice a day! It is also interesting to note that the same Kerala which will hardly have any vegetarian restaurants for most part of the year will suddenly see pure-veg 'Swami Ayyappa' restaurants in every nook and corner. Infact, the whole of Kerala recieves a massive makeover just before the Sabarimala season - including sprucing up of many major highways.
The actual trip to Sabarimala starts with 'Kettunira' or 'Pallikettu', a ritual where the devotee pours ghee into an emptied coconut and carries it in an 'Irumudikettu'. Before the ritual, the coconut is polished and one of the eye is pierced to empty the water inside. The 'Kettunira' is performed amongst chants of 'Swamiye Saranam Ayyappaa' and at the guidance of a 'Guru Swami'. A person who has gone to Sabarimala 17 or more number of times is considered a 'Guru Swami'.
First, ghee is poured inside the coconut and the opening is corked and sealed using wax. This coconut, which is the main offering to 'Swami Ayyappan', is now placed in to a bag (called 'Irumudi', which has two compartments. The coconut goes in to the front compartment along with rice, coins, money and pooja articles like betel leaves, camphor, incense sticks, rose water, sandal paste and vibhuthi. Another polished coconut, to be broken at the temple, is carried in the rear compartment. This bag is symbolic of old times when people had to carry enough ration to survive an arduous trip.
Once the 'Kettunira' is complete, the devotee is on his way to Sabarimala carrying the 'Irumudikettu' and a bed sheet on head and a cloth bag on the shoulder. Nowadays, the shoulder bag is been replaced by a backpack for some, but the 'Irumudikettu' is a must for devotees to be allowed inside the temple. In olden days people used to go through many hardships to even reach the temple. The only option was to walk all the way from their houses till the hill top and chances of encountering wildlife was high. Now, there is good road connectivity to Erumeli / Erumely and Pampa, while the wild animals are driven away by the huge inflow of people - making it a much easier task devoid of any real risk. I still see people walking many a kilometers to reach Sabarimala, but that is only a very small percentage of the devotees.
The most popular option to go to Sabarimala these days is to start from Pampa and take the steps up via Neelimala. Even this 3-4 km stretch is challenging, especially since its done barefoot. I personally prefer starting from Erumely and taking a 30+ km traditional forest trail to Pampa, via Karimala. Considerable amount of devotees take this trail every year and cover the entire distance on bare feet. I find this quite challenging and a good test of willpower. An alternate route to reach Sabarimala is from Kumily / Vandiperiyar via Pullumedu.
A trip to Sabarimala is incomplete without visiting some of the famous temples en route. Personally, I visit a chain of temples starting from my home town Kozhikode, which is usually a subset of Kozhikode Tali Mahadeva Temple, Kadampuzha Devi Temple, Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple, Vadakkumnathan Siva Temple, Nattika Sree Hanuman Swami Temple, Triprayar Sree Rama Swami Temple, Kodungallur Bhagavathy Temple, Thiruvanchikkulam Mahadevar Temple, Paravur Dakshina Mookambika Temple, Aluva Siva Temple, Chottanikkara Bhagavathy Temple, Udayanapuram Subrahmanya Temple, Vaikom Mahadeva Temple, Kaduthuruthy Mahadeva Temple, Malliyoor Maha Ganapathy Temple, Ettumanoor Mahadeva Temple, Kidangoor Subramanya Swami Temple and Kadappattoor Mahadeva Temple. The reason why our list is limited to these temples is because they fall on our way to Erumely. Devotees from other part of Kerala (or other states) will have a different list of temples.
