Sunday, December 20, 2009

Lord Ayyappa beckons all!

One of the great pilgrimages of Kerala, the ritual trek to the Sabarimala Hills, to pay obeisance to Lord Ayyappa, is a journey of suffering and elation

By Shevlin Sebastian

At five a.m., on the Chennai-Thiruvananthapuram superfast express, a group of Lord Ayyappa devotees from Andhra Pradesh get down at Changanacherry railway station. A couple of minutes later, when the train starts moving, they jump back in again. There are remonstrations between the men about the error. They were supposed to get down at Chengannur, two stations away.

Outside Chengannur station, there are several Kerala State Road Transport Corporation buses. In an unusual sight, Rajendran, the conductor of a bus welcomes passengers with folded hands. Several pilgrims clamber on. Amidst loud shouts of ‘Swami Saranam, Ayyappa Saranam,’ we are off.

Among the passengers is K. Mani, 47, a businessman from Chennai, who has been coming to Sabarimala for the past 12 years. His friend, S. Balan, 54, from Kanchipuram is on his fourth trip. As we talk, the sun comes out from behind thick grey clouds. The view is stunning: lush, green hills and mist-laden valleys.

Two hours later, we reach the town of Pampa, which is at the base of the Sabarimala hills. There is a massive crowd present. And immediately I notice that there are no class distinctions. Everybody looks the same: bearded faces, bare chests and feet, necklaces around the neck, black dhotis and an irumudi kettu (rucksack) placed carefully on the head.

The loudspeaker is blaring instructions. In between, songs in praise of Lord Ayyappa are being played. There are shops selling souvenirs, cassettes, newspapers and food. Young children and elderly women are wandering about. As it is well known, women between 10 and 50 -- the fertility period -- are not allowed at Sabarimala.

Most of the devotees have prepared for the pilgrimage by going through a 41-day penance: no drinking, smoking, sex, shaving, and non-vegetarian food. “I know of people who stay away from the home, during this period, to avoid temptations, and go straight for the pilgrimage,” says Mani.

Before setting out towards the temple, the pilgrims need to take a ritual bath in the Pampa river. The water is cold to the touch. The river has a depth of two to four feet. Then it is off to the Ganapathy temple to break a coconut.

Soon, it is time to take the trek to the top of the hill, known as Neelimala. The first section is extremely steep. You have to hold on to a railing to make some headway. There is a dense crowd, all pushing forward. And within half an hour, I am panting. Owing to the bright sunlight, I can see perspiration flowing like rivulets down the exposed backs of several men.

One grey-haired woman looks back in anxiety. His son says, “Amma, don’t worry, I am right behind you.” An old man, with an open mouth, and drooping eyes, sits by the side of the path. He does not look well at all. Soon he is placed on a cane chair, tied between two long wooden poles, which is held up by four bare-bodied men.

I make slow progress. I can feel my calf muscles tightening up. Halfway up, there is a cardiology unit on the left and an oxygen parlour at the right, as well as a tea stall. Following a brief flattening of the hill, there is another hard ascent.

There are large notice boards, which state, ‘Next 500m, steep climb. Please slow down. Stop for a while. Relax and climb.’ And, of course, there is the usual, ‘Beware of pickpockets’.

It takes me one and a half hours to do the 5 km trek to Sannidhanam, where the temples are located. There I meet up with a local friend Ramesh Menon (name changed). Staring at my tired face, he says, “The climb is not easy. In the last month, 26 people died of heart ailments. The problem is that people do not take a proper rest during the trek.”

Ramesh shows me the main temple at the centre of the quadrangle, which is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. It has a gold roof. “Vijay Mallya [the chairman of the United Breweries Group] sponsored this and it was refurbished by Kumaran Silks, the Chennai-based silk company,” he says.

Near the main temple, there are smaller shrines devoted to Ganapati and the serpeant God, Nagar. At a little distance away is the Malikappurathamma temple.

To offer blessings to Lord Ayyappa you have to climb the 18 steps leading towards the temple. Only those pilgrims who have the irumudi kettu are allowed to do so. (Incidentally, the kettu contains coconuts, ghee, camphor, beetel leaves and nuts, among other things).

For others, they can take a darshan at a side entrance. As I am about to do this, Ramesh pulls me aside and says, “Lord Ayyappa knows about all your dreams and desires. There is no need to ask him about them. Instead, just seek his blessings.”

I found it sensible advice. I stand near the steps, gaze at the idol, close my eyes, and ask for blessings. The priest gives me the prasad and I leave, feeling elated.

Immediately, one of the sayings of the great saint, Ramakrishna, comes to my mind: ‘Wherever I look I see men quarreling in the name of religion — Hindus, Mohammedans, Brahmos, Vaishnavas, and the rest. But they never reflect that He who is called Krishna is also called Shiva, and bears the name of the Primal Energy, Jesus, and Allah as well.’

I go across to the large hall, called the Nadappanthal, just before the main temple. Four donkeys are wandering about. There are overflowing trash bins at one side. A restaurant at the side is crammed with hungry patrons. People are lying spread-eagled on the floor, looking weary and tired. Several are sleeping, even as pilgrims pick their way through them. Ramesh looks at them with a sad look in his eyes.

