The World famous Sastha temple at Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta District is located on the slope of the Western Ghats. The pilgrimage begins in the month of Vruchikam (mid-November) and ends in Makaram-Makara Samkranthi (mid-January).
Temples at Sabarimala:
Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa , is the most famous and prominent among all the Sastha temples in Kerala. The temple is situated on a hilltop (about 3000 feet above sea level) named Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district, which is unique in many respects. The uniqueness gathers its voice, as the temple is open to all, irrespective of caste, creed or religion. There is a place near the temple; east to Sannidhanam, dedicated to the Vavar (a sufi and friend of Lord Ayyappa) which is called ‘Vavarunada’, an epitome of religious harmony. Another interesting fact is that it is not open throughout the year. It is open for worship only during the days of Mandalapooja, Makaravilakku and Chitra Vishu. It is said that the pilgrims have to follow fasting for 41days to cleanse their minds before going to Sabarimala. The journey to the temple is to be taken through difficult paths in the forest as the vehicles can go only up to Pampa. The temple attracts pilgrims not only from the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh but also from other parts of country and abroad.
The deity Vavar, the friend of Ayyappa and a Sufi saint is at the close proximity to the main temple. Ayyapa cult gifts much importance for secularism and communal harmony and has turned out to be a model for the whole world. Another significant aspect of the pilgrimage is that all the pilgrims whether rich or poor, literate or illiterate are all equal before Lord Ayyapa and all of them address each other as Ayyappa or Swamy.
Sabarimala is believed to be the place where Lord Ayyapa meditated soon after killing the powerful demon, Mahishi. Another mythology says that its ‘Parasurama Maharshi’ who uplifted Kerala from the sea by throwing his axe and installed the idol of Ayyappa at Sabarimala.
To enter the Sabarimala temple, the pilgrim has to pass Pathinettampadi (holy eighteen steps). The holly eighteen steps that lead to the shrine have been figuratively called Ponnu Pathinettampadi, ‘Ponnu’ being an epithet to denote the holy touch of lord’s feet. But now ‘Ponnu’ has become literally true because the steps have been covered with Panchaloham. Each of these eighteen holy steps represents a desire one must conquer in life, it is believed. Only those who observe 41 day’s of austerity as ritual can only carry erumudi and can climb these steps.
Erumeli Sastha temple, an important meeting place enroute the pilgrimage to Sabarimala is very famous. There is also a mosque very close by. Ayyappas goes to Sabarimala after worshipping at these two places, which seems of a symbol of Hindu Muslim unity. The pilgrims usually go to Sabarimala after pettathullal- a ritual- at Erumeli. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala without pettathullal and worship at above mentioned temples are not considered traditional. Erumeli temple rests about 38 kiliometers south of Kottayam.
According to legend, the King of Pandalam found a baby lying in the banks of river pampa. As the King had no heir to succeed, the child was considered as a god-given gift and was thus named Ayyappa. So the baby was brought up as a prince. One of the major events associated with the Makaravilakku festival is the procession of the Thiruvabharam (holy ornaments) of Lord Ayyappa from the Sastha temple at Pandalam.
Other famous Sastha temples related to Mandalakalam are Kulathupuzha Sastha temple, Achancoil Sastha temple and Aryankavu Sastha temple.
Lord Ayyappa had his human incarnation as the son of the King of Pandalam, Kerala. At that time, the kingdom of Pandalam was under the rule of Raja Rajasekhara. During one of his hunting expeditions, the wails of a child on the banks of the River Pampa puzzled him. As he moved in the direction of the voice he found a resplendent and helpless infant there. The beautiful baby with a radiant face had a gemstone around his neck, hence the name Manikantan (“Mani”, means gemstone and “kantan” means wearer around the neck). Manikantan was born of Hari (Lord Vishnu) and Hara (Lord Shiva), with Hari assuming the form of a female (Mohini). Hence Ayyappan is also named as Hariharasutan (Sutan meaning Son).The king had no children, though he was pious, charitable, just, and God-fearing. The king and the queen were the ardent devotees of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu respectively. They had prayed to their respective deities for blessings in the form of a child. So the King accepted the child as God’s gracious gift to his fervent prayer for an heir to his throne. Manikantan was given proper education and training and he grew into a boy well versed in academic lore and martial arts. Meanwhile the Rani (Queen) gave birth to a son; however the king regarded Manikantan as his elder son and decided to crown him as the Yuvaraja.
