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PILGRIMAGE TO SABARIMALAI
Most believers in Kerala feel that they should go to Sabarimalai at least once in their life time to redeem a pledge, to realize a life-long desire, or to fulfill a sacred duty. Here I shall describe only the cult of Ayyappan and the history behind it.
Though the actual pilgrimage takes place during the months of December and January every year, tradition prescribes the following preparations for the spiritual success and physical safety of the pilgrims. However, it should be mentioned here that the emphasis today is on the spirit rather than on the letter of traditions.
Forty-one days before the day of the pilgrimage -- about November 15 or Vrischikam 1 of the Malayalam Era--the prospective pilgrim goes to a temple near his house and declares his intention to make the pilgrimage before the gods, the priests, and the community by wearing the garland of Tulasi or Rud-raksha beads (maladharan) round his neck. Two purificatory baths — before sunrise and after sundown --.are prescribed; twice should he recite prayers before the icon of the Lord by incensing it with camphor. He should not cut his hair or shave his face; he should wear black, blue, or ochre garments; he should abstain from eating meat and fish. Most importantly, the obser-vance of purity requires that he abstain from all sex, in thought, word/and deed. The insistence on purity means that no menstruating woman, over twelve and under fifty, is permitted to make the pilgrimage lest their "impurity" bring death and disaster on themselves and other pilgrims during their trek through jungles infested by elephants, tigers, bears, leopards, and poisonous snakes.
On the eve of the pilgrimage, during a special ceremony called kettumurrukku (backpacking) held at home in a pandal made of banana trees and coconut leaves, the pilgrim prepares his headload (irumuti) which is a cotton bag with two compartments. The front part of the 1rumut i contains a coconut filled with pure melted butter from cow's milk; it is the offering to the Lord. The rear part of the bag holds all the food -- from salt to camphor, to use an expression from the Malayalam language — and the personal things, like sleep-ing bag and clothes, the pilgrim needs during his long journey, which used to take several days depending upon the distance and means of transportation.
The Sabarimalai Temple is built on an elevation of about twenty feet. The pilgrim has to climb the Eighteen Sacred steps (pathinettampadi); the first-year pilgrim must break his coconut on the first step; the second-year pilgrim on the second step, and so on. After mounting the Eighteen Steps with the i rumut i on the head, devoutly and prayerfully, the pilgrims go round the temple, worshipping at the shrines of Ganesh and Kartikeya, the other two sons of Shiva. And then they stand in front of the golden statue of Lord Ayyappan for a few moments to adore him and to make their wishes known to him. In this temple the Lord is seated on a golden throne in kurmasan without any weapons in his hands; the left hand rests on the left knee and the right hand is raised in benediction (chinmudra); a silk sash is wrapped round both knees since the Lord is in a squatting posture; the crowned head wears long hair; the youth's very adult face radiates peace and serenity; round the neck there hangs a tiny bell along with all kinds of jewelry. After the darshan (vision) of the Lord, the devotees remove the headload (irumuti), and make the offering of the melted butter which is to be used for the anointing of the statue of the Lord (abhisheka). In thanksgiving the pilgrims offer gold, silver, and money for favours received from Lord Ayyappan.