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A Unique Journey of Faith

T.R.Krishnan
02/22/2003

Makara Vilakku – the holy day representing the culmination of the Mandala Pooja ceremonies for Sri Ayyappa was conducted in a grand scale at the temple on Jan 11, 2003. Since 2000, a unique practice has been followed at the temple for this celebration. Ayyappa devotees who follow the “vratham” during the Mandalam period go through a formal Irumudikkettu pooja on this day, and ascend the Eighteen Steps (Pathinettu Padi) specially constructed and sanctified for this occasion, and offer the Muthirai (coconut with ghee filling) for conducting the Nei Abhishekam of Lord Ayyappa. This event offers the devotees the unique opportunity to get a glimpse into a Sabarimala pilgrimage, right up to the joy and pleasure of ascending the Pathinettu Padi before reaching His sanctum. The journey to Sabrimala is an amazing experience and it is rightly called a unique jouney of faith.

The lush green hills of the Sahyadri range in the Western Ghats of Kerala are witness to millions of devotees who throng the Sabarimala Temple every year. This mass movement of dedicated devotees from all over India and even from the across the world, gathers like a rolling thunder during the Mandalam season that commences in October of each year, and peaks into a downpour of millions every Jan 14, the Makara Sankranthi day. The object of such pure affection, reverence, and faith is Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity at Sabarimala.

Hindu mythology and legend credit Lord Ayyappa to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. Soon after the demise of Mahishasura at the hands of Goddess Durga (Mahishasuramardhini), his sister Mahishi undergoes several years of penance and receives a boon from Lord Brahma that no man or woman, no God or Goddess from the Heavens, no demigod or demon from the nether lands should be able to destroy her. Armed with this boon, she unleashes an era of tyranny on the Devas and the Rishis, who implore Lord Vishnu to intervene. Lord Vishnu assumes the form of a bewitching, beautiful enchantress and beguiles Lord Shiva to her charm. The result of the ensuing union of these Omnipresent, Omniscient two of the TriMurthis of this Universe is Hari Hara Suthan Lord Ayyappa. The baby is left in the forest kingdom of Panthalam (modern day Erumeli), as a Man from Earth, with the only external signs of His divinity being a gold chain with a bell around His neck (hence Mani Kantan). The King of Panthalam adopts Him, and upon reaching His youth, Lord Ayyappa fulfills his role in Earth of destroying Mahishi (hence Mahishi Samharan). He relieves her from her curse, enabling the true tapaswi in this lady to be worshipped as Malikapurathamma Devi, and retires into the forest for lifelong penance (hence the term Nitya Brahmachari). We should pause and appreciate this remarkable fact that when we worship Lord Ayyappa, like Lord Hanuman, we are indeed saluting a heavenly being who is Himself in a lifelong spiritual trance. Hence the great power of this Lord.

Mythology apart, the etymological significance of Hari Hara is one who, with rays of knowledge – Haribhi, dispels the darkness of ignorance – Horanthi. The name “Ayyappa”, which stands for Universal Father, is a vernacular form of the Sanskrit term Aryabha, which represents nobility and effulgence. Lord Ayyappa is also addressed as Sree Dharma Sastha – the stern, strict, upholder of righteousness, one who punishes the wicked and protects the virtuous. He is also addressed as Kaliyuga Varadha – since legend has it that Lord Vishnu has blessed this most recent, or Kali, Yuga, with His reincarnation – which conceptually means that “God descends in order to help Man ascend”.