On our way back, we do visit some more temples down south - like the Pandalam Sree Dharmasastha Temple, Chakkulathukavu Bhagavathy Temple and Ambalappuzha Sree Krishna Temple. There are some more in our list for the coming years - like the Nilakkal Mahadeva Temple, Panachikkad Saraswati Temple, Kulathupuzha Sastha temple, Aryankavu Sree Dharmasastha Temple, Achankovil Sree Dharmasastha Temple, Attukal Bhagavathy Temple and Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Among the temples to the north of Kozhikode, Taliparamba Sree Raja Rajeswara Temple, Kottiyoor Siva Temple and Lokanarkavu Bhagavathy Temple are in my wish list. Ponkuzhy Sree Rama & Seetha Devi Temple, Thirunelli Mahavishnu Temple, Parassinikadavu Sree Muthappan Temple and Kollam Sree Pisharikavu Temple are some other famous temples in Kannur and Wayanad, which I was fortunate to visit.
We usually take the Guruvayur road (deviation from NH17 after Kuttippuram) and get back to NH17 at Chavakkad. After Chottanikkara Bhagavathy Temple, we move to MC Road (main central road, SH1 of kerala) and take deviations to go to some other temples before finally reaching Pala. At Pala, we take a right for the Erumely road. Erumely is the gateway to Sabarimala, from where the traiditional forest trail to Pampa / Sabarimala starts.
A mosque dedicated to Vavar Swami, a close muslim associate of Ayyappan, is also present here. The importance of Vavar in Sabarimala pilgrimage highlights its no-religious-bias nature and the communal harmony that existed in Kerala. All Ayyappa devotees are expected to pay their tributes to Vavar Swami before proceeding to Sabarimala. Even now, with a new road built from Erumely to Pampa, most devotees still take a stop at Erumely to take blessings from Vavar Swami and perform 'Petta Thullal' - a ritual to commemorate Ayyappa's victory against daemon Mahishi. 'Thullal' literally means 'frenzied dancing' - here the devotees start from 'Kochambalam' (opposite Vavar's mosque) and ends at the Erumely Sree Dharmasastha Temple about 100m away.
Its now time to head to Pampa on road via Nilakkal or to the traditional forest trail via Karimala. In general, it may be possible for a person with average health to start early morning from Erumely and reach Pampa on foot by nightfall. The initial portions of the trail is a motorable tarmac laid road and does not have much ascend. The first landmark is a bridge about 4kms from Erumeli - called Perurthodu. A little later is a village called Irumboonnikkara which has a Subramanya temple. The tarmac road ends here and a jeep track follows for another couple of kms.
The ground beneath the bare feets of the Ayyappa devotees becomes harder and this is when the first time devotees will start understanding the meaning of '... Kallum Mullum ... Kaalukku Methai ...', especially those who are not familiar walking bare foot. The jeep track continue for some time till a forest checkpost at Koyickave. This is where the forest trail really starts.
A little later, the trail goes around a hill, with beautiful green valleys on both the sides. This place - I believe - is called Arasumudikotta. Soon, the forest trail again becomes a jeep track before we finally reach Kalaketty / Kalaketti, which hosts a Siva Parvathy temple. The legend says that lord Siva arrived here with Parvathy on an Ox to support Ayyappan during his fight against Mahishi.
There is again a tarmac road near Kalaketty, which connects Kalaketty and Azhutha to Mundakkayam via Koruthodu. This road is utilized heavily for bringing in supplies for the various resting camps for the devotees lining the trail from Eruemly till Pampa. Soon after leaving this tar road, the foot trail goes over a bridge across Azhutha river. Azhutha has many camps for the Ayyappa devotees with toilet and overnight stay facilities. All these places serve Kanji (boiled rice with water) and Kappa (tapioca) for devotees. Infact, all along the trail, there are many shops selling lime water, pineapple, water melon, tea, coffee ... etc.
A ritual (especially for the first time 'Swami') here is to take a dip in the Azhutha river and fetch a stone which has to be dropped at 'Kallidamkunnu'. The trail past Azhutha river is quite steep and is refferred to as 'Azhuthamedu'. This is one of the toughest stretches in the Erumely - Pampa trail and takes about an hour to reach Kallidamkunnu.
