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.
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Category: Culture & Religion