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At Sabarimalai in the Western Ghats of Kerala, there is a temple to the god Aiyappan, the son of Siva and Mohini, a female form of Vishnu.


This pilgrimage occurs during Margali (December-January) and traditionally takes forty-one days.

The Aiyappan cult is predominantly male, mainly young men, though pre-pubes- cent girls and post-menopausal women are allowed to undertake the pilgrimage.

The pilgrims wear black though some wear ochre and follow a stick regime of abstention from sex, alcohol and the eating of meat and eggs for the forty one day period of the festival. For the duration of the festival, the pilgrim becomes a renouncer, undergoing a symbolic funeral at his initiation by a guru on the eve of the pilgrimage. Upon reaching the temple, the pilgrim smashes a coconut upon one of the eighteen steps of the temple, a symbol of the dissolution of himself into Aiyappan. The pilgrim should undertake the pilgrimage each year, smashing a coconut on each successive step until all eighteen have been covered.

Myth tells us that the king of Pandalam in Central Travancore, a descendant of the Pandya Dynasty was issueless and one day, on a hunting spree, he found an abandoned child in the dense forest. Since the child had a bell tied around his neck, he was known as ‘Manikantan’. The king happily took the child along and adopted him as his heir—apparent. Soon the child became well-versed in Vedic love and trained in martial arts.


However, in the meantime, the queen had a son resulting in palace intrigues. To get rid of Manikantan, he was asked to fetch tiger’s milk from the forest to cure the queen’s ailment. But the Prince was not only successful in his venture, but arrived the Kingdom mounted on a huge tiger. The king was now in deep regret. Manikantan from finally revealed his identity and bade farewell to take up his abode in sabarimalai as Lord Dhamasatha or the cult of Ayyappa is essentially a synthesis of Vaishnavism and Shaivism.

The story that Lord Vishnu assumed the form of Mohini and overpowered Siva with her charm is .purely allegorical. Ayyappa is Dharma Sanstha and absolute purity in word, thought and deed are essential before undertaking pilgrimage to this holy shrine at Sabari Hills. For pilgriins who comes from outside Kerala the nearest railway station is Chengannur, from where the devotee travels the last 85 km by bus and on foot. Ayyappa season begins from mid-November.

On the 1st of Vrischikom (Kartik) prospective pilgrims throng the temples, after a ceremonial bath for ‘Maalayida’ (wearing Tulasi or Rudraksha mala) which marks the beginning of the pilgrimage and the period of “Vrata” may be upto the Mandala Puja (mid—January) “Makara Vilakku”. The air becomes filled with devotional chanting everywhere as the devotees prepare for the pilgrimage. ‘Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa’ in full-throated chorus is heard often as every village in Kerala prepares for a long and arduous journey to Sabarimalai, to fulfill a sacred vow.

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