It is a hill shrine, situated inside a luxuriant forest. This shrine dedicated to Lord Ayyappa is visited by millions every year and does not have any restrictions in place, based on religion, caste or creed. Pilgrimage to this temple is considered as a symbol of communal harmony for the entire world.
Sabarimala is a popular pilgrim centre in India. This hill shrine on the Sabari hills is located towards the east of Pathanamthitta district. The hills are part of the famous Periyar Tiger Reserve.
Every year, millions of pilgrims, from different parts of India, especially those from South India flock to this hill shrine to offer prayers and seek the blessings of the presiding deity - Lord Ayyappa, popularly worshipped as Swami Ayyappan. Of late, the shrine is also visited by devotees from foreign countries like Russia, countries in Europe and U.S.A. The temple cannot be visited by women who have reached puberty. They can either visit the shrine before that stage or after attaining menopause.
The annual pilgrim season to Sabarimala begins with the Mandalakala season, which commences usually in the months of November-December followed by Makaravilakku during December-January. The sighting of Makaravilakku, the divine light that appears on the Ponambalamedu, a hillside located opposite to the temple, on a particular day during the Makaravilakku season is considered very auspicious.
It is a vast ocean of humanity that one can witness during the festival seasons at Sabarimala. Pamba, which takes the name of the holy River Pamba flowing through the area, is the gateway to reach the hill shrine.
The temple at Sabarimala can be accessed via many traditional routes. Those who prefer to trek can reach the shrine from Erumeli. This place is located about 56 km southeast of Kottayam town. Devotees arriving at Erumeli would offer prayers at the temple of Lord Dharmasastha and also at the nearby mosque dedicated to Vavar Swamy.Â Vavar was a Muslim, a great warrior and the trusted companion of Lord Ayyappa. One of the important rituals at Erumeli is Petta Thullal, in which devotees paint their faces with colours and dance with wooden sticks. The trek to the hill shrine via Erumeli is a tough one and calls for good physical prowess. The distance one has to cover comes to about 45 km and one has to negotiate dense forests, hill tracks and pass wild animals before reaching Pamba.
The River Pamba is considered sacred and with powers to purify one from all sins. A dip in the River Pamba followed by prayers and offerings on its banks is the usual practice for pilgrims, before they proceed to climb the Neelimala hill to reach the temple. The temple is at a distance of six kilometers from Pamba and the pilgrims usually proceed in groups under a leader, who is known as the Guru Swamy. This person is usually the most senior member, which is decided based on the number of pilgrimages he has undertaken in the past to Sabarimala. After paying obeisance at the Ganapati Temple at Pamba, the climb of Neelimala hill begins.
Climbing the Neelimala is not as hard as it used to be earlier, but is still a physically demanding task. Upon reaching Appachi Medu, the terrain ahead becomes almost a level ground up to the Sabari Peetam. The place gets the name from Sabari, the woman saint, who during the period of Lord Rama sat here in meditation. Here, pilgrims pay their obeisance to the saint before proceeding to the temple of Lord Ayappa.
Proceeding from the Sabari Peetam one would reach Saramkuthi. The word Saram in Malayalam means arrow and Kuthi means to pierce. Here, a pilgrim going to Sabarimala for the first time, known as a kanni ayyappan, leaves the wooden arrows that he had picked from Erumeli.
From Saramkuthi, after about a 15-minute walk, one reaches the Pathinettampadi or the holy 18 steps. The steps plated with gold are a magnificent sight and pilgrims praise Lord Ayyappa in chorus while climbing the eighteen steps with the Irumudi Kettu - the cloth bundle containing offerings for Lord Ayyappa which they carry on their heads. Upon reaching the sanctum sanctorum, pilgrims get involved in various offerings, pray and seek the blessings of Lord Ayyappa.
The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is unique. Millions turn up at this hill shrine in Kerala every year. The Sabari hills throughout the pilgrim season reverberate with the chants to Lord Ayyappa. The hills are home to some of the luxuriant forests, grasslands and a variety of wildlife. And visitors to this hill shrine invariably experience a spiritual elation, which stems from their utmost devotion to Lord Ayyappa, who resides in his forest abode, atop the Sabari hill.Â Â
Nearest railway station: Thiruvalla, about 102 Â km
Nearest airport: Thiruvannathapuram International Airport, about 180 km