Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple

One of the best popular pilgrimage centres for all people in the country, Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple is located in the Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta District, Kerala. The shrine, situated on a hilltop surrounded by dense forests and 18 other hills, stands about 1260m/4135ft above sea level. East of the central shrine or ‘sannidhanam’is Vavarnada’, which commemorates Vavar, a Muslim associate Lord Ayyappa. Sabarimala is believed to be place where Lord Ayyappa meditated after killing the powerful demon, Mahishi. Sabarimala is considered to be one of the most visited pilgrim centres in the world ‘s second largest annual pilgrimage centre (after Mecca’s Haji)

Sabarimala was once under the regime of the Pandalam dynasty. So there can’t be a mythical history for Sabarimala without the mythological histories of Lord Ayyappa and the Pandalam dynasty. It is believed that Lord Ayyappa himself gave specific instructions for the layout of the Ayyappa Temple. According to his plans, he wanted Malikapurathamma, to be placed on his left side, which is a few distance from the sannidhanam, and his trusted friends Vavar and Kadutha, to be put at the foot of the 18 holy steps. Lord Ayyappa is a role model for many believers. The temple attracts all the people, irrespective of whether he or she is rich or poor, learned or illiterate, holding position or not,master or servant, who when on the pilgrimage, address each other as ‘Ayyappa’.

According to legend, Lord Ayyappa was a descendant of the Pandya dynasty which lived in various place like Valliyur, Tenkasi, Shengottah, Achankovil and Sivagiri and in parts of Travancore, where the Pandavas were the ruling dynasty belonging to Chempazhanattu Kovil, lived in Sivagiri and were given the right to rule the country of Pandalam by the King of Travancore eight hundred year ago.

King Rajasekhara was the direct descendant of third dynasty. He was a very talented, courageous and just ruler and his subjects were happy and prosperous. However, the king had no children and no heir to inherit his kingdom. His prayers to Lord Shiva for an heir were answered when the Lord ordered Dharmasastha to take the avatar of Ayyappa. Thus Ayyappa was born. The King found the baby near the Pampa River when he went hunting and took the child home, where he was brought up as his son.

However, we do not know as to when the Sabarimala pilgrimage had started. After the installation of the temple, it remained unreachable for about three centuries. It was a king of a later generation who rediscovered the traditional paths to reach Sabarimala. He had many followers with him, including the descendants of the Vavar family. The family members found their resources at Erumely and this marked the beginning of the famous Petta Thullal there. The Temple was then renovated. In 1821 Ad, the kingdom of Pandalam was added to Travancore. 48 major temples including the Sabarimala temple were also added to Travancore. The idol was erected in 1910. In 1971, the temple underwent a major revamp.

There are different customs and traditions to be followed by a devotee who follow strict penance or vratham which last for 41 days. During this period they are to refrain from meat, fish, alcohol, tobacco, sex, using foul words, hair cuts and shaving. They should visit local temples regularly and wear a special Mala (a garland made of Rudraksha or Tulsi beads) and only black-coloured clothes. It is mandatory for pilgrims to bath in the River Pampa before they climb the hills to the holy shrine.

Among the rituals interwoven with the pilgrimage to Sabarimala, the most celebrated is the Petta Thullal at Erumeli. It is a joyful rhythmic dance of groups of Sabarimala pilgrims along with chanting of Ayyappa mantras and hymns at Petta junction of Erumeli town.Traditionally, pilgrim groups from Ambalapuzha and Alanghad participate in this annual ritual. After the long trek from Erumeli to Pampa by foot, devotees bathe in Pampa River. Spiritual and religious deliberations are held on this day. People from different walks of life participate in this Sangamam which is called the Pampa Sangamam. When evening falls, pilgrim light wick lamps which are then set afloat in the Pampa River. This is indeed an unforgettable sight.

The procession with the gold jewelery of Lord Ayyappa (known as Thiruvabharanam’) from Pandalam to Sabarimala is another ritual. The Thanka Anki (scared golden attire of the Lord Ayyappa) offered by the Chithira Thirunnal Maharaja of Travancore is taken from the Aranmula Temple and the deity of Lord Ayyappa is adorned with this for the Mandala Pooja.

There are different customs for worshiping Lord Ayyappa. These are based on five different worshiping methods: Shaivaites, Shaktists, Vaishnavites, Buddhists and Jains.

Monthly poojas are conducted in the temple throughout the year,usually during the first week of each Malayalam month. The temple shrine will be open only for the first five days of each month and for the pilgrimage season, between mid-November and mid-January. There are restrictions on the entry of women and only those above 50 years of age and girls below 10 years of age are allowed to visit the shrine.

Certain rituals and rites are performed during the festival season at not only at Sabarimala but also in temples which have Lord Ayyappa as the main deity. These include’Ayyappan’ ‘Kalamezhuthu’ and ‘Ayyappan Pattu’. Kalamezhuthu,’is an amalgamation of two words the ‘Kalam’ or image’ and ‘Ezhuthu’ meaning ‘writing’. In Kalamezhithu, skilled artists make powder drawings of the images of the deities Pilgrims gather at Pampa on the day before the Makara Vilakku (light which appears inn the hills during the month of Makaram or January) festival held in January. Much controversy surrounds the appearance of this light. Latest reports say that the Makaravillakku is the symbolic deeparadhana (worship of the deity by lighting of traditional wick lamps)in the hills at some distance from Sabrimala,where a temple used to stand earlier. On the last and seventh day of the festival, pilgrims congregate to catch sight of the Makara Jyothi’, a celestial star which appears in the sky. Devotees believe that sighting the light brings them good fortune and divine blessings.

Lakhs of devotees flow to Sabarimala evey year for a ‘darshan’ (sight) of this ritual. People from different walks of life participate in this Sangamam which is called the Pampa Sangamam.

Padi Pooja (worship of the holy steps) is considered the most important and costly ritual in Sabarimala. The tantric duties are performed by the famous Thazhamon Brahmin family of Chengannur. Usually padi pooja is conducted after the deeparadhana in the evening. Red silk cloth, coconuts, cloth for kalasa (pooja of deities like Lord Vishnu), nilavilakku (lamp), flowers, camphor, incense, etc., are placed on each of the gold-plated steps. In olden days, padi pooja was conducted once in 12 years, but now the ritual is conducted whenever the temple opens.

Priya Harrison

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