Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Sabarimala Swami Ayyappa

Destination: Sabarimala
Distance travelled: ~1400 kms
Pilgrims: Santhosh, Santhosh's uncle, Sudarshan, Mahesh, Venkat, Naveen and Vinay
Dates: Dec 6 and 7, 2009
Route: Bangalore-Krishnagiri-Salem-Dindigul-Theni-Kumuli-Sabarimala

You must've seen thousands of men in black robes, wearing beaded malas, sometimes sporting beards and walking around in your neighbourhood. Many of us recognize them as swamis preparing to go on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. Beyond this obvious knowledge, many people are not aware of the deeper intent and the sanctity associated with these black-robed men. I was one among the know-nots till recently. Not anymore. A pilgrimage to the holy hill-shrine at Sabarimala has changed my outlook and perception of Ayyappa devotees. Thanks to Santhosh and his uncle who made this journey possible for me.

Our pilgrimage to Sabarimala was a packed program with almost no slack time. During the trip we realized that we had grossly under-estimated the travelling time to and fro Sabarimala. The pre-estimated 13 hours of journey took a beating in both directions. Checkpost stoppages, deviations from the actual path and the tyre replacement/puncture contributed in no less measure to these delays.

First Stop: Dec 6, 2009: Ayyappa Swamy temple at VV Puram at 5 am.
The Guruswami (a very senior Ayyappa devotee who has the authority to tie the mala and place the sacred Irumudi (see:
for more info on the sacred Irumudi) on Sabarimala pilgrims. The priest at the temple smeared the sandalwood paste and bhasma on our forehead and body and prepared us for the journey by asking us to go around the sanctum sanctorum of the Ayyapa temple which had a replica of the 18 steps we would be climbing at Sabarimala.

From there we left for Sabarimala at 6 am, and on the way had a few scheduled stops for breakfast, lunch and tea, but also had to endure some unscheduled stoppages at Tamil Nadu and Kerala border checkposts. Despite a shortened route via Salem, Dindigul and Theni, the additional stoppages delayed our reaching time by at least two hours, in effect throwing our plan to have darshan the same night out of gear.

Second Stop: Dec 6, 2009, Pampa (Sabarimala) at 9 pm. We had a quick bite at a nearby hotel to gather energy for our tough 8 km climb up the Sabarimala hill. It was already 10 pm by the time we took the first step on the hill. The climb was a great experience. The first 3 kms of the climb is the most challenging. The hill is steep at this first phase, with steps that have rough edges. At many places steps are non-existant and we had to climb uphill without much support. However, devotees who have been visiting Sabarimala for many years now (like Santhosh's uncle) feel that the climb is much simpler now in comparison with yesteryears when there were virtually no steps.

Climbing this hill is a challenge not just because it has no proper steps, but because the devotees walk barefoot and carry the sacred irumudi on their heads. With this combination of factors (that subject the body to both compression and indentation pressures) and the profuse sweating (even in the December winter), the hill climbing becomes an unforgettable adventure for all devotees. The experience is to be seen and felt to be believed.

Third Stop: Dec 7, 2009, Sabarimala hilltop at 1.00 am.
We could not go for Darshan at this hour as the temple was closed. The Temple closes here in the night between 11 pm and 4 am. So, we decided to climb the 18 steps of the temple first, a privilege accorded only to the devotees who carry the sacred irumudi. And so, Santhosh, his uncle, Sudarshan and I climbed up the steps. It was an experience of sheer joy.

Later, all of us stood in the darshan queue and tried to catch up with whatever little sleep we could. By the time we approached the 4 am darshan time, the crowd swelled from all sides leading to a lot of jostling and commotion. It was almost 5.30 am by the time we had the darshan of Sri Ayyappa Swami. We could only get a passing glimpse of the Lord as the crowd was too much and the temnple guards were at their pulling best, pushing the devotees by grabbing onto whatever they could lay their hands on. Sri Ayyappa Swamy deity is a small 1.5 feet deity made of panchaloha. The face of the lord is supposedly a great sight to watch (we could see it in the innumerable photographs that were on display at the shops around the temple). We were all happy to have had the darshan of the Lord, albeit a passing glimpse.

After the darshan we performed the mandatory steps of breaking the coconuts contained in the sacred irumudi at pre-designated spots and emptied the ghee and different varieties of cereals and dry fruits that we carried in the irumudi. We had to go through one more long queue to get our temple prasadam ('Aravana prasadam').

Immediately after collecting our prasadam, we started our downhill climb. To our surprise, the downhill proved more difficult than the uphill. While the legs tried hard to hold the body back against gravity, the soft underfoot had to absorb the pricking of the protruding sharp stones on the steps. We reached the foothill in about 2 hrs. It was definitely a glorious experience. Unlike some other hill pilgrim centres in India (like Trirupati), there are no alternate ways to reach atop the Sabarimala hill than walking. This is what makes this pilgrimage so special and different.

We must've been one among the 3-4 lakh devotees who had visited Sabarimala that day. By Dec 26, which is the day of Mandala pooja, the number of devotees would be a few tens of lakhs. What makes devotees throng to this temple in such large numbers? The reasons are self evident:

1. Unlike some of the other Hindu temples, there is no caste/creed discrimination at Sabarimala
2. Sabarimala receives devotees from all economic strata of the society, providing a common ground for all people to pray the Lord
3. The fundamental principles governing the Sabarimala pilgrimage are all noble. People have to follow a strict diet, need to walk barefeet, sleep on hard floor and stay away from the attractions of meat, smoking and other carnal pleasures. This is a great opprtunity for people to exercise self-control and be righteous.
4. The prayers, bhajans and slogans that devotees chant are in the local languages that are simple and easy to learn and assimilate, unlike other Hindu prayers in Sanskrit that make it difficult for people to identify themselves with them.

There are some small aberrations like not allowing women between the ages of 10 and 60 to visit the temple, but in the overall analysis it is a great destination that integrates people from all across the country irrespective of caste creed and religion.

Last stop: Dec 8, 2009, Bangalore, early morning.
After a great pilgrimage we came back to Bangalore late on Moday night (Tuesday morning) at 1 .30 am, with about 2-3 hours of delay necessitated by a tyre puncture on the highway in the middle of nowhere.

Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa!