Ayappa Temple (1)

India is a country synonymous with intricate cultures, grand traditions, devotional rituals and numerous festivities – a fact that adds to the colours of this incredible nation. From Makar Sankranti to Milad-an-Nabi, from Chhat Puja to Christmas – the religious and cultural diversities of the country are unparalleled and one can only revel in the stunning celebrations our motherland has to offer.

Besides the inspiring celebrations, India is home to some of the largest pilgrimage destinations in the world. With thousands of temples dotting the country, you can find a destination of devotion almost every kilometre. With only a few days left for Sankranti, our very own harvest festival, Cycle Pure presents you with all that you need to know about one of the top destinations on Sankranti and one of the largest annual pilgrimage destinations in the world.

A shrine on the top of a hill inspiring devotion in the heart of thousands, Sabarimala Temple in Kerala is a pilgrimage undertaken by many every year. The temple, located at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Pathanamthitta District, is only open for worship approximately 60 days a year – the days of Mandala Pooja (November 15 – December 26), Makaravilakku (January 14), Maha Vishuva Sankranti (April 14) and the first five days of each Malayalam month. Dedicated to Lord Ayyappa Swamy, Sabarimala attracts the maximum pilgrims during Sankranti, also referred to Makara Jyothi and Makaravilakku.

Dedicated to the deity of Lord Ayyappa – whose incarnation Dharma Sastha is worshipped here – Sabarimala is part of many mythological traditions, with a number of legends narrating the story of its establishment. One of the very popular mythologies believed is that Sabarimala is located at the place where Ayyappa Swamy had defeated the demoness Mahishi – as mentioned in the age old “Elavarsevampattu”. To commemorate this legend, the devotees observe Erumeli Pettaithullal where they paint their faces and dance with wooden weapons symbolizing the sacrificing of one’s ego and surrendering to Lord Ayyappa.

This temple is a top draw for devotees during Sankranti. Also referred to as Makara Vilakku and Makara Jyothi, Sabarimala Temple is a stunning sight to behold on the annual Sankranti celebration days. Sankranti celebrations at the temple are synonymous with the appearance of the Makara Jyothi, the star from the Capricorn constellation above the temple in the forest during Makarasmkarama Pooja. Many believe in the divinity of the occurrence, claiming that Lord Ayyappa appears as the celestial light and blesses all his devotees.

Makara Vilakku, however, refers to a ritual at the Sankranti celebrations at Sabarimala. On this day, the Thiruvabharanam or the sacred ornaments of Lord Ayyappa are carried in a procession which culminates at the shrine on the hill. Devotees throng Sabarimala each year to catch a sight of this divine celebration. The final ritual in this tradition is the deeeparadhana or lighting of the vilakku – the sacred lamp – on the top of the Ponnambalamedu hill which is the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala Temple. The lamp is lit thrice, representing Lord Shiva’s trident – Tamas, Rjas and Sattva – at the end of which devotes chant “Swamiyee—Sharanamayyappa” to express their faith.

Harivarasanam devotional song

The worshipping traditions of Sabarimala devotees are primarily adapted from those of three sects – Shaivaites (followers of Lord Shiva), the Shaktas (followers of Goddess Shakti), and the Vaishnavas (followers of Lord Vishnu). The chain of Rudrakshas worn by Sabarimala pilgrims is a tradition adapted from the Shaivaites, offering tobacco to Kaduthaswamy is a tradition adapted from the Shakta while practicing austerity and penance is a tradition taken after the Vaishnavas.

Sabarimala pilgrims are primarily men who prepare in advance before undertaking the journey. One is supposed to maintain a fast for forty-one days before making the pilgrimage without shaving their facial or body hair till the completion. The Vratham or fasting begins with wearing a Rudraksha mala. During these forty-one days, devotees are supposed to practice celibacy and consume only vegetarian food, except for milk and milk products. The men wear black or blue mundus or dhotis during this period, though some wear saffron ones which is primarily used by sanyasis. While undertaking the pilgrimage journey, one is supposed to trek from Neeli Mala to Sabari Mala wherein the main garbhagriha or sanctum sanctorum of the Temple is housed.

Sabarimala Temple, Kerala (1)

Devotees, on reaching the temple, climb the eighteen holy steps called Pattinetampadi, carrying a cloth bag over their head. This bag, called the Irumudi or Palliketu, is an integral part of the pilgrimage – one must carry it on their head throughout the pilgrimage. The Irumudi consists of two compartments – the Munmudi and the Pinmudi – which contain coconut filled with ghee, extra coconuts, jiggery, cashew nuts, betel leaves, betel nuts, dried turmeric, kumkum, blouse piece, camphor, dates, agarbatthi and vibhooti. Irumudis are agin of two types – a red one called Kanni Ayyappan used by a first-time pilgrim and a blue one used till the third year of pilgrimage and a saffron on which is used if it is the fourth time and after. The pilgrimage culminates in the Neyyabhishekham which involves pouring the ghee which pilgrims have brought on the idol of Lord Ayyappa.

One of the foremost pilgrimage destinations for Hindus, Sabarimala is also a true blue reflection of India’s secular heritage. The pilgrims wear either blue or black dhotis irrespective of any caste or creed. As part of the pilgrimage journey, devotees also visit a temple dedicated to a Muslim deity – Vavurswamy. Believed to be a close associate of Ayappan Swamy himself, Varuvarswamy is offered green pepper and goats by devotees who pray for successful fulfilment of their pilgrimage.

This year, Sankranti is dated on January 15 and anyone making a sacred journey to Sabarimala can once again expect the place to come alive with the prayers and heartfelt devotion of millions. We pray that this Sankranti may your lives be filled with prosperity, good health and optimum happiness.

Shubh Sankranti!

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