The Sabarimala Temple in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala is a sacred place that attracts millions of devotees every year. This temple is the place where the Lord Ayyappa came and sat for meditation after murdering the female demon Mahishi. It is located on a hilltop at a height of 470 meters above sea level amidst the dense forest and is encircled by 18 hills. It is believed that Lord Ayyappa was the son of Lord Shiva and Mohini – the one and only female avatar of Lord Vishnu. Therefore, He has got another name, i.e.; ‘Hariharaputhra’. His name is not mentioned in the Hindu Puranas because his avatar happened several years after the composition of the Puranas. He is the incarnation of truth, dharma, and discipline. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala happens between the months of November and December. From November 16th, 2022, this temple will be open for the next 41 days for its Mandala Pooja Festival. This festival will conclude on the 27th of December. For the Makaravilakku festival, the temple will be opened on 30th December at 5 pm. Till January 14th, 2023, darshan for devotees will be allowed.
Devotees coincide their pilgrimage to Sabarimala with January 14 to witness the celestial light – Makarajyothi- appearing in the skies. In every Malayalam month first 5 days and on special festival days like Vishu and Onam, this temple will be opened for its pilgrims. The devotees have to follow certain practices such as 41-day fasting, a vegetarian diet, and abandoning carnal contentment. Consumption of alcohol, smoking, and usage of any other drugs are totally to be avoided at this time. They are supposed to sleep on the floors, take showers before sunrise, and have a meal in a day. Even cutting hair and nail and shaving the beard is also not done during these 41 days.
The person who goes for this pilgrimage should adorn a special chain with intermittent steads which are obtained from a poojari after an auspicious pooja and rituals. Every day they go to a nearby temple and sing Ayyappa Bhajans. Sabarimala pilgrimage is profoundly a male pilgrimage because women abstain from this temple premises. The total number of pilgrims visiting this place during the pilgrimage season is equal to the total population of Kerala. The devotees still choose the traditional path in the uneven lush forests to reach Sannidhanam. Those who climb the hill are supposed to walk all the way propping up the steep mountain with a toilsome path on their barefoot chanting the Saranam Ayyappa mantra. Before starting to climb the mountain on the temple premises, they take bath in the River Pampa. For many devotees, the Sabarimala pilgrimage is a kind of tradition.
They wear black colored dresses and carry a bundle of coconut filled with camphor, rice, and ghee on their heads during this journey and wait in the long queue to get a glimpse of the deity inside the shrine. The bag which they carry on their head is called an irumudi. Its color has some significance. If it has a red color, it denotes that the Ayyappa is visiting Sabarimala for the first time. The navy blue colored irumudi is used till their third visit. After the third visit, one can use saffron-colored bags.
There are 18 steps to climb to reach Sannidhanam, which are religiously significant. The right leg should be used to climb the first step. The three steps symbolise the human values that one should possess, the eight steps are for the sins that one can have, the five steps are for the five senses of humans, and the last 2 steps represent knowledge and ignorance.
Only after climbing these 18 steps, one can witness God. After darsana, they get holy food (prasad).
Usually, at the time of makaravilakku, people from different states of India come to pay homage to Lord Ayyappa. The last day of pooja is called Makaravilakku. The deity is worn the ornaments brought from the Palace of Pandalam where Ayyappa had spent his childhood. The main attraction on this day is just before the commencement of pooja after sunset the devotees can view a very amazing sight where an eagle circles the hill three times. And soon after that, the devotees can see an astonishing view from the opposite mountain – Ponnambalemedu hill where a surprising phenomenon of a glowing fire amidst the deep forest glows and dies below the star in the sky. This is repeated three times like the eagle. Meanwhile, the chief priest of the temple in Pampa shows the light to pilgrims three times. And here at this juncture, we can hear all the devotees shouting out slogans “Saranam Ayyappa” and thus ends the Makaravilakku. The Makaravilakku festival is a seven-day festival.