A Sabarimala pilgrimage offers the faithful an opportunity to observe rigidly an abstemious spiritual vow (Vratham) for 41 days, commencing 40 days prior to the day that he or she intends to be at the sanctum of the Lord (Sannidhanam) at Sabarimala. This is an experience unique to a Sabarimala visit, something that the ebb and flow of life never affords a common man. During this period, a devotee is enjoined to abstain from unhealthy habits, to partake only of spartan, pure vegetarian food without garlic, onions and other ingredients that are deemed to be mild stimulants or aphrodisiacs, and practices strict celibacy, if married. The spiritual discipline, prayers, and practice of a pure, spiritually conscious lifestyle during these 41 days is mandatory for a devotee seeking to ascend the sacred Eighteen Steps (Pathinettu Padi) that lead to the sanctum at Sabarimala. Apart from the fact that this exercise prepares a devotee to get the darshan of the Ultimate Ascetic (Sadh Gurunathan), the rigor espoused behind the Vratham owes its origin also to the Eighteen Steps themselves. The first five of the steps symbolize Man’s five senses (Pancha Indriyas) viz. the visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory senses. The next eight steps symbolize the eight base emotions of Man (the Ashta Gunas) -- viz. love (Kama), anger (Krodha), avarice (Lobha), lust (Moha), pride (Madha), unhealthy competition (Matsarya), jealousy (Asooya), boastfulness (Dhumb). The next three steps symbolize the nature-born qualities (TriGunas) endowed in Man – viz. perspicuity and discernment (Satva), activity and enjoyment (Rajas), and inactivity and stupor (Thamas). The final two steps symbolize knowledge (Vidhya) and ignorance (Avidhya). The fundamental, all-powerful, all-truthful symbolism is that the Man who ascends these sacred Eighteen Steps has gained control over all these metaphysical aspects of his being, and ascended to a spiritual state to unite with his Ultimate Creator (Tatwam Asi).

The Vratham commences with the devotee being adorned by a Guruswami or the priest at the local Lord Ayyappa temple with a simple chain of Tulasi beads (Tulasimani Mala). A devotee who has ascended the Eighteen Steps eighteen times or more and has guided other devotees during this pilgrimage is generally accorded the title and respect of a Guruswami. The devotee bathes every morning, chants the prayers to Lord Ayyappa (the slokas beginning with Lokaveeram Mahapoojyam), and calls out the Lord with Sarana Ghosham (Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa being the simplest and the easiest). This routine of bathing and prayers must be repeated during the evening before retiring to bed. The food consumed by the devotee should not be cooked by a lady in the family who is undergoing her periods. Under such an unavoidable event, the devotee must cook the food. Draconian as it may sound, this strict interpretation in the sastras of purity in both mind and body does not allow women who are nearing or past their puberty, and not yet past their menopause to visit Sabarimala (typically women aging from 10-55 years). Generations of devotees have implicitly followed this without questioning – their faith, upbringing and maturity helps them realize the greater truth behind such restrictions, and do not consider this a parochial or discriminatory practice.

As a symbolism of eliminating any personal or physical vanity, devotees should refrain from grooming themselves, and wear simple blue, black or saffron clothing devoid of ostentation, and walk with bare feet. A devotee who undergoes the Vratham is addressed as an “Ayyappan” and he or she must address other such devotees with the term “Ayyappa” added to their names (e.g. “Krishna Ayyappan”), crossing all barriers of age, caste, social status or cultural background. During the trek along the hilly terrain to Sabarimala, even mules that carry supplies up and down the mountains are addressed thus – generating that humble feeling that all of us, including the most common or dumb animal, are children of that One Supreme Being. Through silent meditation and prayers, or by participation in SatSangh and bhajans, the devotee maintains his focus on the Lord, striving to remain truthful, humble, contemplative, calm, and in a state of bliss avoiding any of the base emotions. There is no doubt that today’s modern world does impede the process of maintaining a strict and traditional Vratham – but the more committed a devotee is to following the penance to its best possible rigor, the better the spiritual experience and awakening.

On the same day, or the day prior to, the trip to the Sabarimala, the devotee conducts or participates in the Irumudi Kettu (meaning “tying the Irumudi”) pooja in the presence of family members and friends. The Iru Mudi (two compartments) is a simple cloth rucksack – the front compartment containing all the offerings to the Lord, and the rear compartment containing the personal requirements of the devotee. The most important contents of the front compartment are one or more coconuts filled with ghee (Muthirai) for the Lord’s Nei Abhishekam, rice offered by the family of the devotee for the Aravana Neivedyam, camphor, jaggery, scented sticks, turmeric, kumkum and monetory offerings packed in two betel leaves. In most occasions, the Irumudi and a shoulder bag are all that are taken for the Sabari trip. The devotee must protect and perform Aarathi for the sacred Irumudi both in the morning and evening till it is unpacked at the Sannidhanam, and carry the Irumudi always on his or her head or shoulder during the trip to Sabari. The Irumudi Kettu ceremony can range from the simplest – conducted by the poorest of devotees on a clean patch of land under a banyan tree – to the grandest, conducted by the affluent and/or big groups of 400 – 500 Ayyappa devotees in a huge hall or private residence. Lord Ayyappa looks upon both these efforts with equal merit, as long as the devotee is truthful and sincere in seeking His darshan.

