One of the popular pilgrim centres in India, every year, millions of pilgrims turn out at the hill shrine of Sabarimala to seek the blessings of the presiding deity – Lord Ayyappa or Swami Ayyappan. Located in the Sabari hills, towards the east of Pathanamthitta District, the hills are part of the world famous Periyar Tiger Reserve.
The temple at Sabarimala does not have any restrictions in place, based on religion, caste or creed and is now an icon for communal harmony in Kerala. The temple is open to males of all age groups and to women who have either passed their fertility age and those before reaching the stage of puberty.
The annual pilgrim season to Sabarimala begins with the Mandalakala season, which commences usually in the months of November-December followed by Makaravilakku during December-January. Besides pilgrims from Kerala, the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa is thronged by devotees from other states of India, especially from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The shrine is also visited by devotees from foreign countries like Russia, countries in Europe and U.S.A. It is a vast ocean of humanity that one can witness during the festival seasons at Sabarimala.
Pamba is the main halting point on the way to Sabarimala. From here, pilgrims begin the climb to reach the temple, situated about six kilometers from Pamba. They usually proceed in groups under a leader, who is known as Guru Swamy, who is usually the most senior member, a criterion based on the number of pilgrimages undertaken to Sabarimala.
Caressed by the sacred River Pamba, the hill shrine amidst luxuriant forest and grasslands offers visitors many delightful sights. The temple at Sabarimala can be accessed via many traditional routes. For those who prefer to trek and visit the shrine, we would like to share with you a route, which is perhaps as old as the shrine at Sabarimala. This is the route that commences from Erumeli and is an arduous one with a distance of nearly 45 kms through forests and hill tracks.
As per belief, this route was used by Lord Ayyappa to go to the forest and kill the demoness Mahishi. Erumeli is located about 56 km southeast of Kottayam town. Here, devotees offer prayers at the temple of Lord Dharmasastha and the nearby mosque in the name of Vavar Swamy, who was a Muslim and a trusted warrior companion of Lord Ayyappa. One of the important rituals at Erumeli is Petta Thullal, in which devotees paint their faces with colours and dance with wooden sticks.
Proceeding with the trek from Erumeli, one would reach Perur Thodu, a canal by the side of which Lord Ayyappa is believed to have rested during his pursuit to kill the demoness Mahishi. The ascend part of the trek begins from here. The forest beyond Perur Thodu is Poongavanam or Lord Ayyappa’s garden.
Next point in the course of the trek is Kalaketti. ‘Kala’ in Malayalam means ox and ‘ketti’ means to get tied. It is believed that Lord Shiva, the father of Ayyappa came on an ox and tied it here to witness Lord Ayyappa kill the demoness Mahishi. From then onwards, the place came to be known as Kalaketti. At the shrine located here, pilgrims break coconuts and burn camphor as offerings, before proceeding with the trek.
After about two kilometers from Kalaketi, the trek would reach the Azhutha River, which is a tributary of the holy river Pampa. Crossing the river, one has to start climbing the Azhutha hill and after two kilometers of strenuous and steep climb, one would reach its summit called Kallidumkunnu. Here, as a ritual, pilgrims drop stones collected from the bed of River Azhutha. This ritual symbolizes the manner in which the evil Mahishi’s mortal remains were cast off from the hill top and covered with stones.
Proceeding with the trek, one would reach Inchipparakota, where a shrine by the name of Kotayil Sastha is located. Pilgrims offer prayers and break coconuts here, before proceeding down a slippery path to reach Karimala Thodu. By now, one could see the Azhutha hill on one side and the Karimala hill on the other. Pilgrims usually take rest here. The place is frequented by elephants and hence pilgrims light campfires to protect themselves from wild animals and the cold weather. After negotiating the five kilometer uphill trek of Karimala, pilgrims would take the exhausting descent of about five kilometers to reach the Pamba River. One of the sacred spots on the way to the temple of Lord Ayyappa, the River Pamba is considered to have the power to purify one from curses and evil.
Traditional bath, prayers and offerings are performed at Pamba and the pilgrims later proceed to the Sannidhanam or the sanctum sanctorum of Lord Ayyappa. This is about six kilometers from Pamba. After paying obeisance at the Ganapati Temple at Pamba, the climb of Neelimala begins. This is again a physically demanding climb. Upon reaching Appachi Medu, the trek follows more or less an even ground up to Sabari Peetam. The place gets the name from Sabari, the woman saint, who during the period of Lord Rama sat here in meditation. It is another place on the trek route to the temple where pilgrims give prayers and offerings.
Halfway between Sabari Peetam and the temple of Lord Ayyappa is Saramkuthi – ‘Saram’ means arrow and ‘Kuthi’ means to pierce. Here, those pilgrims going to Sabarimala for the first time, also called locally as kanniswamy, leave the wooden arrows they picked from Erumeli.
From Saramkuthi, after a 15-minute walk one reaches the Pathinettampadi or the holy 18 steps. The steps plated with gold are a magnificent sight and pilgrims praise Lord Ayyappa while climbing them with the Irumudi Kettu – the cloth bundle containing traditional offerings on their heads. Upon reaching the sanctum sanctorum, the pilgrims offer prayers and seek the blessings of Lord Ayyappa.
The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is unique for the millions that turn up at this hill shrine in Kerala every year. The hills reverberate with the chants to Lord Ayyappa during the festival seasons and each year the number of pilgrims reaching Sabarimala is steadily increasing.