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Lord Ayyappan and Sabarimala Pilgrimage

I have undertaken the pilgrimage to Sabarimala three times.  The first trip was when I was a small kid in the late seventies.  My father had recovered from a major surgery the year before and my mother had taken a vow that she would send me and my father to Sabarimala if my fathers surgery was successful.  The trip was an amazing experience.

The journey started off with Pooja in our family temple when it was already dark.  I still remember the fire from all the lamps that were lit around the family deity and the smell of oil.  A blanket was placed on my head followed by the “Irumudi Kettu”.  The blanket is necessary to keep yourself warm during the cold winter nights.  The Irumudi Kettu has two compartments.  The front portion has the offering to Lord Ayyappan (coconut filled with ghee).  The rear compartment is for storing rice and other materials that we need to sustain ourselves in this journey.

The austerities that a devotee has to follow are clear.  There is a 41 day vratham (penance) that every devotee has to undertake.  During this period a devotee cannot eat meat, consume alcohol, have sex or cut your hair.  A first time pilgrim should wear a saffron colored clothing (others can wear blue or black clothing).  Pilgrims from Kerala rarely follow the penance to the letter.  This is probably because Malayalees can visit the temple many times a year because of its proximity but it is once in a year or once in a lifetime opportunity for those who are from other states.

It is clear that Lord Ayyappan has transformed himself from a local deity popular in central and southern Kerala in the seventies to perhaps the most popular deity in south India today.  It is estimated that anywhere from 50 to 70 million people visit the temple every year.  I remember small queues outside the famous “18 steps” as you approach the temple but nothing like the oceans of people that you see all around the temple today.

Male pilgrims call each other as Ayyappa or Swami and never by their name.  Female pilgrims are called Malikappuram.  Female pilgrims are very small in number compared to the male pilgrims.  One of the most interesting aspects of this temple is the fact that women of child bearing age are not allowed to make this pilgrimage.  However men from any caste or religion are allowed to visit this temple.  Ayyappan is also celibate and the myths suggest that he will remain celibate as long as male devotees continue to visit him.  These aspects of Ayyappan are some of the reasons why the pilgrimage to Sabarimala is also very popular among the gay community in India.

There are many myths surrounding Lord Ayyappan.  It has to be noted that Ayyappan is not a part of any classical “Hindu” scripture.  The traditional Hindu belief is that Ayyappan was born out the union between Vishnu and Shiva.  Vishnu (also known as Hari) approached Shiva (also known as Hara) as Mohini (Vishnu’s only female avatar).  The baby born out of this union is called Sastha or Ayyappan (Lord Ayyappan is also known as Harihara and Manikandan).

It is likely that the Shiva and Vishnu myths surrounding Ayyappan shows a compromise between the competing Shaivite and Vaishnavite groups for the control of the temple and the deity.  Today both these faiths fall within the super group known as Hinduism but it is clear that they were competing faiths not so long ago.  The dark period of South Indian history beginning around the seventh century is rarely discussed or taught in India today.  During this period the Dravidian, Buddhist and Jain traditions that dominated South India for thousands of years were feeling the pressure from the Vaishnavites and Shaivites and their Vedic traditions.  Most temples that we today consider to be Hindu temples like Tirupathi, Kodungallur, Palani or Sabarimala were probably not Hindu temples in the past!

The Buddhist claim to Sabarimala cannot be ignored.  Buddhism has existed in Kerala since the third century BCE.  Ayyappan is known as Sastha which is also the name of Buddha (The Buddhists believe that the conversion of this temple from Buddhism into a Brahminic shrine took place in the 15th and 16th centuries).  The eighteen steps at the entrance to the temple are clearly considered to be holy by all.  According to the Buddhists these eighteen steps signify the four noble truths (Satyas), the eightfold path (Ashtamarga), the Buddha, dharma and Sangha (Triratna) and Karuna, Mudita and Maitri (Chittabhavanas).  These eighteen steps leads to wisdom that a Buddhist needs to attain Nirvana.  The eighteen steps are also thought of as symbolic representation of the eighteen names for the Buddha!

The temple was renovated in 1905 and during this process the old wooden deity was replaced by an image carved in stone.  In 1950 the whole temple was burnt to the ground by arsonists.  There are varying accounts of who was responsible for the arson by there is a police report that indicates that it was done by Christian fundamentalists.  The current image is almost identical to that of the image that was destroyed.  According to Buddhists it is that of the Ardhapadmasana (right hand with three fingers pointed upwards indicates the Chin Mudra and the left hand with four fingers and thumb apart indicates the four noble truths).

