The Sabarimala Ayyappan temple, situated in the southernmost state of India, Kerala, is the only one of its kind. From the beginning it attracted people from all over India though it was very difficult to teach there in the past (even now it is not easy). Besides, the devotees had to practise so many austerities before undertaking the pilgrimage.
It was unique in many ways. Women are not allowed to visit the temple – except young girls under10 years and older women past age 50.
The male devotees who were going to Sabarimala practised austerities for 41 days like sleeping on the floor, practising abstinence and not shaving. During those 41 days they wore black so people recognised them as devotees going on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala and were careful not to go near them and pollute them in any way.
Though it is not open to women Sabarimala is one of the few Hindu temples in India that is open to all faiths. Here, the emphasis is on secularism and communal harmony. Sabarimala upholds the values of equality, fraternity and also the oneness of the human soul; all men, irrespective of class, creed or race are equal before Lord Ayyappan. Near the Ayyappan temple, there is also a shrine dedicated to Vavar, a close Sufi Muslim friend of Ayyappan,
Ayyappan is “Hari Hara Putran” the son of Hari (Vishnu) and Haran (Shivan). The story goes like this: The Devas (angels) and Asuras (demons) both wanted to get the “Amrit” (nectar)
from “palazhi” (the ocean of milk) where Vishnu lived. They decided to churn the ocean using the snake “Vasuki”. The Devas were at one end and the Asuras at the other end. Finally when they got the nectar the Devas and Asuras had a fight as to who should have how much.
Then Hari (Lord Vishnu) came in the form of a beautiful woman (Mohini) and offered to distribute it to them if they sat down and closed their eyes. The asuras were enraptured by her
and did as they were told.
Meanwhile, Mohini disappeared with the pot of nectar. When Lord Siva heard about it he wanted to have a vision of Mohini. It is believed that Ayyappan is the product of that union between Sivan and Mohini.
Another name for Ayyappan is Sasta. Sabarimala gets its name from Sabari, a tribal devotee of Sri Ram who lived there. When she heard that Sri Ram and Lakshman were coming
that way while looking for Sita, she picked fruit to offer Sri Ram and tasted them and kept the best for Him. Sri Ram did not mind that she had bitten them before offering Him and
accepted them happily.
Sri Ram then saw a young man sitting there in meditation and asked Sabari who that was. Sabari said that was Sasta and Sri Ram walked towards him. He stood up to greet the Prince
of Ayodhya. It is believed that every year Ayyappan breaks His meditation on that day in January (Makaravilakku) and blesses His devotees.
Another thing that makes Sabarimala different from the rest of the temples is that it is not open throughout the year. It is open for worship only during the months of November, December and january (Makaravilakku) and Chitra Vishu (April 14).
Sabarimala is situated on the Western Ghats among mountains and thick forests. There are eighteen hills to pass through and in the past, one had to walk barefooted through these jungles where wild animals lived, to reach the temple.
As they walked in a group they shouted 'Ayyappa Saranam; (we take refuge in Ayyappan).
The devotees had to sleep on the ground and the belief was that at night the leopards came and took away anyone who had failed to follow the rules strictly leaving the others alone.
Now there are buses that go up to the Pampa River. From there one has to walk to the major shrine which is about 9 kilometres through mountainous regions.
Eighteen is a magical number. You pass the 18 hills and reach Sabarimala and then you have 18 steps to climb to have a “darshan” of Ayyappan.
Sabarimala remains one of the most remote temples but its fascination remains as is indicated by the large numbers undertaking the pilgrimage every year.