Malayidal: A pilgrimage to Sabarimala is all about the test of senses. Pilgrims are expected to lead a simple pious life known as ‘Vrutham’ for the successful completion of the pilgrimage.
Ideally, ‘Vrutham’ starts from the day when the pilgrim adorns a chain (Mala in Malayalam) denoting willingness to undertake austerity. This ritual is known as ‘Malayideel’ in local parlance.
The devotee may wear a bead chain with the locket of Sree Ayyappan. Once the chain is worn, the devotee has to lead a life free of worldly pleasures.
Vices such as smoking and alcohol use are also a strict no-no. The pilgrim is also required to lead a life of conjugal abstinence.
Religious practices mandate that the Mala should be accepted after prayers from a temple priest or a Guru Swami – a person who has completed 18 Sabarimala pilgrimage.
Alternatively, the Mala may be also worn in the prayer room/place of one’s own home.
The Mala may be taken off after the completion of the pilgrimage.
Mandala Vrutham : Mandala Vrutham denotes austerity measures by followers and devotees of Lord Ayyappa for a Mandala or 41 days.
Simple and pious living sans any vices is called for during the ‘Vrutham’ period. Wearing the Mala denotes the onset of the ‘Vrutham’. Devotees consider wearing the Mala on a Saturday or on the day of Uthram, the astral sign considered auspicious. Uthram is the birth star of Sree Ayyappan.
The idea behind the 41-day ‘Vrutham’ is to develop discipline and healthy practices and make it a habit. It is all about good habit formation through sustained efforts achieved through a combination of self-control and prayers.
Black is the recommended colour for clothes during the ‘Vruthum’ period as the colour denotes detachment from material things. Cutting hair, shaving off facial hair, and cutting nails are forbidden.
Kettunirakkal : This ritual is the preparation and packing of ‘Irumudi kettu’ for Sabarimala pilgrimage. It is prepared under the guidance of a guru swamy Only those who carry the Irumudi kettu on the head would be allowed to climb the 18 sacred steps to the temple, as they are the ones considered to have observed the austerities and thus eligible to climb the holy steps.
Other devotees have to resort to a different passage to reach in front of the sanctum sanctorum for worship.
During the Kettunira, after the initial prayers, the sacred offering of ghee (clarified cow’s butter) is filled inside a coconut, the fibrous covering of which is removed.
The draining of the water within the coconut through a small hole on the top and filling it with ghee is a symbolic act. It signifies the draining out of worldly attachments from the mind and filling it with spiritual aspirations. Coconut is called ‘thenga’ in Malayalam and now the ghee-filled coconut, an offering for Lord Ayyappa, is known as the neyy-thenga.
First, the front compartment of the bag will be filled in with the neyy-thenga and other sacred offerings to Lord Ayyappa and the accompanying deities. The front compartment is now closed by tying it with a string. The filled in front compartment is believed to be vibrant with spiritual power. Then the other compartment is filled with a few coconuts to be broken at various holy spots.
Petta Thullal: Petta Thullal, the ritualistic sacred dance to celebrate the victory of good over evil in the legend of Lord Ayyappa who killed the demon princess Mahishi, which denotes the beginning of the last leg of the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage season.
Traditionally, Petta Thullal is performed first by the Ambalappuzha team.
The team comprising more than 1,000 devotees starts the ritualistic dance after sighting the kite in the skies around noon from the Kochambalam at Petta junction. The team will dance its way into the Nainar mosque across the road to pay obeisance to Lord Ayyappa’s trusted lieutenant, Vavar.
They will be formally received by the Erumeli Mahallu Jamaat committee leaders who later would accompany them to the Sree Dharma Sastha Temple (Valiambalam) nearly a kilometre away where the Ambalappuzha team and the Jamaat leaders would be received by the Travancore Devaswom Board officials.
The ceremonial dance by the Alangad team begins in the afternoon after sighting the star in the daylight sky. The two teams after an overnight stay at the Valiambalam would trek to Pampa to participate in the Pampa Sadya and later in the Makaravilaku festival at the Sannidhanam.
