The ancient land of Kerala has been a prominent place, since the dawn of time, among seekers of the eternal truth. The famed Sabarimala, also known as Sri Dharmasastha, is a Hindu pilgrimage center located on the slope of the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta District in Kerala. It is the largest annual pilgrimage in world with an estimated 45–50 million devotees visiting every year. Sabarimala is about 65 km from Pathanamthitta. The very famous Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple is situated on Neelimala in the deep forests, on the banks of River Pamba. The Temple is most famous and prominent among all the Sastha Temples. All the men can visit this temple with out the consideration of caste, creed, position or social status. Sabarimala Dharmasastha temple is one of most visited temple in the entire India. The temple is open for worship only during the days of Mandalapooja (approximately November 15 to December 26), Makaravilakku (January 14- "Makara Sankranti") and Vishu (April 14), and the first six days of each Malayalam month.
The legend is that Lord Vishnu transformed himself into the woman form 'Mohini' to get 'Amrith' from the Asuras, who took it away from the Devas. Lord Siva became attracted to Mohini and thus born Hari Hara puthran with a bell round his neck. So he was named 'Manikantan' by the Pandalam Raja, Rajshekhara Pandya who got the baby from the jungles. Manikantan was born to kill the Asura woman Mahishi who conquered the Heavens.
Manikantan lived in the Pandalam Kingdom for some years before he killed Mahishi. He befriended with Vavar, a Muslim warrior. Later Manikantan asked King of Pandalam to build a temple for him at Sabarimala. Manikantan is at Sabarimala temple at Lord Ayyappa. Idol of Ayyappa was carved by Parasurama and was installed at the Sabarimala temple on the auspicious day of Makar Sankranthi.
The temple attracts pilgrims not only from the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh but also from other parts of country and abroad. Sabarimala is one of the five 'panchashastha' temples erected by the powerful yogi to protect Kerala from destructive elements, the others being Kulathuppuzha, Aryankavu, Achankovil and Erumeli. At Kulathuppuzha, the Lord is worshipped as an infant boy, at Aryankavu as an adolescent on the verge of matrimony and at Achankovil, he is depicted as a 'grihasthashrami' with his wives, Poorna and Pushkala.
Lord Ayyappa Idol is in a brahmachari state of eternal bliss or Samadhi, holding 'chinmudra'. Sabarimala is believed to be the place where the Hindu God Ayyappan meditated after killing the powerful demoness, Mahishi. Ayyappan’s temple is situated here amidst eighteen hills. The temple is situated on a hilltop at an altitude of 468 m (1535 ft) above mean sea level, and is surrounded by mountains and dense forests. Temples exist in each of the hills surrounding Sabarimala. While functional and intact temples exist at many places in the surrounding areas like Nilackal, Kalaketi, and Karimala, remnants of old temples survive to this day on remaining hills.
There is a Vavar Thara very close to the temple. The deity is Vavar, the friend of Ayyappa and a Sufi saint is at the close proximity to the main temple. Ayyapa cult gifts much importance for secularism and communal harmony and has turned out to be a model for the whole world. Another significant aspect of the pilgrimage is that all the pilgrims whether rich or poor, literate or illiterate are all equal before Lord Ayyapa and all of them address each other as Ayyappa or Swamy.
To enter the Sabarimala temple, the pilgrim has to pass Pathinettampadi (holy eighteen steps). The holly eighteen steps that lead to the shrine have been figuratively called Ponnu Pathinettampadi, 'Ponnu' being an epithet to denote the holy touch of lord's feet. But now 'Ponnu' has become literally true because the steps have been covered with Panchaloham. Each of these eighteen holy steps represents a desire one must conquer in life, it is believed. Only those who observe 41 day's of austerity as ritual can only carry erumudi and can climb these steps.
Sabarimala is linked to Hindu pilgrimage, predominantly for men of all ages. You can identify a Sabarimala pilgrim easily as they wear black or blue dress. They do not shave till the completion of pilgrimage and smear Vibhuti or Sandal paste on their forehead. Women between the ages of 10 and 50 are not allowed to enter the temple, since the story attributed to Ayyappa prohibits the entry of the women in the menstrual age group. This is because Ayyappan is a Bramachari.
The devotees are expected to follow a vratham (41-day penance) prior to the pilgrimage. This begins with wearing of a special Mala (a garland made of Rudraksha or Tulsi beads). In general from then they are to refrain from non-vegetarian food of any kind (except dairy) alcohol, and tobacco, engaging in sex, using foul language, hair-cuts and shaving. They are expected to bath twice and visit the local temples regularly and only wear plain black or blue coloured traditional clothing. Saffron colored dresses are worn by Sanysis (monks) who have renunciated material life. But, many devotees still continue to wear saffron colored clothes which are against vedic scriptures due to ignorance.
Hundreds of devotees still follow the traditional mountainous forest path (approximately 52 km) from Erumely, believed to be taken by Ayyappa himself. The part starts from Erumely to Aludha river, then crosses the Aludha mountain to reach Karivilam thodu. Now comes the sacred Karimala crossing, from there to Cheriyanavattom, Valliyanavattom and finally Pamba River. Then have claim neeleemala and we enter into the ganesh bettam, shreeram betta padam. Aranmula kottaram is one of the halt place of holy journey 'thiruvabharana khosayatra'. But many people use vehicular traffic which can go till the Holy Pamba River by an alternate road. Thereafter, all the pilgrims have to follow a mountainous forest trekking path approximately four kilometers up a steep hill (Neeli Mala) to Sabarimala. This path, now developed, with shops and medical aid by the sides, used to be a mere trail through dense forest.
Historicity of the Ayyappa Temple
There is no clear evidence as to when the pilgrimage to Sabarimala began. After the installation of the temple, it was mostly unreachable for about three centuries. One of the kings in a later generation rediscovered the original path to reach Sabarimala. He had many followers with him, including the descendants of the Vavar family. They refreshed their resources at Erumely and this marked the beginning of the famous Petta Thullal at Erumely. They laid down their arms at the place today known as Saramkuthy. Those who are on their maiden visits to Sabarimala thrust arrows at this place. The temple was then renovated. In 1821 AD, the kingdom of Pandalam was added to Travancore. There were added 48 other major temples including the Sabarimala temple to Travancore. The idol was erected in 1910. In 1950, unidentified persons destroyed the temple by breaking the 'Sri-kovil' and the main idol of worship, and set fire to the temple. The temple also conflagrated in 1971 and underwent a major revamping.
The history behind the worshipping methods
The customs of the pilgrims to Sabarimala are based on five worshipping methods; those of Shaivites, Shaktists and Vaishnavites. At first, there were three sections of devotees – the devotees of Shakti who used meat, liquor and drugs to worship their deity, the devotees of Vishnu who followed strict penance and continence, and the devotees of Shiva who partly followed these two methods. Another name of Ayyappa is Sastha. All these can be seen merged into the beliefs of pilgrims to Sabarimala. The chain the pilgrims wear comes from the Rudraksha chain of the Shaivites. The strict fasting, penance and continence is taken out of the beliefs of the Vaishnavites. The offering of tobacco to Kaduthaswamy can be considered to be taken from the Shaktists.
The Ayyappa temple on Sabarimala lies 184 km away from the international airport in the Kerala's capital city of Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). Similarly, it is 214 km from Kochi (formerly Cochin) International Airport. The nearest railway stations to Sabarimala are at Kottayam and Chengannur.
The easiest route is via Chalakkayam, by which one can reach the banks of the river Pamba by vehicle. Pamba is the main halting point on the way to Sabarimala. From here one has to trek 4 to 5 kms to reach the temple.