“They are exhausted,” he says. “Because of the huge crowds some had to wait for hours in the queue. I know of a young couple, with a small daughter who took 12 hours to do the trek.”

K. Jayakumar, the chief commissioner of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which oversees the shrine, says, “The problem is that the 18 steps is narrow and can accommodate about 100 persons in a minute. So, when a large number of people arrive, the queue swells. We cannot obviously widen the steps.”

He says that in a new master plan there are provisions to create better facilities, like a ‘queue complex’ for the pilgrims to wait in comfort. “A few will be ready before next year’s season,” he says.

K. Ravi, a pilgrim from Bangalore, says that because of the lack of toilets, people tended to urinate at the sides. The smell, at certain sections of the trek, is intense and overwhelming, despite the regular use of bleaching powder.

“We have set up more than 30 free urinals, on Chandranandan Road, on the trekking path, where, earlier, there was none,” says Jayakumar. “On Neelimala a new block of toilets has started functioning. Despite this, some pilgrims do urinate in the open.”

Meanwhile, other pilgrims spoke about the rising air pollution and the lack of proper cleaning by the sweepers. Again Jayakumar says, “The cleaning is done round the clock. The Sabarimala Sanitation Society has brought in workers from Tamil Nadu who are doing an excellent job. It would be harsh and incorrect to conclude that the cleaning is not up to the mark.”

Ramesh also spoke about the poor crowd management. “The Kerala Police did a disastrous job,” he says. The TDB then entrusted the job to the National Disaster Response Force. “They are much better,” he says.

By now, I am feeling famished. Ramesh takes me to the annadhana (free food) hall. People are sitting on long benches, and eating from steel plates. The menu is simple: white rice, cabbage and brinjal, sambhar, rasam, pappad and pickle. The food is tasty.

M. Sridar, a member of the central working committee of the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham, says, “More than 20,000 people are fed every day.” There are fifteen cooks, who begin work at 2 a.m. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner is on offer.

After lunch, Ramesh takes me to meet the melsanthi (chief priest), G. Vishnu Nampoothiri (see box), who stays in a nearby building. He is a pleasant man, and as we talk, a long queue of men are waiting patiently outside his room to receive his blessings.

What is the striking feature about the temple area is the presence of a vast number of devotees. A total of 2 crore people are expected to come, when the temple closes in January. “The majority will be from the states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh,” says Ramesh.

Soon, it is time for me to leave. And the feeling I have is of being completely overwhelmed: by the crowds, the devotional atmosphere, the physical struggle followed by a spiritual high.

Whatever be the faults and difficulties, the pilgrimage to Sabarimala is one of the most remarkable that anybody can undertake.


God’s custodian

The melsanthi is the chief priest of the Lord Ayyappa temple. Since it is a prestigious post, there are many aspirants. In order to lessen the number, the Travancore Devaswom Board came up with new rules.

Aspirants should be between 35 and 60 years of age. He should have served for ten years in a major temple which holds three pujas a day. He should be a full-time melsanthi elsewhere. In the previous year, the melsanthi was working in a Central Government undertaking.

Nevertheless, there were 56 candidates, but, after a careful scrutiny, only 10 were short-listed. And the selection was done by a draw of lots. G. Vishnu Nampoothiri, 45, was the lucky one. “It proves that only by the grace of God you can become a melsanthi,” he says.

Vishnu says it is the dream of every priest to be a melsanthi at the Lord Ayyappa temple. However, the term is for one year. The idea was mooted by Vishnu’s father, Ganapathi Nampoothiri, who was the melsanthi in 1981. “My father felt that by limiting the term, others would get an opportunity,” says Vishnu.

Vishnu Nampoothiri’s daily job includes opening the sanctum sanctorum at 4 a.m., doing the Usha puja at 7.30 a.m. and the uchcha puja at 12.30 p.m. He closes the sanctorum at 11 p.m., after leading other priests in the rendition of the harivarasanam song. He also conducts a puja at the nearby Ganapathy temple.

Asked why the numbers of pilgrims are going up, Vishnu says, “Lord Ayyappa is fulfilling the needs of the people. That is why they keep coming back.”


Sabarimala Temple: some facts

According to legend, Parasurama, who pulled Kerala from the sea, installed the Lord Ayyappa idol at Sabarimala. The season begins in November and ends in January. The Makara Jyothi held usually on January 14 is one of the biggest events.

During the Makara Jyothi, the Thiruvabharanam or the sacred jewels of the Lord – a diamond crown, golden bracelets, necklaces and a sword -- is brought to Sabarimala in three boxes.

At the Sannidhanam, where the temple is located, the Melsanthi (chief priest) and Thantri (head priest) adorn the jewels across Lord Ayyappa. Then the priests perform arati.

At this moment a flashing light appears on the opposite mountain, at a place called Kantamala. There is a belief that this is the arati performed by devas and rishis. This marks the culmination of the pilgrimage to Sabarimala.

The temple remains closed for the rest of the year, but it opens for the first five days of every Malayalam month and during Vishu (April).

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)


  1. Very good post.


    Sujith Bhakthan

  2. Thank you for your detailed post. Any comments on the significance of Vavar swami for pilgrims?

  3. Well, was not able to put it up because of space constraints