Traditional Path: There are several routes to reach Sabarimala including Erumeli route, Vandiperiyar route and the Chalakayam route.
The route via Erumeli is considered the traditional path as it is held that Ayyappan took this route to subdue Mahishi. It is also the toughest of the lot, requiring a trek of about 61 km through forest and hill tracks.
Devotees taking the Erumeli route pass through a series of spots before they reach Sabarimala. The journey starts with offering prayers at the shrines of Dharma Sastha and Vavar Swami at Erumeli.
About 4 km from Erumeli is Perur Thodu, a place where Ayyappa is believed to have rested during his expedition. This place is also important as it marks the start of the ascent/climb to Sabarimala. As a practice, pilgrims give alms seeking asylum in Ayyappa. The forest beyond Perur Thodu is known as 'Poongavanam' meaning 'Ayyappa's garden.
The next spot in the traditional path is Kaalaketti, about 10 km from Perur Thodu. 'Kaala' in Malayalam means ox and ‘ketti’ is tying. It is believed that Lord Shiva tied his ox here and witnessed Ayyappa slaying the Mahishi. Pilgrims offer prayers in the shrine here, lighting camphor and breaking coconuts.
About 2 km from Kaalaketti is Azhutha river, a tributary of the river Pampa. Pilgrims make it a point to collect pebbles from the Azhutha river before proceeding on to the steep Azhutha hill. The 2-km steep hilly terrain is considered very tough. , making in one weep and cry. Kallidumkunnu rests at the summit of Azhutha. At this step pilgrims throw the pebbles down, commemorating the act of flinging down Mahishi's mortal remains.
Inchipparakota marks the descent of journey after successfully navigating the uphill terrain. At Inchipparakota, there is a shrine dedicated to Sastha known as Kotayil Sastha, where pilgrims offer their respects. The descent across the slippery path ends at Karimala thodu (canal) flanked by the Azhutha hill on one side and the Karimala hill on the other.
Karimala is the grooming ground of elephants and the pachyderms visit the Karimala canal to drink water. To protect themselves from the chilly weather and animal invasion, pilgrims set up campfires. Karimala is a hill with seven levels and the journey is undertook in stages. The 5 km ascent is very difficult and devotees course this leg of journey chanting ‘Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa’. The flat terrain on top of the Karimala hill offers scope for rest. The 'Nazhikkinar', well within a well in this place has fresh spring water, quenching thirsts and tiredness after the steep climb. At this spot prayers are offered to various deities including 'Karimalanthan', 'Kochu Kadutha Swami' and Bhagawathi.
After an exhausting descent of 5 km covering spots such as Valiyaanavattam and Cheriyaanavattam, one reaches the Pampa river. The significance of Pampa in the Sabarimala pilgrimage also draws from the belief that King Rajasekhara of Pandalam found infant Ayyappa here. Considered as holy as the Ganges, worshippers believe that the water purifies one from curse and evil. The Sannidhanam (the spot of the sanctum sanctorum) is around 8 km from the Pampa river valley. Neelimala, Appachimedu, Sabareepeedom and Saramkuthi are some of the spots en route.
It is interesting to note that ascent and descents of the journey teach one to recognise that life is all about ups and downs, and one has to brave it all to reach the summit!
Ulsavam: ‘Ulsavam’ is the annual festival held at Sabarimala temple during the Malayalam month of ‘Meenam’ or the Tamil month of ‘Panguni’ (March-April). The temple remains open for a period of 10 days during the ‘Ulsavam’.
‘Ulsavam’ begins with the hoisting of the temple flag, ‘Kodiyettam’. Over the course of the next days, several special poojas including ‘Ulsavabali’ and ‘Sree Bhootha Bali’ are conducted. The 9th day of the annual festival marks ‘Pallivetta’, wherein Sree Ayyappa goes on a ceremonial procession to perform the royal hunt at Saramkuthi. This is followed by the Sabarimala ‘Arattu’ or holy dip at the Pampa river.
Special poojas to mark ‘Panguni Uthram’ draws the annual ‘Ulsavam’ to a close. ‘Uthram’ is the birth star of Sree Ayyappan.