In Indian Culture...
Why do Hindu go pilgrimage to Sabarimala?
Sabarimala is in the Sabari Hills about 30 kms due east of Chengannur, 47 miles south east of Kottayam, Kerala, and 185 km north from Trivandrum, Kerala State, South India.
Sabarimala, otherwise known as Dharma Sastha and Harihara Puthran, is the abode of Lord Ayyappa. During the main festival season in the month of Narayana (December-January), numerous pilgrims come to this place while observing strict vows. During this time, many men wearing black can be seen in the nearby cities converging on Sabarimala and singing the chants of Lord Ayyappa.
Road Map for Journey
Reaching the temple is not easy. You have to take the road going south from Kottayam and then up to the Pamba River. The traditional route is through Erumeli. Pilgrims then trek some 15 miles for two days barefoot through the forests to Pamba. From Pamba you wade across the Pamba River where pilgrims bathe or wash clothes. thereafter, you go to the Pamba Ganapati temple to receive blessings there. Then it is an additional three miles of walking through thick forest to this wilderness hill temple at Sabarimala. Another route is from Tamil Nadu through Vandiperiyar. An easier route allows the pilgrims to drive directly to Pamba and then trek the three miles to Sabarimala.
You finally go up the stairs to the temple complex whee you can offer prayers to the Divinities in the secondary shrines. There is an altar where you can offer prayers and lit camphor. Further on by several hundred feet is the sacred banyan tree (saramkuti) where it is said said Lord Ayyappa directed his troops to throw down their weapons to prepare for worship. There is a long narrow path through dense jungle to a valley between the Neelimala and Sabarimala mountains. You then begin the mile-long climb up Neelimala, the temple mountain. It can be tough making your way up the uneven steps and it gets steeper as you go, so it is not unusual to take rests along the way. Some people have to be carried up. This takes a few more hours before you reach the final 18-step stairway to the main temple itself where the Sri Ayyappa deity is enshrined in a little sanctuary on a raised area.
Significance of 18 holy steps
The 18 steps represents the god on the 18 hills that surround the temple. At the first step, the pilgrim breaks the coconut he has been carrying. Then you climb the 18 steps. In the rush during the main pilgrimage season, ti is so crowded that this alone can take up to an hour to reach the sanctum where the pilgrim can finally attain the vision of the deity of Lord Ayyappa. Then you move forward. A small shrine to Lord Ganesha is on the right where you offer respects. Then you go to see the main deity, called Panchaloha, which is an image of Lord Ayyappa made of five metals. Now you perform the maijn puja or worship, the Neyy (ghee) abhishekam in which you anoint the deity with some of the ghee that you have brought with you. It is only a small portion of the vast amounts of ghee that has been brought by the pilgrims, which number in the thousands. You offer the ghee that you have brought to the priest at the main shrine. He pours it over the deity. Thereafter, the pilgrimage has been completed and you begin the journey back.
Legend behind Lord Ayyappa
The legend behind Lord Ayyappa is that he is said to be the son of Shiva and the incarnation of Vishnu known as Mohini Murti, Lord Vishnu's form as a most beautiful woman. That is why Lord Ayyappa is called Hariharaputra, meaning the son of both Hari or Vishnu and Hara, Shiva.
The reason for this described in the Srimad Bhagavatham (canto Eight, Chapter Twelve). Therein, it is related that once when the Lord Shiva had heard about the pastimes of the Lord in the form of an attractive woman, Mohini, during the churning of the milk ocean, Shiva went to see the Lord. After offering descriptive prayers, he asked to see this beautiful feminine form of the Lord. Being merciful to His devotee, the Lord expanded His energy and manifested Himself as a most attractive woman. Lord Shiva, upon seeing this form, was immediately captivated. Shiva lost his sense and began to follow Her. While chasing Her through the woods for some time, he passed semen. Only after discharging semen did Lord Shiva realize how he had been dragged by the illusory energy and then ceased to follow the beautiful form. However, in the version in the Bhagavatham, Shiva's semen did not produce the child Ayyappa, but fell on the earth where mines of gold and silver later formed. So those who follow Bhagavatha Purana and similar Vedic texts, they do not put much emphasis, if any, on Ayyappa.
How the location of Sabarimala came ?
The story is that after Durga killed the demon Mahishasura, his spouse undertook the endeavour of intense austerities to gain the favour of Lord Brahma that she would not be killed by Shiva or Vishnu. She became increasingly powerful, much to the consternation of the gods. Then Shiva and Vishnu together formed an idea in which she could be destroyed by creating a person fit for the job. This child was discovered by King Rajashekara who reigned in Panthalam in Kerala. He had no children so he named the child Manikandan and raised him as a son. The child killed Mahisha when he was only twelve years old. He had also brought female leopards back from the forests since the milk was supposed to cure the queen's headache.
The king, however, had realized the divine nature of Manikandan. The king had been told to build a temple to Manikandan at the spot where his arrow landed, after Manikandan disappeared. The king then shot the arrow, which found its mark at the top of Sabarimala hill. This is where the temple was supposed to have been built originally by Lord Visvakarma, the demigod architect. Parashurama is said to have made and installed the image. Now, there are millions of pilgrims who make the trip to the hill to see this temple of Lord Ayyappa.
Source: Excerpt from the "SPIRITUAL INDIA HANDBOOK" written by Sephen Knapp.