A few thousand gods going up a hill

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November 27th 2007
Published: December 4th 2007
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Something called happinessSomething called happinessSomething called happiness

A little girl can't wait for the gift her father bought from a wayside vendor on the way to Sabarimala.
Renjith Chandran's relatives were anxiously waiting for us at the Sri Krishna Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. We have only 40 minutes to complete the ritualistic packing and set out to Sabarimala. Hari and Reji, our fellow pilgrims, are already there with all the material we would need on our journey. We have to start before 3 pm, when rahukalam starts. Nothing is done when Rahu, the mythical planet, is aligned with Sun.

The packing (kettunira) has to start with me, the first-timer. But there is a veteran pilgrim called guruswamy to guide me. I pour ghee into an emptied coconut as the others chant ‘Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa’. Guruswamy closes the ghee-filled coconut with a cork and seals it with wax. I put a handful of rice into a blue cloth bundle, in which the coconut is also wrapped. I get another coconut to break at the temple before the journey starts.

The double bundle called Iru Mudi Kettu must be a symbolic representation of the primitive pilgrim’s supply of essentials. It contains the offerings to Ayyappan and the food for the devotee on his barefoot trek through the deep forest. The bundle shows that the carrier has gone through a
The wait is overThe wait is overThe wait is over

Despite its catholicity, Sabarimala is out-of-bounds for women aged between 10-50.
41-day penance in preparation for his tryst with the Lord of Sabarimala. The bags are filled, coconuts broken and we are ready to start on time.

Five hours later, we park our car at Pampa. We cross the river and settle amid pilgrims who swarm the sand bank. Pilgrims try to bathe in the ankle-deep holy water. They splash water at each other. “They are giving the Devaswom Board ideas. The management might auction this service too,” one of us comments. The famed pilgrim spot is a money-spinner for the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine. Proceeds from this popular temple keeps alive more than 1,000 temples in south Kerala.

Pampa flows along the 18 hills that fall inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Environmentalists have been lamenting that the temple, which attracts lakhs of devotees every year, is killing the reserve. But the townships by the Pampa and atop Sabarimala get bigger by the year.

All signboards have messages in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. In the two seasons - starting November 16 and December 30 - Sabarimala Dharma Shastha Temple becomes the busiest pilgrim centre in south India. The hill shrine is closed through the
Shortcut to salvationShortcut to salvationShortcut to salvation

For Rs 975, any pilgrim can reach the summit this way.
rest of the year, except on the first five days of every Malayalam month and on Vishu (the harvest festival in April).

We get ready for the 5-kilometre night trek through the forest. On the foothills of Neelimala, the steep hill that test any pilgrim’s endurance, passers-by keep a fire burning by offering camphor to it. They religiously take in the purifying smoke. One of them burns the camphor tablets along with the polythene bag and breathes in heavily. The shrine and the reserve have been declared plastic-free, but it’s easier said than done.

The first stop is the Vikhneswara Temple, where people break coconuts before the elephant god who removes hurdles. Then a police check post, where any adventurous women are blocked. Women aged between 10 and 50 are prohibited to go near the bachelor deity. Following a tantric suggestion in 2006 that the Lord was unhappy with women’s presence, a Kannada actor claimed that she had actually touched the idol a few years ago.

The forest is hidden behind the rows of wayside shops that sell everything from sugarcane juice to Chinese watches. Sweating profusely in the late evening breeze, we negotiate the steep steps
No height is high enoughNo height is high enoughNo height is high enough

No height is high enough when will has its way.
slowly. We take our first ‘pit stop’, as Renjith Swamy would call it. Snakebites and cardiac arrests are usual suspects on this pilgrim’s path. Strong porters carrying sacks of flour and cylinders of gas on their shoulders overtake obese pilgrims.

On these hills, everyone is called Swamy, the God. Pilgrims call each other Swamy, priests call the pilgrims Swamy, and pilgrims call the cops Police Swamy. You never know who the black-clad, shirtless, disheveled man climbing beside you is. Policemen have often been surprised to learn that the man whom they prevented from sleeping on the pavement was actually a minister with Y-category security back home.

We step on earth. The steep ascent is over and the stone and cement are gone. Shops and medical aid units are passé. We are on less hostile terrain. Past Apachimedu, we reach Marakkoottam, the woods. A Swamy gently removes a scorpion that strayed onto the clear path. A misplaced step would have been fatal. We hear branches of a tree falling in the darkness beyond the wayside railing. We imagine there’s a ferocious elephant.

Tigers have always been loyal to Ayyappan, the foster prince of Pandalam who was sent to the forest to get tiger milk to cure his stepmother’s imaginary illness. When the 12-year-old returned with a herd of tigers, the frightened queen confessed to the king about her plans to anoint her biological son as the prince. The king wanted Ayyappan to succeed him, but the demigod wanted his foster father to build a temple in the forest.

