Devotees trek through the jungle
Clad in black they walked as if they had little to do with this world. Their beards and nails had grown, but there was no indication that they were unclean. When this writer saw these men in black they were getting ready for the pilgrimage which would take them to Sabarimale in Kerala, India which is the abode of Lord Ayyappan.
In fact a large batch of Lord Ayyapan devotees left the shoes of Sri Lanka on January 8 for India to make the 60km trek through the jungles of the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat Mountain Range in the Pathanamthitta District in Kerala. The trek through the jungles is challenging, but devotees say that Lord Ayyapan provides them with the strength needed to complete the journey. The less affluent have received or raised the needed money quite effortlessly once they did make up their minds about going on this pilgrimage. Devotees believe that this God works in miraculous ways.
The main season to go on this pilgrimage begins on November 15 and concludes on December 26. The temple is also open to receive devotees on January 14 and April 14.
The Sabarimale Temple
Devotees have to prepare for the journey by undergoing a 41-day fast during which strict vows are practised. This fast helps devotees transcend earthly limitations and change for the better. Those who wish to obtain the blessings of Lord Ayyapan have to cleanse themselves, both outside and within. For this they need to obtain the blessings of a seasoned traveller to Sabarimale who is known as a Guru Swami, someone who becomes their teacher. Devotees shun all social activities and immerse themselves in prayers and religious activities after taking up vows. They abstain from consuming meat, indulging in unnecessary talk and harming others in any possible way. They also become celibate during this fast. The wearing of a mala (Necklace made of beads) indicates that the devotee has committed himself to renounce material temptations. The devotee who makes his maiden pilgrimage is known as ‘Kanni Ayyapa’.
The travel bag which contains offerings for the Lord
There are also confirmed stories of miracles happening on the way to Sabarimale. The jungle path to the temple is grown with herbs, hence certain ills of those walking on them are permanently cured
The temple of Lord Ayyapan is one of many temples in India open to all faiths. The authorities there by conducting religious activities have promoted secularism and communal harmony. Vijekanthan Guru Swami who made the trip last year told this writer that all are equal before Lord Ayyapan.
Popular folklore states that references to the Lord date back to the time of King Rajashankara. The king didn’t have children. Later he was presented with a child. The child one day fired an arrow and told his father to go and build a temple where the object he fired had fallen. This is the temple to which pilgrims have been arriving in large numbers, a practice which began before 12th Century AD.
Herbs and miracles
Devotees who make the journey do it for the sheer love of the Lord. Obtaining blessings is all what most pilgrims wish for. But there are others who speak about having become able to upgrade their lives financially after the trip to Sabarimale. There are also confirmed stories of miracles happening on the way to Sabarimale. The jungle path to the temple is grown with herbs, hence certain ills of those walking on them are permanently cured. Those who make the pilgrimage to the temple also go with the belief that one such trip eradicates sins accumulated during 64 human births.
A replica of the flight of steps that lead to the temple,which is seen in many kovils in Sri Lanka
The trek to Sabarimale is considered to be one of the largest pilgrimages in the world. As many as 45-50 million devotees visit the temple annually. For the record Sri Lankans belonging to many faiths make the trip to Sabarimale each year. The number of Sri Lankan devotees travelling annually to India on this pilgrimage has been calculated as being around 5000.
All the mental discipline that’s maintained transforms the devotee. Close associates of these devotees say that the trip transforms the latter. Hindus believe that the fast they undergo to qualify for the pilgrimage helps prepare themselves for further spiritual progress. Hindus also believe that when the need to satisfy desires is removed, a person then experiences supreme bliss.
However, women of menstrual age aren’t permitted to make the trip to Sabarimale. In 1991 the Kerala High Court restricted women who were of menstrual age from offering worship at the temple. However, the Supreme Court of India has taken a petition to review this judgment made by the High Court and allow women of all ages to go on the pilgrimage. The Supreme Court has hence referred the case to a constitutional bench to make a decision on this.
Devotees carrying offerings for the Lord
In a few days time those who left the shoes of Sri Lanka will return, blessed. They will be received by their loved ones with Godly love. Those who went on the pilgrimage will bless those who remained at home. It’s amazing how the teacher-disciple chain used in educating pilgrims who wish to make the trip to Sabarimale has continued for centuries!