Since the minister of the Raja was against Manikantan becoming the Yuvaraja, for several hidden reasons, he along with his sycophants lured the queen to act against the king’s decision to coron Manikantan. On the coronation day of Manikantan as Yuvaraja, the queen pretended to be suffering from unbearable stomach ache, and said that she was unable to get any relief from the treatment of any doctor. Finally came a fake practitioner and prescribed “the milk of a tigress” as the cure of the queen’s illness.This drama took place at the instance of the minister. The king appealed to everyonel to get the tigeress-milk, but no-one dared, as all feared death. At last, Manikantan came forward and went to the forest in search of tigress milk, despite the king’s attempt to stop him as he was deeply frightened that the deemed Yuvaraja may not come back alive.
Manikantan entered the forest to fulfill his divine duty, to rid from the world, the demoness, Mahishi. Manikantan killed her and released a beautiful woman who had been cursed to become Mahishi. The young woman asked Ayyappan for his hand in marriage, but being a celibate he declined. However he promised that she would be visited by pilgrims and would be housed next to his temple, and if ever the number of new pilgrims (Kanni Ayyappan) stopped visiting him then he would marry her. Hence she is now worshiped as Maalikapurathamma.
On the death of Mahishi, Indra – the king of the gods, who was displaced and banished by Mahishi, led several tigers for the disposal of Ayyappan.Days later Manikantan entered the palace precincts riding a fierce tigress and followed by a pack of her cubs. The schemers were frightened and confessed their plot. They were convinced of his divine origins, and prayed to him to be with them for their own salvation and for the safety of the kingdom. Immediately Manikantan disappeared. The king took a decision that he would not eat anything till Manikantan came back. Then Manikantan gave a darshan to the king.
Filled with emotions of happiness, grief, fear, wonder and ‘Bhakti’ (devotion to God) and self-surrender, the king stood praying for the mercy and blessings of Manikantan. He repented that he could not fully visualize the truth of the divine powers of the Lord and repeatedly requested him to forgive him for behaving as if he were his son only. The Lord lovingly embraced the King who prayed to bless him by freeing from ego and the worldly life of birth and rebirth and granted Moksha (salvation). He told the King that he was destined to return. The king requested Lord Manikantan to allow him to build a temple and dedicate it to him and the Lord assented.
Manikantan then enlightened the King on the path of attainment of Moksha. The Lord shot an arrow that fell at the top of Sabrimala and told the King that he could construct a temple at Sabarimala, north of the holy river Pampa and install His deity there. Ayyappan also explained how the Sabarimala pilgrimage shall be undertaken, emphasizing the importance of Penance vratham and what the devotees can attain by His ‘darshan’.
The King secured a promise from the Lord that on Thai Pongal on January 14, every year (celebrated as “Makara Jyothy” all his personal jewellery (usually kept at the Palace) will be adorned on his image at Sabarimala. Hence on the 12th of January every year, the Jewellery will be taken on foot from the Palace by a special emissary of the kingdom, after the puja with all pomp, devotion and reverence. Immeditely when the Arti is over, Royal Garuda (Eagle) flies over the Palace. The Royal Garuda flies ahead, and appears as though guiding the pilgrims throughout their journey. Since there was no modern means of communication like Telephone or Mobile, to the hundreds of thousands of Devotees desirous of worshipping Lord Manikantan’s Jewels enroute to his Abode, this Garud was the sole and absolute signal of advance information even to the Temple authorities at Sabarimala to get ready for the adorning of the Jewels. This journey on the 12th and 13th of January finally reaches Sabarimala on January 14th. Immediately after the jewellery is adorned on the Deity, there is an Aarti (offering by burning Camphor). The miracle is that just after the Arti, without loss a second, the Jyothy appears on the east side of the Temple up above the Hills. But then the Lord further consoled the King saying that the devotees who held him and his descendants in ‘Bhakti’ shall happen to be devoted to Him as well. Manikantan then blessed the King and all others assembled there, and vanished. The King duly constructed the temple at Sabarimala, dedicated to him. The deity for installation was prepared by Parasurama, believed to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and was installed by him.