The trek itself commences either from Erumeli (40 miles, 3 days) or from a nearer base station on the banks of Pamba (5 miles, 2-3 hours) winding through several 2000-4000 feet high hills in the Sahyadri ranges. After a refreshing bath in the Pamba river and prayers at the Ganapathy and Anjaneya temples, devotees begin the final 2-3 hour trek to Sabarimala. The closer one gets to the Sannidhanam, the eagerness and anticipation to ascend the Eighteen Steps and attain the Lord’s darshan overcomes all the physical strain and fatigue from the climb. Devotees young and old, veteran and novice, would sense the quickening pace of their heart and feet, rapidly shortening the distance between them and the Eighteen Steps. Upon reaching the steps, each devotee breaks a coconut and ascends the steep, gold-covered Eighteen Steps (assisted by Police “Ayyappas”) with the Irumudi on his/her head to the constant, rallying cries of “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa” from the other hundreds, thousands or millions surrounding them. The devotee then proceeds to the Sanctum and receives the darshan of the Lord’s Beautiful, Brilliant Being (Teja Swaroopam). The flood of pure joy and the whirlwind of emotions that a devotee, a mere mortal, goes through at the sight of this Heavenly Being (Para Brahma Swaroopam) of Lord Ayyappa is truly indescribable. After the darshan, devotees unpack their Irumudi, open the Muthirai coconuts and offer the ghee for the Nei Abhishekam. They also visit the temples of Maha Ganapathy, Malikapurathamma, Nagaraja and other holy sites around the main sanctum.

After receiving the darshan of Lord Ayyappa to their heart’s content (assuming one could define such a limit) over a stay of one or several days in the temple precincts, devotees begin their trip back home. The descent from Sabarimala commences with a descent down the Eighteen Steps with the Irumudi on the devotee’s heads – now containing the precious ghee from the Abhishekam and other prasadams – all the while praying to Lord Ayyappa to grant them the privilege of returning the following year to Sabari. They trek down to reach Pamba on the same day, or Erumeli three days hence, and travel back to their hometowns. Upon reaching their homes, each devotee must first bathe, and conduct a short ceremony to have the Tulasi Maala removed with Sarana Ghosham and prayer, either by the Guruswami or the priest at the local Lord Ayyappa temple. This act of removing the Tulasi Maala symbolizes the termination of the Vratham and the Sabari trip for that year. The Tulasi Maalai should then adorn the picture of Lord Ayyappa in the devotee’s prayer room. This yearly practice Sabari Yatra has been followed in millions of Indian households, over the lifetimes of millions of devotees, over several generations, over untold centuries in the past.

Ten years ago, the temple would be open only during the Mandalam period – i.e. from Oct through Jan. But given the tremendous volume of devotees over the years, the temple is open during all the other months of the year – but only for 5 days that signify the 1st week in the Malayalam calendar (popularly called Malayalam Onnaam Thiyathee).

Blessed indeed is the Man who undergoes the Sabari pilgrimage every year of his life. Each such journey is a Tulasi bead, which when chained together over a lifespan, purifies his Life on Earth like a Tulasi Maala.

(Sri Krishnan was the “Guruswami”, or spiritual leader, for the Sabarimala festivities at the temple in Jan 2001 and Jan 2003. He hails from Palghat in Kerala, and has had the privilege and blessings of the Lord to undertake this pilgrimage several times for over 30 years till the present. Sri. Krishnan can be reached via email at krishnantr_2003@yahoo.com for any reference/information on Sabari Yatra. )

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1.a unique journey of faith November 24, 2010a unique journey of faith 

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