Kallidamkunnu also has many camps with toilet, food and overnight stay facilities. After Kallidamkunnu, the trail goes somewhat flat and sometimes involve descends. The next set of camps may be found at Vallithodu about an hour away from Kallidamkunnu. The trail goes up and down in this region and crosses a few streams. One of the hills here is called Inchipparakkotta which hosts a temple. Many potters carrying goods (for the camping sites / shops) on their head / shoulder is a common sight here.
After Vallithodu, the next set of camping sites are around the temple at Mukkuzhi. Mukkuzhi also has a motorable road providing a steady supply of goods for the camps. The trail continues to be up and down for some more time. The next camping point is Vellaramchetta and after that is Puthussery. At Puthussery, there is a safe house for the forest guards with canals on all sides to ward off the wild animals. This gives an indication of the wilderness of the surroundings as soon as the Sabarimala season is over.
The stream 'Kariyilamthodu', at the foothills of 'Karimala' is right after Puthussery. After crossing the stream, the trail goes around a hill for some time before the ascend starts. This ascend - to Karimala - is considered the most testing stretch between Erumely and Pampa. Here is where one can hear a lot of tired, but determined, 'Swamiye ... Ayyappa' chants. People put their faiths in front of everything else to complete this challenging climb and its quite humbling to see very old and / or physically challenged make their way up, chanting 'Karimala Kayattam ... Katinam Katinam ... Dhehabhalam Thaa ... Paadhabhalam Thaa ...' (loosely translates to 'climbing Karimala is tough; give strength to our body and feet').
This stretch is not a continuous climb, but a series of ascends seperated by flatter regions. Each time a flat trail is encountered, it feels like the ascend is over, only to find one more steep ascend soon after, thus testing the devotees mental strength as well. The last one also has a tough descend before a final ascend taking us to the top of Karimala, which is also the location for a few more camping sites.
After climbing Karimala, the chants change to 'Karimala Irakkam ... Katinam Katinam ...', as the descend which follows it is equally tough. The steep descend takes a while (about an hour for us) before reaching another campsite at Valiyanavattom on the banks of river Pampa. This is when the devotee would be encountering the holy river for the first time.
The trail which follows is flat - mostly along the river - for most parts, but feels quite long. In about half and hour, one can start hearing the announcements at Pampa. But, it takes some more time before we emerge out of the forest in to Cheriyanavattom. The first landmark is the garbage recycling facility followed by a string of shops taking you to a very busy town. Pampa is reachable by road from Erumely via Nilakkal, through a 48km road going through a ghat section. It is here that most of the devotees start their ascend to Sabarimala after taking a dip in the holy river.
An unfortunate outcome of the pilgrim overflow is the excessive pollution of the river and the town itself. This is accentuated by some unhealthy practices followed by the pilgrims - like drowning cloths in the river. For most people, brought up in a reasonably hygienic environment, the holy river and the town will first strike as dirty - this for me is the saddest part of my Sabarimala experience.
There is a bathing ghat here where most pilgrims will take a dip before heading to Sabarimala. The devotees first go to the Ganapathy temple and then has to go through a police checkpost - where the ages of women are verified. From here, there is a concrete paved way all the way up to Sabarimala. Alternatively, there is an Ayyappa road which is taken by a few.
Most part of the concrete paved road has steps, which is easy to begin with, but becomes steeper and steeper as we start climbing Neelimala. The steps are usually crowded by devotees and people who wants to go faster usually say 'Swami Paadham' to make way. There is repeated announcements about the healthy practices and a few medicinal facilities to ensure the well being of devotees. My personal favorite though are the people who supply 'Chukku Vellam' (warm medicinal water made out of dried ginger). This is extremely invigorating and also makes sure that there is enough hydration in the hot sun.
After reaching Neelimala top, there is another tough ascend towards Appachimedu. Either side of this stretch is called Appachikkuzhi and Ippachikkuzhi. First time pilgrims are expected to take rice balls (available from a couple of vendors at Neelimala top) and throw one each to each sides. This is apparently to calm down the evil spirits present here. At the top of Appachimedu, the trail becomes level and goes in to a shaded walkway starting at Sabaripeetam.