Being one of the rarest Hindu temples in Kerala which welcome devotees from all religions, caste, and creed, the Sabarimala temple is acclaimed for its liberal approach toward its pilgrims. The devotees visit Vavaruswami Mosque at Erumeli opposite Sastha Temple at Erumeli en route to Sabarimala. There is also a shrine at Sabarimala for Vavaru swami. Vavar was a close associate and friend of Ayyappa. The devotees of this temple are called and treated as ‘Ayyappa’. Thus we can see the religious harmony that prevails in the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Sabarimala is under Travancore Devaswom Board administration. They arrange all facilities for the pilgrims during the pilgrimage season. To take a rest, they prepare ‘viri’ on each side of the route to Sannidhanam. Temple tanks are also provided by them for taking baths from the devotees.
Malikapuram Temple is another temple near the main temple of Ayyappa, where the divinity is Malikapurathamma, the Devi who wished to marry Lord Ayyappa. It is said that after annihilating the demoness Mahishi, a woman came out from the dead body and requested Ayyappa to marry her. As the Lord was Brahmachari, he could not marry her and said that he will marry her when no first-time visitors visit his Sannidhanam. He asked her to reside down the hill near his earthly abode.
Story of Lord Ayyappa
According to lore, the King and Queen of Pandalam were sad as they had not an heir to the succession to the throne. One day while hunting in the forest the king heard a baby’s cry deep in the forest. The newborn baby when found was having a bell chain on the neck. The king and queen adopted this baby boy and named him Manikandan otherwise known as Ayyappan. As he was the next designated King of his kingdom, his foster mother out of jealousy to crown her own son as King instead of Ayyappa took the alliance of the court physician and with his knowledge he suggested the queen fall sick and proclaimed that the cure would be only by consuming the milk of a tigress mixed with some herbal medicines. On hearing this, Ayyappa without hesitation immediately started to procure the tigress milk. Later on, it is believed that he actually marched into the palace riding on top of a live tigress. The tigress was actually Lord Indra. After fulfilling his birth purpose which is to kill the demoness Mahishi and restore the peace of heaven and earth, he asked the king to create a temple at the spot where the arrow he sent hit. After that, Lord Ayyappa bid farewell to the family and went to this Sabarimala hilltop and attained the divine form, where many devotees started to pilgrim afterward.
How to reach
The pilgrims coming from far apart can travel by air and train to reach Sabarimala. The nearest international airports to Sabarimala are Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi.
From both these airports, you have to travel almost 170 km by road to reach this temple. Taxis and transport buses are easily available from these locations. If you choose the train to travel, then you have to get down at Chengannur railway station in the Alappuzha district. From there, by taxi or bus, you can arrive at Sabarimala.
Temples en route to Sabarimala
If you are starting your journey from the southern side of the state, visit Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram city. Lord Vishnu is the divinity there. Pazhavangadi temple at East Fort is close to Padmanabhaswamy temple. This is the renowned Ganapathy temple. Kottarakkara Ganapathy Temple is in the Kollam district where you can stop by to worship Ganesha Swamy. Pandalam Ayyappa Temple is located in the town of Pandalam on the way to Sabarimala. It is said that Lord Ayyappa is the adoptee of this Pandalam Royal Family. Chengannoor Mahadeva Temple in Alappuzha district is dedicated to Lord Shiva and Parvathy.
From the Northern side of the state, you can visit Poornathrayeesa temple in Thrippunithura – the deity is Santhanagopala Moorthy which is one form of Lord Vishnu. There is only a walking distance to Chottanikkara Temple which is dedicated to Durga Devi. Vaikom Mahadeva Temple is the temple to visit where you can worship the God Shiva. From there, you can go to Kottayam Thirunnakkara Mahadeva temple to pay homage to Lord Shiva once again. The next temple is at Erumeli temple where Lord Sastha is worshipped. You can visit Vavaraswami’s Mosque also which is in Erumeli.