believers in Kerala feel that they should go to Sabarimalai at
least once in their life time to redeem a pledge, to realize a
life-long desire, or to fulfill a sacred duty. Here I shall
describe only the cult of Ayyappan and the history behind it.
the actual pilgrimage takes place during the months of December
and January every year, tradition prescribes the following preparations
for the spiritual success and physical safety of the pilgrims.
However, it should be mentioned here that the emphasis today is
on the spirit rather than on the letter of traditions.
days before the day of the pilgrimage -- about November 15 or
Vrischikam 1 of the Malayalam Era--the prospective pilgrim goes
to a temple near his house and declares his intention to make
the pilgrimage before the gods, the priests, and the community
by wearing the garland of Tulasi or Rud-raksha beads (maladharan)
round his neck. Two purificatory baths — before sunrise
and after sundown --.are prescribed; twice should he recite prayers
before the icon of the Lord by incensing it with camphor.
He should not cut his hair or shave his face; he should wear black,
blue, or ochre garments; he should abstain from eating meat and
fish. Most importantly, the obser-vance of purity requires
that he abstain from all sex, in thought, word/and deed.
The insistence on purity means that no menstruating woman, over
twelve and under fifty, is permitted to make the pilgrimage lest
their "impurity" bring death and disaster on themselves and other
pilgrims during their trek through jungles infested by elephants,
tigers, bears, leopards, and poisonous snakes.
the eve of the pilgrimage, during a special ceremony called kettumurrukku
(backpacking) held at home in a pandal made of banana trees
and coconut leaves, the pilgrim prepares his headload (irumuti)
which is a cotton bag with two compartments. The front part
of the 1rumut i contains a coconut filled with pure melted butter
from cow's milk; it is the offering to the Lord. The rear
part of the bag holds all the food -- from salt to camphor, to
use an expression from the Malayalam language — and the personal
things, like sleep-ing bag and clothes, the pilgrim needs during
his long journey, which used to take several days depending upon
the distance and means of transportation.
Sabarimalai Temple is built on an elevation of about twenty feet.
The pilgrim has to climb the Eighteen Sacred steps (pathinettampadi);
the first-year pilgrim must break his coconut on the first step;
the second-year pilgrim on the second step, and so on. After
mounting the Eighteen Steps with the i rumut i on the head, devoutly
and prayerfully, the pilgrims go round the temple, worshipping
at the shrines of Ganesh and Kartikeya, the other two sons of
Shiva. And then they stand in front of the golden statue
of Lord Ayyappan for a few moments to adore him and to make their
wishes known to him. In this temple the Lord is seated on a golden
throne in kurmasan without any weapons in his hands; the left
hand rests on the left knee and the right hand is raised in benediction
(chinmudra); a silk sash is wrapped round both knees since the
Lord is in a squatting posture; the crowned head wears long hair;
the youth's very adult face radiates peace and serenity; round
the neck there hangs a tiny bell along with all kinds of jewelry.
After the darshan (vision) of the Lord, the devotees remove the
headload (irumuti), and make the offering of the melted butter
which is to be used for the anointing of the statue of the Lord
(abhisheka). In thanksgiving the pilgrims offer gold,
silver, and money for favours received from Lord Ayyappan.