Austerities or Vrutham starts on Vrichikam 1 (middle of November) which enables one to observe nearly 60 days of Vrutham before Makara Sankranti (middle of January) which is the most auspicious day at Sabarimala. This also helps devotees to observe a vrutham of 41 days before the Mandala Pooja. The devotees initiate the vrutham by wearing a Thulasimala or Rudrakshamala with mudra (mudra means the locket, in this case that of Lord Ayyappa). The mala (bead garland to which is attached a pendant of Lord Ayyappa)) is sanctified in a temple or in the pooja room before being worn. After the prayers, the devotee receives the mala from the temple from the temple priest or a Periya Swami or a Guru Swami. It is also permissible to wear this mala in your own pooja room. At the time of adorning the mala, the pilgrim should be made to understand the implications of the vrutham and the pilgrimage. Before accepting the mala, traditional dakshina (tribute to the Guru) is offered to the priest or Guru. After wearing the `mala’, the pilgrim is addressed as `Ayyappan’ till his mala is removed on completion of his pilgrimage. Eligible female pilgrims are addressed as Malikapurams.
Guruswamy is one who has undertaken 18 or more pilgrimages and climbed the Pathinettam Padi eighteen times. It must be remembered that in the old days, pilgrimage was undertaken once a year only. Eighteen pilgrimages meant 18 years of steady devotion and dedication. On the eighteenth visit, it was symbolic to take along a coconut sapling to be planted at Sannidhanam. Nowadays eighteen pilgrimages can be undertaken in just over a year. So we must re-define Guruswamy to say that it is someone who has undertaken the pilgrimage at least eighteen times, is a total devotee of Lord Ayyappa, and is learned and responsible enough to to convey the full significance of the pilgrimage to his followers. He should also be able to lead his group safely through the pilgrimage. Simple living, absolute cleanliness and holy thoughts are the mainstay of the vrutham. The mind and body are to be kept impeccably pure and absolute celibacy is practiced. The devotee is expected to behave in an austere and sober fashion during his vrutham. Total abstinence from all vices like alcohol, tobacco and non-vegetarian food is stipulated. Personal adornments, hair cutting, shaving, etc. are also taboo.
Devotee is expected wear black/blue/saffron clothes. Devotee is expected to pray daily in the mornings and evenings after taking bath. The prayer ritual can be performed by going to any temple or in one’s own pooja room. Those devotees who are desirous of worshipping Lord Ayyappa on `Makara Vilakku’ day (January 14) may continue their vrutham till that day. The vrutham continues till the pilgrim returns from his pilgrimage to Sabarimala and removes his `mala’ after breaking a coconut and offering prayers. Without a proper Vrutham it is a sacrilege to visit the temple or climb the Holy 18 Steps. (The 18 Steps cannot be climbed if you are not carrying an `Irumudi Kettu’). A vrutham of at least 41 days must be undertaken so that necessary physical fitness and mental conditioning are achieved before the arduous trek. No pilgrim, except the Royal Family of Pandalam, is permitted to ascend the `Pathinettam Padi’ without carrying a Irumudi on the head. Those without Irumudis can only enter the temple precincts through the side entrance. Prior to leaving home for Sabarimala, the Irumudi is filled at the temple or in ones own pooja room. The ceremony is conducted with the assistance of the periaswamy amidst chanting of ‘Saranam Ayyappa’. Irumudi is carried on the head with due reverence. Irumudi Kettu is divided into two parts. The front pouch and the rear pouch. The front pouch, for identification, is marked with the symbol `OM’. The front portion is meant for stocking pooja articles such as coconuts filled with cow ghee, camphor, unboiled rice, plantain (kadali), aval (flattened rice), pori, sandal paste incense sticks, vibhuti (sacred ash), kumkum (vermilion), turmeric powder, jaggery, kalkkandom (candied sugar)and coins for dakshina.
The rear pouch of the Irumudi Kettu contains consumable edible items which are used by the pilgrim for his personal sustenance during the journey to Sabarimala and back. Minimal bedding like blankets or bed sheets can also be carried. These can be used as a cushion on the head. When the pilgrims leaves his home for Sabarimala, he breaks a coconut on a stone near his door step. A lit oil lamp is generally placed on this stone. Till the pilgrim returns home after the pilgrimage, one of the family members ritually lights this lamp at dusk, and allows it to remain lit for a couple of hours, in a gesture of prayer for the well being of the pilgrim and his safe return. When the pilgrim returns home, he breaks a coconut at the same spot to signify the end of the pilgrimage and then moves on to the pooja room to unload the `Irumudi and remove the mala which he had worn at the time of beginning the austerities. That signifies the last ritual of the pilgrimage.
