Thursday, January 14, 2010

The one Pilgrimage that Hindu's and Muslims jointly take- Sabarimala

Lord Ayyappa

Situated on top of the Sabari Hills in the district of Pathanmthitta in Kerala, is the temple of Sabarimala  Shashta, who is also called Lord Ayyappa.

Legend has it that he was born to Lord Vishnu( when he took the form of Mohini) and to Lord Shiva. Whatever the accuracy of this story, it helped to heal the divide between the Shaivates and Vaishnavaites, with both sects coming together to worship the son of their respective Gods.  

The healing touch of Lord Ayyappa does not stop here. He is supposed to have defeated Vavar, a Moghul warlord, when he attacked the kingdom of Pandalam, but spared his life. Vavar, who recognized the divinity in Lord Ayyappa, is believed  to have become his lifelong friend and follower, even while retaining his Islamic faith. For this reason, one finds Muslims trekking the hills of Sabari, to meet with Vavar and seek his blessings. On the way, they pay homage to his friend and chief, Lord Ayyappa too. This is one pilgrimage where Muslims and Hindus have participated together in a spirit of camaraderie and devotion. The ritual of "petta thulal" which happens at the town of Erumeli near Sabarimala where a shrine for Ayyappa and a mosque for Vavar are situated side by side, is an inspiring example of secularism and cultural confluence. Hindu pilgrims do a traditional war dance and pray at the Vavar mosque and the Ayyappa shrine at Erumeli before continuing the journey to the Sabari Hills. It is believed that this is to commemorate the killing of Mahishi the asura by Ayyappa and in reverence to the many battles that Vavar won for Ayyappa as his chieftain and follower.
Ayyappa was a bachelor and never married. For this reason, females who have attained puberty, are never allowed anywhere near the temple or the hills. It is believed that "Mallikapurathamma" who wanted to marry Lord Ayyapa, chose to stay in a nearby hillock close to him and therefore, girls who have not attained puberty, are allowed to visit her shrine.

Like most incarnations, Ayyappa slayed demons and evildoers. He was ill treated by his step mother who once sent him to get tiger's milk, claiming to need it as a medicine . Legend has it that he came back riding a tiger and embarrassed the scheming lady, who was also the Queen of Pandalam. Ayyappa gave up worldly life while young and retired to the Sabari Hills. He granted his father, the King of Pandalam, his  wish, that he would  welcome his subjects to Sabrimala once a year. So every Makara Snkranti, there is a pilgrimage to Sabarimala from the Palace of Pandalam with the Thiruvabharanam.

Social practice is that, for 40 days prior to the pilgrimage, men stay away from women, practice abstinence, eat satwic food, wear black, grow their hair  and finally leave after the 40th day, to the Sabari hills in groups. Anthropologists say that this has helped cultivation of the winter crop, since the cold weather could have kept men indoors and sexual activity could have caused detumescence, causing lack of energy for the work on hand. The pilgrimage which is arduous and by foot, through forests, builds an “espirit de corps” that is good for the community. The tiger was Lord Ayyappa’s pet and therefore wild animals are never hunted, but turned away with chants of “Swamiye Sharanamaiyyappa”. Pilgrims have spotted elephants on their way and have always turned it away with their chants and loud singing.

There are eighteen steps to climb, (pathinettam padi), once the temple is reached and once on these steps, the devotees take out coconuts filled with ghee, from the thirumudi kettu ( black cloth bag kept on the head) and smash it on the steps as an offering.

On the day of the Makar Sankranti, the belief is that a divine eagle flies over the temple and goes to the hills, where a bright glow (makara jyoti) is seen. Once this is spotted, the pilgrimage is over.

Over the years, the number of devotees have increased manifold and has brought infrastructural issues. The river Pamba where the devotees take a dip before the climb, has almost run dry and is polluted. However the sense of devotion has not been polluted and many, including the likes of Vijay Mallya, Vivek Oberoi etc are regular devotees, while the Big B is known to have made the pilgrimage when his stars were troubling him. The same goes for politicians of many hues, who sometimes land up after a few days of abstinence, since the full forty days of abstinence is not possibly within their scope of activities :).


The songs above  were  popular Bhajans sung by Yesudas, a practicing Catholic who visits the Sabarimala shrine and prays after following the 40 day abstinence. One more example of how religion can sometimes unite rather than divide. Similar examples include, the Velankanni Matha church, where Hindu's pray and light candles, the Saibaba abode at Shirdi, the Golden Temple where Hindus too pray alngwith their Sikh brethren. The Sufi cult with its evolved beliefs has brought Hindu's closer to Islam and resulted in the Dargah at Ajmer and many others  where Hindus too  pay obeisance to the Almighty.

As Kabir says:

Jab Mein Tha Tab Hari Nahin‚ Jab Hari Hai Mein Nahin

Sab Andhiyara Mit Gaya‚ Jab Deepak Dekhya Mahin

When I was there, Hari (God) was  not, When Hari was there, I was not,

When the truth within was seen , Then the darkness was not !

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