Sabarimala Sree Dharma Shasta Temple which is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa is the most famous and prominent among all the Shasta / Ayyappa temples in Kerala. The temple is situated on a hilltop almost about 3000 feet above sea level. This is named Sabarimala situated in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, in the southern tip of the Indian sub-continent. The temple is unique in many ways and a mention of equality and other offerings would be just a few of them. An interesting fact about the temple is that it is not open throughout the year. The temple opens for worship only during the days of Mandalapooja, Makaravilakku and Chitra Vishu. One important point is that women between the 10-50 age group are not allowed to enter Sabarimala.
It is said that the pilgrims have to follow fasting for 41 days 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. After filling the holy coconut also called “Mudra” with ghee and packing the essentials for offering to Lord Ayyappa in the Irumudi (called ketunirakkal), the Guru or Guruswami places the sacred Irumudi on the head of the pilgrims chanting Saranam. The pilgrims leave the place without looking at anyone or bidding goodbye to family or friends. Walking barefoot the pilgrims proceed to realise his Self and attain Lord Ayyappa.
The Journey virtually started for me and my mother on the 14th of November. We took all possible steps to follow the steps mentioned and tried our level best to live the life of a swamy. Our Journey to Kerala from Hyderabad was scheduled for the 6th of January. We boared Shabari Express which departs from Hyderabad at around 11:30 AM IST and reaches Thiruvalla at around 3 Pm the next day. We visited the nearby shrines that day and also attended the puja at my Aunts place next day morning. I would like to count this as a blessing when we got an unplanned opportunity to visit Erumeli which is about 56 km from Kottayam. There are shrines for Lord Dharmasastha and Vavar Swamy (the Muslim lieutenant of Ayyappa).The first timers to Sabarimala, called Kanniswamy, perform pettatullal. Pettatullal is painting the face with colours and dancing with wooden weapons to make one look odd. The essence of this practice is to give up ones’ ego and surrender to Lord Ayyappa. They go round the Ayyappan Temple and Vavar Shrine and later bathe in the river. Then the temple is visited again to seek authorization from Lord Ayyappa to tread the sacred hill Sabari. Later the pilgrims leave Erumeli for Sannidhanam.
After the wonerful erumeli experience, we reached the Ashram at around 8 pm. Our pilgirmage to Shabarimala was planned for the next morning…the 9th of January 2015.
Next day morning, we filled our Mudras / Coconuts with Ghee under the guidance of Guruswamy whch was followed by Kettunirakkal. Ayyappa Devotees carry the Irumudi visiting the Sabarimala Temple a bag with two compartments. This ceremony is known Kettunira or Irumudikkekku Nirakkal. The front portion of the bag is meant for keeping the puja articles and other offerings to the deities at Sabarimala. The other compartment is meant for holding the puja items. Earlier, the journey used to be of two to three days and therefore people used to carry provisions in the second compartment.The ‘pallikkettu, Irumudi Nirakkal, kettunira’ ceremony is done on the day of the pilgrimage. It is conducted usually in one’s own home or at a nearby temple.After praying to Lord Ganesha and to Ayyappa, it is time to fill the ‘mudra’ coconut with ghee. This ghee-filled coconut is the main offering to Lord Ayyappa.This should be done by the devotee visiting the shrine by chanting ‘Swami Sharanam.’ After completely filling the coconut with fresh ghee, the opening of the coconut is corked and sealed using wax or other seals.Rice is taken with both hands and is dropped into the front compartment of the Irumudi. This is done three times. The ghee-filled coconut is then placed on top of the rice in the front compartment.Coins, money, betel leaves and arecanut are also placed on top of the rice.Other puja articles are separately wrapped and placed in the compartment this include – camphor, incense sticks, rose water, jaggery, sandal paste, vibhuthi.The Rear portion of the Bag would have two coconuts – one for breaking at the time of climbing the sacred 18 steps and another for breaking while coming out of the shrine.This again depends on the practice followed by the group which you are a part of. Malar, avil, turmeric powder, and kumkum are separately packed and kept for Malikappurathamma in the rear portion. Once the Irumudi is filled, it symbolically represents the deity and it is held reverentially. This is now placed in front of the deity for the puja till the journey begins.
After the puja, the GuruSwamy places the irumudi chanting sharanam. We departed to Pamba at around 3 and reached Pamba by 6:30 as planned.Pampa is the most important and holy spot on the way to Sannidhanam. It is here that Lord Ayyappa was found by King Rajasekara. It is said that this river is as holy as the Ganges. The Pampa water purifies one from curse and evil.
After a dip in the cold Pampa river we started our ascent towards the hill Neelimala after worshipping at the temple of Lord Ganapathi, Lord Rama (avathar of Balaji) and Lord Hanuman. On the foot of the Neeli hill is the representative of the King of Pandalam. The pilgrims offer their respects to the representative. After seeking the permission of the representative to visit the shrine of Lord Ayyappa they proceed with their journey. From here the Sannidhanam is about 6 km. The neeli hill or neeli mala is as difficult as the Azhutha and Karimala. The top of Neeli hill is called Appachi medu. Here there are two abysses – Appachi kuzhi and Ippachi kuzhi. Kanniswamys or first timers throw rice balls here to calm down the evil spirits present around the place. From this point the ground is almost even. Some distance from here is the Sabari peetam.The place where Shri Sabari, in Sri Rama’s era, performed worship. Pilgrims worship here breaking coconuts, firing crackers and lighting camphor. Another important stop on the way is Saramkuthi which is Half way between Sabari Peetam and Sannidhanam. Since we all were visiting the temple as Kanniswamies, all of us had collected wodden arrows from Erumeli. This arrow is left at Erumeli. After Sharamkutti,forgetting all the hardships in the climb its only an urge to see the go which forces us ahead. No matter how long the queue is or how bad the weather is. Once we see the holy Patinettampadi (18 steps) which is 15 minute walk from Saramkuthi, we really do forget everything. I had taken my phone with me for a quick snap at the pathenettam padi but the Golden steps is such a magnificent sight, i really did forget to get one. Upon reaching the golden steps, pilgrims chant saranams loudly. After breaking the coconut they climb the 18 steps to have the darshan of Lord Ayyappa. Our darshan got over at around 11 pm. The temple closes for the day at around 11:30 after Harivarasanam / the diety’s favourite song is sang. The temple re-opens at around 3 am the next day.
We were lucky enough to get a good rather great glimpse of the diety multiple times and also an opportunity to seek blessings from the high priest of the temple.
Our descent to Pamba started at around 6 am after another moment of bliss. We saw the neyyabhishekam which is considered the most auspicious puje in the temple and takes place early in the morning.
We reached pampa by 11. The descent was tough for many including me since the path is full stones protruding out of concrete roads. Blame this on the tractors which are used to carry goods to the temple and the nearby areas.
After a day’s rest, we travelled back to Hyderabad and reached on the 13th of January. A feeling of fullfillment and a note of satisfaction was strong in both of us which got carried over into the festival of Sankranthi which is celebrated across the nation on the 14th of January.
..SWAMIYEEE SARANAM AYYAPPA…