Sabarimala: Understanding the legendary temple of Lord Ayyappa

A Supreme Court order of September 28 had removed the restriction on women of a certain age group from entering the Sabarimala shrine.

This has been seen as a radical step that upset religious and political outfits in India. The Kerala government has submitted an affidavit in the court that it would implement the order and it is duty-bound to stay the course.

What is Sabarimala?

Sabarimala is a Hindu pilgrimage centre located at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta District, in Kerala, India.

Sabarimala Temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, is the most famous temples in Kerala, India. The temple is one of the oldest existing temples in India. the temple is at least 4000-4250 years old.

It is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world, with an estimated over 100 million devotees visiting every year,Sabarimala temple is open to all religion. There is a place near the temple; east to Sannidhanam, dedicated to the Vavar (a sufi and friend of Lord Ayyappa).

The journey to the temple is to be taken through difficult paths in the forest as the vehicles can go only up to Pampa.From Pamba,all the pilgrims begin trekking the steep mountain path of mountains till SabariMala This forest route is now highly developed, with emergency shops and medical aid by the sides, and supporting aid is provided to the pilgrims while climbing the steep slope, which used to be a mere trail through dense jungle. The elderly pilgrims are lifted by men on bamboo chairs till the destination.

Faith vs the State, who has the right of decision?

The Sabarimala case was decided 4:1 by the Indian Constitution bench, which held that the ban on women pilgrims failed the test of constitutional morality.

The minority judgment flagged some serious issues that have a bearing on the secular fabric of the nation and the autonomy of religious groups to practise faith as they wish.

The country and primarily the state of Kerala have seen an uprising in the number of protests & prayer meetings by devotees of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity at Sabarimala, with women participating in large numbers.

This week, the subject is likely to reach a flashpoint when the temple opens for the first day of the Malayalam month of Thulam.

Here’s a primer on the temple, its significance in south India and how it makes powerful reverberations among the Hindus in Kerala.

The lore of Ayyappa

The myth of the presiding deity at Sabarimala is connected to the Pandalam royal dynasty which had settled in present-day parts of Pathanamthitta after breaking away from the Pandya dynasty. The King and Queen of Pandalam were believed to be childless. The story goes that when the King went hunting one day, he found a crying baby by the side of the river in a forest. Upon inquiring, a sage advised the king to take the baby home and bring him up as his own son, which the King eventually did. The child was named Manikandan and grew up to become the prince of Pandalam.

When Manikandan was 12, the queen of Pandalam developed a sudden illness and the physician treating the Queen recommended tigress’s milk to treat the same. While everyone shied away from the responsibility of bringing tigress’s milk from the forest, Manikandan volunteered to do so. He eventually not only brings the medicine, but himself rides a tigress, accompanied by several cubs, to return to the kingdom. The king, said to have been elated with his adopted son, realises that he is no ordinary child. According to the lore, Manikandan expresses his desire to renounce the kingdom and all material wealth and become an ascetic. The king later builds a shrine for his son, 30 kms away atop a hill that eventually became Sabarimala, where Manikandan acquires a divine form and becomes Ayyappan.

Location of the temple

The shrine of Lord Ayyappa is located atop a hill, 3000 metres above the sea level, at Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. One has to trek upwards from Pamba, the base of the hill, to reach the temple. The temple is administered by the Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous authority under the state government which manages numerous other Hindu shrines in the state as well. The Thazhamon Madom is identified as the main family of priests who look after the temple.

Significance of the pilgrimage

Unlike other Hindu temples in the state, Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha temple is not open the year-round. It opens for devotees to offer prayers for the first five days of every month in the Malayalam calendar, as well as during the annual ‘mandalam’ and ‘makaravilakku’ festivals between mid-November to mid-January.

It is considered one of the biggest pilgrimages in the world, with millions of people offering prayers at the temple chiefly from the five south Indian states. Most of the pilgrims arrive at the temple during the busy ‘mandalam’ and ‘makaravilakku’ festivals, after they undertake a rigorous 41-day vratham, or a vow of abstinence.

During this 41-day period, devotees are required to wear only black or deep blue attire, address each other as ‘swami’, perform daily pujas, abstain from non-vegetarian food, liquor and sex and not wear footwear.

However, it is not mandatory for everyone to observe the ‘vratham’ to offer prayers at the temple. In 1991, following a High Court verdict, women of procreating age between 10 and 50 were barred from trekking to the temple.

However, that HC verdict was overturned by the Supreme Court last week.

The temple’s secular credentials

The temple at Sabarimala is open to people of all religions. In fact, thousands of devotees who make their way to the temple make it a point to circumambulate a mosque dedicated to Vavar at Erumely. Different stories exist about the close friendship between Lord Ayyappa and Vavar, who is said to have been a warrior. There is also a shrine dedicated to Vavar close to the main temple complex at Sabarimala.

There is also a Christian connection to the temple. A large number of devotees also visit the Arthunkal church dedicated to St Andrew and St Sebastian at Alappuzha on their way to Sabarimala. At the church, many of them remove the sacred beads they wear around their neck through their 41-day fast. Ponds at the church are cleaned weeks before the annual pilgrimage begins.

‘Harivarasanam’, composed originally by KKS Iyer in Sanskrit, is recited mandatorily as a lullaby (urakkupattu) before the sanctum sanctorum closes for the evening every day.

A modern and popular version of the composition by G Devarajan and sung by Dr KJ Yesudas is played these days when the temple doors are shut every night.


About Indianspice Staff Reporter

Report and write stories for Indianspice.co.za. It is our ambitious goal to cover issues/events/news concerning South Africa and the diaspora.

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