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The Holy trek to Sabarimala - The Observer

K Vaidyanathan ()
November 21, 1998

Title: The Holy trek to Sabarimala
Author: K Vaidyanathan
Publication: The Observer
Date: November 21, 1998

A few years ago, when SV Pillai was Chairman of Pfizer Limited,
he was under great tension. His company was on strike, his irate
employers summoned him to Hong Kong for consultations, and back
home in Ernakulam, his brother had suffered a heart attack. "All
I could do was pray to Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala. Thank God, the
Lord answered my prayers" concludes Pillai whose brother's blood
pressure dropped miraculously and the doctors pronounced he was
out of danger. His seventeenth attempt to visit the shrine in
the Western Ghats was thwarted during the time owing to various
work and domestic commitments, though he could make it at the
last moment when the shrine was still open.

K.J. Yesudas, the well-known playback singer is a Roman Catholic
by birth. He had been denied entry into other Hindu temples in
Kerala. But year after year he has been visiting Sabarimala. He
was childless for seven years after marriage, but was blessed
with a son after he started visiting the shrine.

Moideenkutty is a poor Muslim youth from Wynad in north Kerala.
He was suffering from epilepsy from the age of four. Medical
treatment was not able to cure him. He undertook the pilgrimage
to Ayyappa in 1978. Even during the 41-day preparatory vow, he
felt considerable relief.

Like Pillai, Yesudas and Moideenkutty, millions from all over
India undergo 41 days of prayers and penance and undertake one of
the most arduous treks in the world, crossing formidable ranges
and passing through dense forests.

Certain facts about Sabarimala. speak for themselves: In 1970-71
about a million devotees worshipped at the shrine during the two-
month long festival season (mid-November to mid-January) which
fetched an income of Rs 24 lakhs. The collection now is over Rs
25 crores and the number of devotees is around six crores. This
Indicates the increasing popularity of the temple which has been
attracting even foreigners.

The advent of Dharma Sasta - one who teaches and upholds dharma
of righteousness - as Ayyappa is called, is unique in the annals
of Hindu religion and is peculiar to Kerala.

According to the legend, Ayyappa was born out of the union of
Shiva and Mohini (form of Vishnu) in which the Lord appeared at
the time of the churning of the ocean of milk.

The child descended as Manikantha (so called because of the
golden belt around his neck) and was found by king Rajasekhara of
Pandalam, a small principality near Chengannur. The king and the
queen who had no issue brought up the boy with tender care.
Subsequently a male child was born to the queen.

When the time came to appoint a heir apparent to the throne, the
king decided to crown Ayyappa as he was the eldest of the two.
But the queen wanted her son to he crowned. She and her minister
hit upon a ruse. She pretended to be ill and the strange cure
prescribed by the physician was the milk of tigress. Who could
bring the milk from the forest except Manikantha? So he set out
on his expedition to forest. There he met the demoness Mahishi
and killed her in battle. This was in fact the object of his
incarnation.

He returned to the kingdom not with one tiger but hordes of them.
Before his disappearance, Ayyappa advised the king to build a
temple for him and instructed him on the austerities to be
observed by the devotees and the mode of pilgrimage to the
shrine.

According to traditional history, Ayyappa was a human incarnation
of Dharma Sasta. He took birth to put down the evils arising out
of anarchy prevailing in those days and to restore order by his
super-human abilities which transformed him into divinity. After
fulfilling his mission he is said to have reunited with the
original Dharma Sasta deity at Sabarimala.

The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is in commemoration of the Lord's
journey to the forest. The holy two-compartment cloth bag that
the pilgrims carry on their heads represents the bundle Ayappa
himself carried during his trek.

There are three routes to the shrine which is about 115 km from
Kottayam, the nearest rail stop on the Trivandrum-Ernakulam line.
The conventional route via Erumeli is the most sacred as it was
the route Ayyappa himself undertook during his forest expedition.
On this route, three lofty mountains, Azhutha, Karimala and
Neelimala, and varying from 3000 to 6000 feet in height, have to
be crossed.

This route can, however, be traversed only in the company of
seasoned and experienced trekkers.

For those who love adventure this route is especially recommended
for the thrill and the splendid opportunity it provides to
meditate and commune with nature. Says Subramaniam, an ad man in
Mumbai who leads hundreds of pilgrims from the city for the past
twenty years or more: "The long and arduous path via Erumeli is
indeed a trekker's paradise. Braving wild animals and the
vagaries of the elements, we feel our nearness to the Supreme
Being and derive utmost satisfaction at the end of the pilgrimage
both physically and spiritually".

This author was fortunate enough to do the trek in 1981 and a few
years subsequently, heading for Makara Vilakku, the most sacred
festival which falls on Makara Sankranti day.

