The Sree Dharma Sastha Temple at Sabarimala, considered one of the prominent pilgrimage sites for people of all religions in India, is gearing up for what is likely to be one of the most turbulent periods in its history. On September 28 this year, a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court delivered a landmark ruling, literally opening doors for women of all ages to offer prayers at the hilltop shrine. The verdict overturned a 1991 Kerala High Court order that barred women pilgrims between the age of 10-50, citing ‘pre-existing and age-old’ traditions at the shrine. On November 16 evening, the shrine will open for the two-month pilgrimage season. Despite the top court’s ruling, no woman between the menstruating age of 10-50 have been able to ascend the hill and offer prayers at the shrine.
To better understand the nature of this controversy, that Kerala is currently grappling with, threatening to damage it’s socio-cultural fabric, it is pertinent to take a deep look into the nature of the temple itself, its pilgrimage and the position it assumes particularly among Hindu pilgrims in southern India.
The lore of Ayyappa
The lore of Ayyappa, also called ‘Dharma Sastha in Kerala, is closely interlinked to the Pandalam dynasty, which had broken away from the much-bigger Pandya dynasty that ruled over parts of present-day southern Tamil Nadu. Sometime around 903 AD, a branch of the Pandalam family is believed to have settled down in parts of present-day Pathanamthitta, then ruled by the King of Travancore. The king of Pandalam, Rajasekhara and the queen were childless and worried about not having an heir to the throne. On one of his hunting trips, the king finds a wailing baby by the banks of the river Pamba. A seer, who emerged at that point, advises the king to take the child home and raise him as his son. He also tells the king that when the child attains the age of 12, his divine powers would become obvious.
The child was raised by the royal couple and named ‘Manikandan’. The boy, as expected, astounds everyone with his physical skills and intelligence. As years passed by, the Queen eventually gave birth to a baby boy. A wily minister in the king’s cabinet, who harboured ambitions to become the king one day, now manages to brainwash the queen into believing that her own son would not stand a chance to become the king as long as Manikandan is alive. He advises her to feign an illness, which can be cured only with the milk of a lactating tigress. Manikandan, learning of the queen’s illness, prepares to go into the deep forests to fetch the milk. Contrary to the expectations of the crooked minister, Manikandan successfully returns riding a tigress, accompanied by a pack of cubs. The king, who saw through his minister’s evil plan, falls at his son’s feet and begs for forgiveness. The day also marked Manikandan’s 12th birthday. He tells the king that he wishes to go to ‘devalokam’ (abode of gods), but before granting him one final wish. The king asks if he could build a shrine in his honour. Manikandan agrees, shoots off an arrow that falls at a place called ‘Sabari’, which would go on to become the present-day ‘Sabarimala.’
Ayyappa, according to Hindu myths, is said to be the off-spring of Lord Vishnu (in the form of Mohini) and Lord Shiva who was born on earth and subsequently raised by King Rajasekhara of Pandalam. The deity of Ayyappa at Sabarimala is believed to be a ‘naishtika brahmachari’ (eternal celibate), the argument made for the non-entry of women of menstrual age. According to the myths, Ayyappa would offer darshan only to those who would undertake a rigorous 41-day vow of abstinence from sex, meat and intoxicants.
The lore of Malikapurathamma
‘Malikapurathamma’ (goddess) is a deity located close to the main shrine of Ayyappa at Sabarimala. According to legends, Malikapurathamma wanted Ayyappa to marry her but he had vowed to remain a brahmachari; he promises that he would marry her the year no /kanni ayyappa/ (first-time pilgrim) would come to offer prayers. During the Makaravilakku festival in January, Malikapurathamma leaves her shrine on three successive nights to inspect if the time has come for Ayyappa to fulfil his promise. A procession from the Malikapurathamma temple goes to a banyan tree not far from the Ayyappa shrine, where the first-time pilgrims leave an arrow to mark their presence. Every year, a dejected Malikapurathamma returns to continue her wait. This myth is also used to justify restricting entry of young women from entering the shrine.
Sabarimala temple and its location
The Sabarimala shrine is located atop a hill, 3000 feet high, deep within the forests of the Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. The base of the temple is located at Pamba, along the banks of the river by the same name. Pilgrims have to make an arduous 5-km trek up the hill to reach ‘sannidhanam’ (main temple) at Sabarimala. There are two other trekking routes for pilgrims, that involves travelling through dense jungles, via Pullumedu and Erumely.
