Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Pilgrimage to Sabarimalai

Swami Saranam: A group of around 40 of us, mostly friends & relatives, largely drawn from Coimbatore, Bangalore,Mumbai,Chennai & Cochin decided to set off to Sabarimalai, the abode of Lord Ayyappa, between 18-20 September'2014.We congregated at Cochin on 18 th evening at the Brahmana Samooham Madom Sastha Temple. Male devotees proceeding to Sabarimalai are called Ayyappans and ladies are known as Maligapurams.While men of all ages are permitted, women in the age group of 10-50 are barred. Our group included 6 Kanni Maligapurams (women) above the age of 50 who were making their maiden trip.There were also a couple of young kids - a young boy (kochu manikandan) and a small girl (kochu maligapuram).All devotees wear either black or saffron color to distinguish them as Ayyappa devotees.
The proceedings began with an invocation to Lord Ayyappa, followed by deeparathanai and then the wearing of the holy malai or necklace made of beads or rudrakshams. The kettu narai was an elaborate ritual involving filling of ghee into coconuts and filling rice into the irumudi pai (bag).This was accompanied by singing of bhajans and chanting of Saranam Ayyappa. After Kettunarai we  had prasadam (wheat rava uppama and ghee payasam) and then boarded a luxury bus, placed our Irumudi bags and hand bags on the overhead rack and settled down for a 5 hour journey.We departed around 10.30 pm and reached Pamba early next morning at 3.45 am.After disembarking from the bus and carrying our  Irumudi bags on our heads we trudged down a steep curved slope crossed the small bridge across the Pamba river and arrived at the base camp.We entered one of the several thatched restaurants, left our belongings there for safe keeping and helped ourselves to steaming hot chai. The next hour and a half was spent on early morning ablutions (there are paid toilets where we shell out Rs.5 per person) including a refreshing dip in the Pamba .The flow was quiet and water was icy cool and and we felt invigorated and energized and ready to continue our journey on foot.
At exactly 5.30 am we began our steep climb up the Neelimalai. We worshipped at Pamba Ganapathy, Sri Rama, Hanuman and Shakti temples.We carried Irumudi bags on our heads and walked barefoot over unhewn granite steps and over steep kaccha undulating winding paths containing jagged stones and boulders.We chanted"Kallum Mullum Kalukku Metthai". The air is cool and pleasant and we were surrounded by low lying clouds. As we proceed the climb becomes more arduous and we start feeling ponderous.We cross Appachi Medu and Sabari Peedum which is the highest point of Neelimalai. Sometime during the climb the day breaks and the glorious golden morning rays of the sun start peeping out..The continuous chanting of Saranam Ayyappa and singing of Bhajans makes us forget our hardship,shake off our heaviness and we are able to negotiate the precipitous climb with consummate ease.After Sabari Peedum the climb eases out a bit and path becomes more comfortable. From this point there are two routes - The normal one via Cheri Ana Vattom & Vali Ana Vattom. Kanni Ayyappans normally take the second route via Sarankuthiyal and since our group had a few Kanni Ayyapans & Maligapurams we went via Sarankuthiyal.. This trek is slightly longer and takes us through  verdant lush greenery and dense forest. For the first time devotees, Sarankuthiyal is considered very sacred. They bring with them the wooden arrows and place them in a small sanctum built for this purpose.
A 20 minute walk from Sarankuthiyal takes us to Sabarimalai. We join the queue of devotees and chanting Saranam Ayyappa reach the lower reach of Sannidhanam. Here we break our first coconut and climb the 18-AM Padi or the sacred and holy 18 steps.Bare legged police persons wearing malas are deployed on the steps to help devotees climb the steep steps.Ropes are also provided on either side for the devotees to hang on and pull themselves up. And lo and behold we are at the Sannidhanam. We see a big throng of devotees jostling and pushing and chanting Saranam Ayyappa. We climb an over bridge which takes us around the sanctum sanctorum and we descend again to worship at Lord Ayyappas Sanctum.The chanting reaches a crescendo and climax. We now get darshan of Lord Ayyappa. There is a feeling of joy and ecstasy, peace and serenity,devotion, tranquillity,enlightenment and fulfilment.We are transported to a high spiritual level where we can think only of Lord Ayyappa. For a short while we transcend to Swargaloka.
We are allowed to glimpse the Lord for a short period before we are gently shooed away by security guards becuse of the surging crowds.Then we walk around the sanctum and see the beautiful guilded Vimanams of Lord Ayyappa and Lord Ganapathy.We circumambulate the sanctums collect prasadam and then laze around basking in the pleasant sunshine for a while before repairing to our reserved accommodation comprising a large room with several dozen "pullu pai's".The cooks who had travelled with us had reached an hour earlier to prepare breakfast,We were served steaming hot uppuma/coffee. We rested our wearied bodies a bit while preparations were afoot for the Ashthabhishekam. The ingredients were getting readied in various containers-ghee,milk,panneer,kumkumam, chandanam,honey,bhasmam, panchamritham. Then a small group proceeded for the Ashta Abhishekam. We could watch the proceedings from close quarters without being pushed or jostled around.The spectacle amazed,awed and inspired us.We went back to our room for some rest followed by a round of bhajans while smaller groups were busy sorting out large bundles of flowers and separating the kambu(stalk).This was a jolly entertaining session.We had a great lunch on banana leaves including paal payasam(milk kheer). We slept soundly for a couple of hours.Evening 6.30 we proceeded to the Maligapuram Sannithi to offer prayers as well as participate in a Bhagavati Seva which was attended by the Mel Shanthi there.At 8.00 pm we proceeded again to Lord Ayyappa sanctum for Pushpa Abhishekam each one of us carrying a basket of flowers. One again we are dumbstruck,entranced and spellbound. I cannot find sufficient words to describe our feelings.
Then it was back to the room to pack our belongings have quick round of tiffin and begin the downward trek back to Pampa. Enroute we break our second coconut and pray to Vavara Swamy a Muslim deity closely associated with Sabarimalai pilgrimage. If we found the climb up was arduous the climb down was even trickier. The rocks and steps were slimy and slippery due to heavy rain that had occurred earlier.We had to exercise extra caution to avoid stumbling down.We finally reached Pampa after a 2 1/2 hour walk and climbed wearily back into our bus around 12.00 mid-night. By 4.30 am we were back in Kochi Brahmana Sabha. The temple doors had just opened and we witnessed Deeparathanai and removed our holy malais.