It was below 5000 persons who visited Sabarimala 50 years ago, but with the coming of the road from Mannarakulanji to Chalakayam, this number has increased to 4 crores, that too in the Madala- Makaravilakku season alone. It was too difficult for the people to reach Sabarimala before 50 years as the journey through the dense forest was so grueling an ordeal as it took days to reach the abode of God. The people had to walk from Erumeli to Sabarimala via Peroorthodu, Kottapadi, Kaalaketti, Azhhuthamedu, Kallidaamkunnu, Inchipaarakotta, Karimala, Valiyaanavattam, Cheriyaanavattam, Pamapa, Neelimala ,Appachimedu, Sabareepeedom, and Saramkuthi through the forest.
Another path was also used by people to reach Sannidhanam. That was from Kumily through Changara Estate, Uppupaara and Paandithavalam, but it was the route from Erumeli that people used regularly.The Route- Laaha to Chalakayam has a history hidden behind it. This path was actually built not for the devotees to reach Sabarimala. It was during 1959-60 that the road was built as part of the Sabarigiri power project that came into being in 1967. Before this project actually started, the Electricity Board tried to bring in a project named ˜Swaami Saranam”, which intented to build a dam at Thriveni to produce electricity. For this the board extended the road ( Mannarakulanji- Laaha) to Chalakayam. As time passed the Sabarigiri Project gained importance and to make it a reality another road was made from Chalakayam to Ponnambalamedu. As the Sabarigiri Project became a huge success the Swaami Saranam Project was dropped. Later another road was built from Plapalli to Muzhiyaar via Aangaamuzhi. This is the present Sabarigiri road.
Eventhough there was the Chalakayam Road KSRTC started service through this path only in 1965. The road from Chalakayam to Pampa was built only 7 years later.With new routes in the chart the journey to Sabarimala may get more easier with the glory of the traditional paths dwindling at a rapid pace.
Pilgrimage to Sabarimala begins from the 1st of Vrichikam, a Malayalam month coming in the middle of November (probably between 14 and 17). The most important day for Ayyappan is Makarasankranti Day, which is the 1st of Makara (a month of the Malayalam calendar). This day will fall between January 14 and 16.
On Makarasankranti every year without fail, miraculous events occur. Firstly as the jewels (Thiruvaabaranam) of the Lord are transported from the Old Pandalam Palace to Sabarimala, a Krishnaparanth (holy Garuda – an eagle – the vehicle of Lord Vishnu), circles above the precious jewels (in fact guarding them), like a protector. This rare eagle is rarely seen in the midst of people for a long period of time, yet the auspicious bird follows the Thiruvaabaranam procession, finally circling above Sannidhanam at Sabarimala nine times as it pays its respects to Lord Ayyappan. During this time, there is not a single star in the sky except for a special Nakshatram. As the beautiful jewels are placed on the golden body of the Lord within the temple, the several hundred thousand devotees outside, crammed into any available free space, chant “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa”. When the jewels are finally all adorned on the Lord, the Nakshatram in the sky miraculously disappears. Within moments after the Lord being adorned with the Thiruvabaranam, an effulgence (Divya Jyoti) appears in the opposite hills of Shabarimala, shining 3 times. This hill is called Ponnambalamedu.
Devotees can view the Divya Jyothi from 9 places in and around Sannidhanam. They are Sannidhanam, Pandithavalam, Pulmedu, Saramkuthi, Neelimala, Marakootam, Hilltop, Chalakayam, and Attathodu.
05.00 Nada Opening
05.20 Ganapathi Homam
07.30 Usha Pooja
12.30 Kalabhabhishekam, Uchapooja
01.30 Nada Closing
05.00 Nada Opening
09.00 Athazha Pooja
10.00 Nada Closing
Harivaraasanam: The sanctum sanctorum closes with this song, each day
Thriyanam Prabhum Divyadesitham