During peak times, the queue to reach the Sannidhanam can start from here. If the crowd is high, the queue time can go up to 10-15 hours. A little more from here, the Ayyappa road joins the walkway and people in queue is guided in to a foot over bridge. People who have an online reservation can take an alternate path at this point (which is also the way for devotees returning back). The online reservation was first introduced in 2011 aimed at reducing the queue time.
One important landmark along the normal walk way is the Saramkuthi Aal - a banyan tree where the first time pilgrims are expected to pin a small wooden arrow (brought from Erumely). This is done as an indication to 'Malikapurathamma', who is believed to be in an eternal wait to marry Ayyappan, only if no first time devotees turn up in Sabarimala.
The walk way will finally lead to the 'Pathinettam Padi', the gold covered 18 steps made of 'Panchaloha'. Just before stepping in to the 'Pathinettam Padi', a coconut is broken by the devotees. The shrines of Kadutha Swami and Karuppa Swami, associates of Ayyappan who is now assigned the task of ensuring the sanctity of the 18 steps, stands on either sides. Nowadays, there are 'police swamis' waiting at either side of the steps to pull the devotees up. All devotees are expected to have the 'Irumudikettu', without which they are not permitted to climb the steps. There are many interpretations about the importance of these 18 steps. But, for all practical purpose, they represent the culmination of a very arduous and testing journey.
The devotees are now greeted with the reading 'Tatvamasi' to remind him that 'God lies within'. Depending on the crowd, there may be some more delay before getting that one glimpse of the Ayyappa idol. This idol, coupled with the formation of traditional lamps on each sides, is the most magnificient idol I have seen. Usually, the crowd is so high that the devotees will only get a small glimpse. The 'police swamis' at duty here makes sure that the devotees are pushed away quickly to make way for more.
The most important ritual now is to prepare the ghee for 'Abhishekam'. Rooms are available here at normal rentals, but a lot of devotees just choses whatever vaccant area they can find in the premises. A lamp is lit, the coconuts are broken in to two halves and the ghee is poured in to a vessel. The half of the coconut with the opening is later thrown in to the 'Agnikundam' (fire pit placed near the exit), while the other half may be taken back. The ghee is now taken back to the shrine where it is poured over the idol and a portion is returned to the devotee.
The pouring of ghee on the idol ('Neyyabhishekam') is done only till about noon every day. For people who come late in to the temple has no option but to stay back. Once the 'Neyyabhishekam' is completed, the devotees can visit the 'Malikapurathamma' temple. First time pilgrims are expected to roll a coconut around the shrine. After visiting 'Malikapurathamma', pilgrims usually make a beeline to the 'Appam' and 'Aravana' counter to be taken back for friends and relatives. 'Aravana', especially is a very-much-in-demand 'prasadam' from Sabarimala. People staying back at the temple overnight get to hear the 'Harivarasanam', a beautiful song, sung by K J Yesudas, during the closing time.
With the sense of calmness provided by this great journey, the return is usually effortless. The descend can be quite tricky past Appachimedu, but the railings fixed on the middle of the road is of a lot of help. At Pampa, we opt to take a vehicle back to Erumely - there are regular buses plying between Pampa and Erumely via Nilakkal.
The last ritual is to remove the 'Mala' at a temple, marking the end of this wonderful journey. It is kind of sad to see some people throwing the 'Mala' away as soon as they can and going back to their 'Rakshasa' avatar. This would completely defeat the purpose of even making this journey. I believe that an experience like this should leave the devotee richer in terms of experience and maturity.
I started thinking of going to Sabarimala out of sheer curiosity and the rebel in me questioned every 'hype' around the hallowed hills. But, the journey itself was such an eye-opener for me. I now believe that the 'hype' is natural for such an enlightning and humbling experience! With each visit to Sabarimala this belief has only strengthened.