I four kilometer walk to the top of the hill can be tough on the young and the old.  All devotees have to carry the Irumudi Kettu on his head and at the same time keep chanting the mantras every step of the way (these mantras are very similar to Buddhist mantras).  You will quickly realize that all around you men of all ages from all over the world are doing the same thing as you.  Until the journey is completed and you reach home there is no “you”.  There are only Ayyappas.

Related posts:

  1. Lord Venkateswara Temple: Discrimination on the basis of Clothing
  2. Hindu Fundamentalists: Ayodhya Similar to Mecca
  3. Thirumala Venkateswara Temple: From Buddhism to Hinduism
  4. Onam And The End of Buddhism in Kerala
  5. Shree Jagannath Temple Puri: Discrimination is part of the Tradition

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Category: Culture & Religion

Comments (9)

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  1. Jaya Selvi says:

    Hari, Its surprise to read an article like this by you. Because you always wrote atheist article. I hope it may brought back some memory to you…

    • Hari says:

      It did bring back some great memories. I think it is a pilgrimage worth taking at least once whether a person is a believer or not.

  2. Ram says:

    It appears to me that you are not a complete non-beleiver after all. It seems like you have some allegiance to Buddhist principles, though you may not conciously practice buddhism.

    • Hari says:


      I am clearly not a believer in a supernatural entity or a creator god. In my writings I tend to highlight things that are not commonly known. The impact of Buddhism on Sabarimala is one such example.

  3. Sachit Pillai says:

    You are like a huge vessel of knowledge with in-depth information about diverse topics. It is simply amazing. I didn’t know the history about the temple….about it being burned down & all. I only knew that Lord Ayappa aimed an arrow randomly & declared that the place where the arrow struck be made into a temple (I hope that is true).

    I have been to Sabarimala once in 1989, I was just 16 years old. I don’t recollect much of it. What I do remember is feeling thoroughly refreshed after taking a dip in the Pamba nadi. I would’ve loved to swim around a bit (having developed fins around that time) but the rains were long gone and the water had receded substantially. I had to literally sit down to be fully submerged. At that time, it was not a conscious decision on my part to take the trip but it was rather my parents’ decision which I had to comply. I also recall that more than going up, the coming down part was more challenging because of the sheer steepness of the hill, add to it the lack of a concrete road. The road was just a narrow stretch of land without any vegetation due to the continuous footfall of devotees going up & down. So, more or less it was as good as trying to climb up & come down a steep hill that was uneven, with small rocks jutting out in places and pebbles strewn about in abundance, without any support and barefoot too. But looking back now, all in all it was a different experience.

    Several of my cousins and close relations make it a point to visit the place every year & have time and again asked me to join them. Nonetheless, I don’t feel any such inclination to visit the shrine once again. One of the main deterrent in this case being, the sea of humanity thronging the place. After all the trouble you go through to reach the summit it is difficult to get a good glimpse of the deity because of the crowd.

    I won’t say that I am an atheist but I’m not a hard core believer either. Actually I’m averse to temples, but it has got nothing to do with my being an atheist or a staunch believer. I refrain from going to temples simply because of the many man-made rules that one has to adhere to while visiting one for eg:- leaving footwear outside before entering temple & similarly, having to remove your shirt before entering etc. I loathe these rules and hence refrain from visiting any temple, much to my family’s alarm & chagrin.

    I think these rules should be obliterated & people should be given a choice. If they genuinely feel the need to remove their footwear and upper wear before entering, they should be allowed. For people like me, we should be allowed in too, without any restrictions. It is all about interpreting faith in your own way instead of being forced to comply.

    I was and am still intrigued by the light that is said to appear on its own (without human intervention) during Makar-Sankranti….’makara-villakku’. Back in the eighties I remember reading a report in the times of india that said priests from the temple go to a particular spot and light a lamp on the designated day. Hari bhai, what is your take on this?

    • Hari says:


      The Makara Villakku is organized by the temple authorities with the help of the forestry officials. There was an article in Tehelka a few years ago where some former temple authorities admitted to it (The title of the article is “Human, All too Human”).

      Temples are man made so I am not surprised at the many man made rules in religious institutions all across the world!

  4. Sachit says:

    Right said Hari!

  5. Nagaraj says:

    I read the article & is nice. The main concentration here is looking at the current situation and is compared to the other religions. The idol of Lord Ayyappa what we see here is the incranation of Dharmashasta. Way before tretayuga or birth of Lord Rama, Dharmashasta was born and killed the deamon. Again he incranated as Manikanta to be the adopted son of the Panthala king. The rest of the story the mass know.

    • Hari says:

      Thank you for the compliments.

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