Located in the district of Pathanamthitta of Kerala, in the western Ghats lies Sabarimala, the abode of Lord Ayyappa. The temple is an important source of spiritual wealth and is famous amongst South Indians for the Sabarimala Yatra or pilgrimage. This podcast by Aravind Subramaniyam is a detailed guide for anyone embarking on the yatra.
Etymology – What Does Sabarimala Mean?
Shabari means huntress in Tamil, Malayalam, and many Indian languages. Mala means a hill. So it is the hill of the huntress. The temple is named after a Yogini called Shabari who was a disciple of Sage Agastya. She was in penance for a long time, waiting for the incarnation of Shasta as Manikantha – one of the manifestations of Ayyappa Swami. Pleased with her tapasya, Lord Manikantha decided to stay back for his devotees on this hill.
Brief History of Sabarimala
Shasta was the son born out of Mahavishnu’s Mohini avatar and Paramashiva’s union. Devi gave a boon to both Mahavishnu and Paramashiva for the birth of a son. Hence Shasta was born without any garbhavasa or pregnancy in the womb.
He is said to have 8 incarnations. In the last of these incarnations as Lord Ayyappam, he is a Brahmachari. Shasta is called Manikantha in the 8th incarnation as he adorns a Navaratna Mala – a necklace made out of the 9 most precious gems, around his neck.
Earlier, the temple used to be closed throughout the year except on the occasion of Makar Sankranti. It is believed that the Ayyapa Swami is in meditation throughout the year for the people of Kaliyuga. He comes out for a few days during the occasion to bless his devotees.
Sabarimala, also known as Sabarigiri, is located in the Sahyadri ranges of the Western Ghats. Although there is a debate on the location of Kishkindha being in Karnataka or Kerala, this region is also known as Kishkinda due to the presence of the river Pampa.
The main temple is surrounded by 18 hills. In the center of the hills lies the Mahayogapeetham where the garbhagriha or the sanctum sanctorum of the temple is located. This is also known as Matanga Vana as it is the region where Matanga Maharshi performed penance.
The prescribed route to Sabarimala, according to the Puranas, can be embarked by a devotee who has taken an oath of 45 days. During these days of the vrata or resolve, the devotee is supposed to conduct a prescribed set of rites and ceremonies while following strict Brahmacharya. This includes sleeping on the floor, eating simple food, japa, and celibacy.
The path to Sabarimala is a trek through the river Pampa and the Neela Parvata. Reaching Sabari Peetham and climbing the holy 18 steps known as Tatva Shobhanam to finally reach the temple and seek the grace of Lord Ayyappa.
The temple is open throughout November, December, and January for Mandala pooja and closes a few days after Sankranti. Nowadays, the temple is open for the first 5 days of every Tamil or Malayalam month. One can visit the temple without taking the Vrata but will not be able to receive the grace of Lord Ayyappa.
Rules for the pilgrimage
All the rules for the pilgrimage are mentioned in the Puranas. These rules must be followed properly in order to complete the pilgrimage. The yatra to Sabarimala is to achieve Moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Men of all ages and women below age 10 and above 50 are permitted to embark on this pilgrimage.
The Vrata is for a period of 45 to 48 days prior to the pilgrimage, although devotees can always take a longer oath. This is taken in the month of November, during the festival of Karthigai or Kartik Purnima. During this time, the Bhoomi pooja of this temple is said to have happened. So, it is an auspicious time to take the vrata.
Before the vrata is taken, one must seek the tutelage of a Guru. Only when accepted by the Guru can an individual begin the journey for the pilgrimage.
Brahmacharya has to be strictly observed. The devotee is supposed to eat only once a day and has to perform pooja 3 times a day. Vrata mala – a tulsi mala, given by the Guruswamy has to be worn throughout the period of the Vritham.
One has to bathe twice a day and has to sleep on the floor. Above all, the devotee must reach a spiritual condition in which he/she sees God in all. Although Sabarimala pilgrims prefer to wear black clothes for their pilgrimage, there is no mention of such a dress code in the Puranas.
Irumudi is an important part of the pilgrimage. It is a bag with two slots. The one in front is to store offerings for the Swami and the slot behind is for the devotee or the pilgrim. Among other things needed to perform Abhishekam, ghee is possibly the most sacred of all. On the last day of the Vrata, ghee is poured into a coconut for the purpose of Abhisheka and is sealed shut. On reaching the temple, this coconut is broken and the ghee is offered to the lord.
Ghee symbolizes the soul. Milk, curd, butter, and other dairy products are perishable, ghee stays forever. Ghee symbolizes the eternal existence of the soul, moving from one perishable body to another until it achieves Moksha. Providing ghee during abhishekam is equivalent to Aatma Samarpanam, complete surrender.
There are two routes, one traditional and longer and the other shorter.
Most people follow the older, longer route to Sabarimala which covers a distance of 40 miles. It takes around 5 to 6 days to reach the destination. The shorter path is about 5km and starts from river Pampa. This path is open throughout the year in order to conduct poojas. The long route is only open during the month of December.
Listen to the Detours Podcast with Aravind Subramaniyam Ji for a detailed understanding of the Sabarimala Yatra and its spiritual benefit.
All images courtesy Aravind ji.