The temple is located inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve under Ranni forest division. The idol of the deity is made of ‘panchaloha’, alloy from five metals. The main stairway to the temple is known as the ‘pathinettam padi’ (18 sacred steps) crafted out of gold. There are also shrines dedicated to ‘Malikapurathamma’ (goddess) and ‘Vavar Swamy’ (a Muslim warrior believed to be a close confidant of Ayyappa) en route.
For decades, the pilgrims used to depend on a dense jungle trail to reach the temple. But progress over the years has resulted in roads up till Pamba, the base camp, from which it’s a one-hour trek to the top.
The nearest railway station is at Chengannur in Alappuzha district (84 kilometres away) whereas the closest airports are at Kochi (155 kms) and Thiruvananthapuram (173 kms). Southern Railways runs special trains during the ‘mandalam’ festival period from Chennai, Vishakhapatnam, Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
Sabarimala’s secular identity
Sabarimala is open to people of all castes, communities and religions. In fact, the homage paid to ‘Vavar’ is reflective of Sabarimala’s unique secular identity. Pilgrims who come to offer prayers to Ayyappa are expected to circumambulate the mosque dedicated to Vavar at Erumely, an important halting point for pilgrims. A large number of devotees also offer prayers at the Arthunkal church near Cherthala in Alappuzha district on their way back from Sabarimala.
The Sabarimala pilgrimage and its rituals
Conforming to rituals and traditions, rooted in myths, every pilgrim who wishes to undertake a trip to Sabarimala must observe a 41-day vow of abstinence, a period during which he/she is expected to lead the life of a ‘brahmachari’ (celibate). He/she must abstain from fish, meat and intoxicants, follow celibacy, refrain from cutting body hair and follow a rigorous regimen. Considered a period and journey of self-realisation, Sabarimala pilgrims refer to each other as ‘swami’. ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ (Thou Art That) is considered the guiding principle of the shrine and is etched in stone on the temple facade. ‘Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa’ is the popular prayer call which essentially means ‘Ayyappa, I surrender to you.’
‘Malayidal’ (ritual of wearing a beaded chain) is the act of putting on beads marking the start of the 41-day vow. Once the beads are worn, the pilgrims have to conform to a celibate life. Only a temple priest or a ‘guruswami’ (someone who has completed 18 trips to Sabarimala) can offer a mala (chain) to a pilgrim.
Similarly, for a pilgrim to climb the 18 sacred steps to the temple, he/she has to carry the ‘irumudi’ (sacred offerings) from home. The ritual of preparing the ‘irumudi’ is known as ‘kettu nirakkal’. The irumudi is a cloth bag with two pouches, the front portion reserved for the deity and the back portion for the pilgrim. Making a small hole on top of a coconut and draining the water from within, ghee (clarified cow’s butter) is filled inside, which becomes the ‘nei thenga’ (ghee coconut). The front pouch is filled with the ‘nei thenga’ and other sacred offerings like ‘malar’ (puffed rice), and ‘avil’ (beaten rice) which is then tied with a string. The back pouch is usually filled with coconuts which have to be offered at temples along the way. The pilgrims used to carry rice which they would cook during the trip which lasted several days in earlier days.
There are two kinds of pilgrims who travel to Sabarimala: Those who undertake the original 41-day or a short duration vow and carry the irumudikettu and those who don’t. Only those who carry the ‘irumudikettu’ are allowed to climb the 18 sacred steps. Other pilgrims and officials reach the main temple through a different entry.
The annual ‘Mandalam-Makaravilakku’ festival
The annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala starts on the first day of the Malayalam month of ‘Vrischikam’, which falls on November 17 this year. After 41 days, the temple’s sanctum sanctorum closes on December 26. It re-opens for ‘Makaravilakku’ festival on December 30. The main ‘makaravilakku’ festival usually falls on January 14. This is the period which attracts the most number of pilgrims, especially from the states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka.
Apart from the two-month pilgrimage season, the Sabarimala temple remains open for the first five days of every Malayalam month. It also opens for the 10-day annual festival in March and during the state’s main festivals Onam (August-September) and Vishu (April).