As I write this blog I recall the quintessential features of this Sabarimalai trip - The precipitous climb up and down the Neelimalai hills, the ubiquitous chanting of "Saranam Ayyappa" that resonates and reverberates all around us and the sea of devotees all wearing black or saffron garbs and carrying Irumudi Pais and the amazing spellbinding darshan of Lord Ayyappa. God willing I shall make this trip again and again. Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa.
Kettu Narai in progress at Brahmana Samooham
Pouring of ghee into the coconut
Ingredients that go into the Irumudi Bag
Singing of Bhajans by devotees
Keetu Narai completed - all Irumudi Bags are numbered for identification. The sealed can contains milk for the Astabhishekam 
Devotees happily consuming prasadam before the departure for Pampa
The trek through Sarankuthiyal route - lush greenery all around
A devotee placing wooden arrow at Sarankuthiyal
Some devotees posing at Sarankuthiyal carrying Irumudi bags on their heads
The Holy Steps or 18 am Padi through which all devotees climb towards Sannithanam
The gilded Dwaja Sthambam or Flag Staff at the entrance to the sanctum of Lord Ayyappa
A view of 18 am padi flanked by sanctums of Karuppanna Swamy and Kochu Kaduthu Swamy 
Ingredients kept ready for Ashtabhishekam
Flowers and Thulasi leaves being sorted out by devotees
The Maligapuram sanctum
These `Velans' drum and chant 'Kesadipadam' to alleviate`Sani Dosham' (evil Influence of Planet Saturn)
Bhagavathi Seva - pardon the poor image quality.Flash was not permitted during the puja.


  1. Dear Sir,
    I was happy to my heart when i read your article on Sabharimalai trip. I recalled my first trip to Sabharimalai.


    1. Thank you Mallikarjuna. My first trip was in 1978. After that I have made half a dozen trips. Only during this last trip I decided to take some pictures and document my experience in a blog

  2. Amazing adventure. All I can do is ask my self how you manage to spell all those names? Then I wonder how they are pronounced. Too bad you can't post an audio blog:-)

  3. What an interesting place. I always thought sanctums were located indoors.

    1. This temple is atop a hill and to access it you have to trek several Kms through jungle area !

  4. Looks like you had a big adventure. It is always interesting to see different cultures from my country. I like the photo of the Maligapuram sanctum and people gathering around it.
    I hope you have a good day!

  5. What an amazing spiritual journey for you, RR. Thank you for sharing it with us!

  6. Great descriptions, Ramu. Had a divine feeling reading the same.

  7. Looks like a wonderful experience, I enjoyed your pictures and descriptions!

  8. This was a fascinating trip with so many interesting customs. I learned a lot.

  9. Superb...I enjoyed seeing all these pictures. they reveal the ambience and the mood very well.. thanks for sharing

  10. Thank you so much for leaving this link for me Ram. I missed this post (and several others. :( )That was great read. I've been to Sabarimala a long time back (read 3 decades ago) before I turned 5. And I don't remember much; just bits and parts and I'm actually quite surprised about that :)

    It was so good to read this post. Thanks again.
    Another Thank you for the pictures.

    I think I'll add this link to my pictures of Sabarimala pilgrims. It'd be great for people who would want to know more about the temple and the pilgrimage.
    Thanks again.

    Btw, I am very much in Bangalore and should be here for another month or so. Do let me know if you have plans of coming this side.

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