Malayidal: A journey to Sabarimala is a test of one’s senses. Pilgrims are required to lead a simple and devout life known as ‘Vrutham’ to successfully complete the pilgrimage. The ‘Vrutham’ ideally begins when the pilgrim adorns a chain (referred to as “Mala” in Malayalam), signifying their willingness to undertake austerity. This act is known as ‘Malayideel’ in the local language.
Devotees may wear a beaded chain with a locket of Sree Ayyappan. Once the chain is worn, the pilgrim must abstain from worldly pleasures, including vices like smoking and alcohol. They are also expected to observe conjugal abstinence. According to religious practices, the Mala should be accepted after prayers from a temple priest or a Guru Swami, a person who has completed 18 Sabarimala pilgrimages. Alternatively, the Mala may be worn in one’s own prayer room or home. The Mala can be removed after the completion of the pilgrimage.
Mandala Vrutham: Mandala Vrutham signifies the period of austerity observed by followers and devotees of Lord Ayyappa for 41 days, known as a Mandala. During the ‘Vrutham’ period, living a simple and pious life free of vices is required. Wearing the Mala marks the beginning of the ‘Vrutham.’ Devotees often choose to wear the Mala on a Saturday or on the day of Uthram, an auspicious astral sign representing the birth star of Sree Ayyappan. The 41-day ‘Vrutham’ aims to instill discipline and healthy practices in the devotee’s life, forming good habits through a combination of self-control and prayers. Black is the recommended color for clothing during the ‘Vrutham’ period, symbolizing detachment from material things. Cutting hair, shaving facial hair, and trimming nails are forbidden.
Kettunirakkal: This ritual involves the preparation and packing of ‘Irumudi kettu’ for the Sabarimala pilgrimage, under the guidance of a Guru Swami. Only those who carry the Irumudi kettu on their heads are allowed to climb the 18 sacred steps to the temple, as they are considered to have observed the required austerities and are thus eligible to ascend the holy steps. Other devotees must use a different passage to reach the sanctum sanctorum for worship.
During the Kettunirakkal, after the initial prayers, ghee (clarified cow’s butter) is placed inside a coconut, symbolizing the removal of worldly attachments from the mind and the filling of spiritual aspirations. The coconut, now filled with ghee, is known as ‘neyy-thenga.’ The front compartment of the bag is filled with the neyy-thenga and other sacred offerings to Lord Ayyappa and accompanying deities, symbolizing spiritual power. The other compartment is filled with coconuts to be broken at various holy spots.
Petta Thullal: Petta Thullal is a ritualistic sacred dance celebrating the victory of good over evil in the legend of Lord Ayyappa, who defeated the demon princess Mahishi. This dance marks the beginning of the final phase of the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage season. Traditionally, Petta Thullal is first performed by the Ambalappuzha team, consisting of more than 1,000 devotees. They commence the dance after spotting a kite in the skies around noon from the Kochambalam at Petta junction. The dance continues at the Nainar mosque before proceeding to the Sree Dharma Sastha Temple. The Alangad team also performs a ceremonial dance after spotting the star in the daylight sky, following an overnight stay at Valiambalam.
Traditional Path: There are several routes to reach Sabarimala, including the Erumeli route, Vandiperiyar route, and Chalakayam route. The route via Erumeli is considered the traditional path, believed to be the one taken by Ayyappan to subdue Mahishi. This route is the most challenging, requiring a 61 km trek through forests and hill tracks.
Devotees following the Erumeli route visit several shrines before reaching Sabarimala. The journey begins with prayers at the shrines of Dharma Sastha and Vavar Swami at Erumeli. About 4 km from Erumeli is Perur Thodu, where Ayyappa is believed to have rested during his expedition. This place marks the start of the ascent to Sabarimala. Pilgrims offer alms and seek asylum in Ayyappa’s name. The forest beyond Perur Thodu is known as ‘Poongavanam,’ which means ‘Ayyappa’s garden.’
The next spot along the traditional path is Kaalaketti, approximately 10 km from Perur Thodu. ‘Kaalaketti’ translates to ‘ox tying’ in Malayalam and is believed to be where Lord Shiva tied his ox and witnessed Ayyappa slaying Mahishi. Pilgrims offer prayers here, lighting camphor and breaking coconuts. About 2 km from Kaalaketti is the Azhutha river, a tributary of the Pampa river. Pilgrims collect pebbles from the Azhutha river before tackling the steep Azhutha hill, a challenging 2-km climb. At Kallidumkunnu, pilgrims throw the pebbles, symbolizing the act of flinging down Mahishi’s remains.
The descent begins after successfully navigating the uphill terrain, covering spots like Valiyaanavattam and Cheriyaanavattam. The Pampa river, considered as holy as the Ganges, is around 8 km from the Pampa river valley. From here, pilgrims continue on to the Sabarimala Sannidhanam (the spot of the sanctum sanctorum), passing through Neelimala, Appachimedu, Sabareepeedom, and Saramkuthi.
This arduous journey teaches pilgrims the ups and downs of life, as they must endure challenges to reach the summit.
Ulsavam: ‘Ulsavam’ is the annual festival held at the Sabarimala temple during the Malayalam month of ‘Meenam’ or the Tamil month of ‘Panguni’ (March-April). The temple remains open for ten days during ‘Ulsavam.’
‘Ulsavam’ begins with the hoisting of the temple flag, ‘Kodiyettam.’ Over the next days, various special poojas, including ‘Ulsavabali’ and ‘Sree Bhootha Bali,’ are conducted. On the ninth day of the annual festival, ‘Pallivetta’ takes place, during which Sree Ayyappa goes on a ceremonial procession for the royal hunt at Saramkuthi. This is followed by the Sabarimala ‘Arattu,’ or holy dip, in the Pampa river.
Special poojas to mark ‘Panguni Uthram’ conclude the annual ‘Ulsavam,’ as ‘Uthram’ is the birth star of Sree Ayyappan.