We were a group of 100 pilgrims who after visiting several
temples on route, reached Erumeli on a wintry night of January 9.

Here, there are shrines for Vavar and Ayyappa. People worship
both with the same fervour, symbolising Hindu-Muslims unity.

The next morning we got up at 4 a m and offered prayers to the
deities. For a short distance from Erumeli, the path is on level
after which the ascent begins as does the forest area. From here
there are seven important landmarks - the fortress, hallowed by
Lord Ayyappa during his forest expedition, the sanctuary of
Sabarimala.

A pilgrim crossing the three mountains - Azutha, Karimala and
Neelimala would have touched all these holy spots before having
the darshan of Lord Ayyappa stop Sabarimala. Our first halt after
Erumeli was on the banks of the Azutha river where we reached by
moon. We rested here overnight and the next morning we scaled the
peak arriving at the base of Karimala, our next camp, by noon.

We tackled Karimala, the most difficult of the three mountains,
on the morning of January 12 and reached Pampa by noon. Leaving
Pampa the next day, we reached Sabarimala by sunset. With the
Lord's name and Saranam on our lips we did the climbing. The
descent proved even more tiresome and dangerous as the slopes are
perilously steep.

Added to the physical strain is the fear of wild animals. Huge
pythons in the bushes and herds of elephants drinking water can
be seen. Miraculously, they turn away as we shout 'Saranam'. To
the nature lover, trekking is most delightful.

Pampa is the most favoured camping ground among the pilgrims and
this abode of wild animals is turned into a veritable township
with numerous huts and shops during the season. There Is the
great Pampa feast followed by Pampa Vilakku (festival of lights)
which Ayyappa himself celebrated to mark his victory.

At night, hundreds of small boats decorated with candle light are
floated in the river. With myriad lights glowing in the dark
night it provides a glorious view - "a sight for Gods".

It is believed that Lord Ayyappa will be present at Pampa on the
eve of Makara Sankranti and at Sabarimala on the Sankranti day.
It takes about an hour and half to reach the peak of the hill -
Appachimedu - from where pilgrims throw rice balls towards the
deep and dark valleys on either side of the trail. This, the
legend says, is to appease evil spirits hovering around the place
and to prevent them from doing any harm.

>From this point it is almost level ground at Sabari Peetham which

is the fifth fortress. After another kilometre, we reach a spot
to deposit the symbolic arrows which we carry from Erumeli as
Ayyappa did by asking his followers to deposit their armour and
arrows. This Is the sixth fortress.

Then you approach the eighteen steps and the last and seventh
fortress. The sight evokes a fullthroated refrain "Swamiye
Saranam Ayyappa". Standing on the 18th step we were right in
front of the portal of the great temples of Sabarimala - straight
ahead is the image of the Lord, Dharma Sasta or Ayyappa -
resplendent in all his glory.

We moved around the temple in a clock-wise direction and came
right in front of the shrine to have a close view. There,
sitting in the familiar Yogasana or meditative pose, with a band
around his folded legs, the forefinger of his right hand touching
the thumb indicating "Thou art That" is the deity.

This is the popular image of Ayyappa, which adorns the puja room
in the homes of millions of devotees. But standing face to face
with the original real idol we experienced a strange feeling. An
old man by my side trembled and sobbed, stretching his hands
towards the deity. Another simply stood dazed and speechless.
Personally, I felt peace and gratitude to the Lord through whose
mercy we have been able to make the pilgrimage.

Once the darshan is over, the very first act the devotees perform
is to break open the ghee-filled coconut, remove the ghee in a
vessel and arrange for abhisheka, - pouring the ghee on the Idol.
The ghee after abhishek is the most sacred prasad taken home by
the devotees.

The coconut shell is then thrown Into a homakunds on the south
side of the eighteen steps. This Is something symbolic.

The soul represented by the ghee merges with the deity, and the
body symbolised by the coconut is consumed by the fire.

After the ghee abhisheka, pilgrims go around and offer prayers to
other deities - Ganapati and Naga Raja near the Ayyappa shrine.

Incidentally there is a shrine for a Goddess here. Adolescent
girls and young women are however prohibited from undertaking the
trip; only little girls and aged woman who have attained
menopause are permitted.

In the evening of Makara Vilakku day comes the most sought-after
event - the arrival of Thruvabaranam or the sacred jewellery from
the pandalam royal family to which Ayyappa once belonged. This is
followed by the celebrated Arati at dusk.

More than a million people stand patently for hours in this
wilderness, leaving all wealth and fame behind and humbly praying
and longing to have a glimpse of the miraculous light.

Caught up in the ecstasy of devotion around them they shout fun-
throatedly "Saranam" and feel on sighting the jyoti or miraculous
light, that their life's mission has been fulfilled.


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