That temple proved costly for the tigers and other animals. The 5-kilometre-long human corridor that cuts the forest into two is an ecological disaster. Whatever the Devaswom Board claims, the impact of tens of thousands of men on a forest would be tragic. On either side of the road are white lines of bleaching powder to keep the stench of urine away. It was there that a wild boar came against me, almost domesticated.

Animals were not the only ones to be sidelined. At least two tribes who lived on these hills have been pushed out of their habitats as the temple grew in stature. The Malayaraya tribesmen claim Ayyappan as one of them. The hill shrine was a tribal sanctuary before the brahmins and the royal family conspired to take it over, they say. The aboriginal tribes retained some of their rights over the temple until recently. They are no longer allowed to light a lamp on an adjacent hill for the hugely popular Makara Vilakku or to anoint the deity with wild honey once every year.

The 'Saranam Ayyappa' chants echo another heritage attributed to the temple. 'Saranam' is a Buddhist leitmotif. Sabarimala could have been a Buddhist monastery before the brahmins took over. The brahminical traditions tell us that Ayyappan merged himself into the idol of Dharma Sastha, after whom the temple is named. Ayyappan chose to be a celibate but Sastha was polygamous. Historians say that Sastha the teacher is just another name for the Buddha. Even Ayyappan, or Ayya, referred to the Buddha.

Through the darkness, the overgrown shrine shines. We have reached the Sannidhanam before the deity went to sleep. We wait near a huge fire fueled by ghee and coconut shells. Tomorrow, we will throw the ghee-soaked coconuts into the fire after offering the ghee at the temple. In front of us rise the 18 golden steps and the golden roof of the temple, supposedly built by mythical sage Parasurama and ironically gold-plated by liquor baron Vijay Mallya.

At 4,135 feet above sea level, piety gives way to frenzy. Swamys elbow each other to climb the 18 steps. Only those pilgrims who carry Iru Mudi Kettu are allowed through this entrance. Others are led to another gate by the barefoot policemen. In the melee on the steps, we lose each other. Hari and I go clockwise on an elevated walkway around the temple. We are ushered in by the crowd to the sanctum sanctorum.

Amid chants, people go in waves past the entrance, savouring a glimpse of Ayyappan. Pilgrims with tearful eyes try to stay, but the cops whisk them away. Those who are fortunate enough to get to the front are caught in the shower of coins from behind. Harivarasanam, the recorded lullaby, starts. The beautiful song, composed by Kulathur Srinivasa Iyer and sung by KJ Yesudas, has been putting the deity to sleep for years.

Those who missed the divine tryst by seconds sleep wherever they can. (There are many guesthouses inside this island in the forest, but that means money and influence.) They must get up before the Lord rises, to get a place in the queue. We too, have to stay to buy the sweet porridge called aravana for the families back home. The counters are closed for the day. We get a room. Fatigue of the trek and echoes of the lullaby put me to sleep.

By the time I fought back the urge to curl up in the chill of the wilderness, the shrine is throbbing. There are more destinations. Pilgrims roll coconuts round the shrine of Malikapurathamma, the female divinity after whom all women allowed on the hills are called. Ayyappan has promised to marry Malikapurathamma the year no first-time swamy comes to visit him. I feel guilty of being part of a divine-human conspiracy.

The pantheon of associated deities is covered in a thick layer of turmeric powder. If Ayyappan loves ghee, Kadutha Swamy is fond of tobacco. Some devotees even gift ganja, which is burned afterwards. Adding to the catholicity of Sabarimala is the shrine of Vavar Swamy, the Muslim friend from the tangled legends of Ayyappan. The senior member of the Vavar family is present here throughout the season. The mosque of Vavar in Erumeli, 40 kilometres away, is a halting point for the pilgrims to Sabarimala.

The return is equally demanding. Pilgrims swarm the path we trod in peace last night. Nilgiri langurs and Malabar squirrels hop over the canopy of gigantic trees. We duck before the whistle-blowing doli carriers. Some pilgrims reach the summit sitting on a wicker chair shouldered by four men, at a cost of Rs 975. For some others, the path is just the final leg of a day-long trek from Erumeli via Karimala.

Five hours later, we end our pilgrimage where it started - at the Sri Krishna Temple. The symbolic chain has to be removed before the vow of abstinence is broken.

(In 2016, the Travancore Dewaswom Board hastily changed the temple's name to Sri Ayyappa Swami Temple in an apparent attempt to smudge the link with Dharma Sastha, the original deity with two wives. The name change, however, did not prevent the Supreme Court to strike down as unconstitutional a ban on women aged between 10 and 50 on the hill two years later.)


5th December 2007

why dont u read Everybody Loves a Good Drought
5th December 2007

Have read that. Must say that was inspiring. But even he seems to be too professional (heard some inside information in Muthanga about his celebrated 'Bus to Kuta' article a couple of years ago.) a rural reporter.
7th February 2008

Sir, you have arrived in these real life accounts! May you walk several more miles barefoot on untrodden paths and allow us to savour the pain!
11th June 2008

Eye catching ,interesting and the most wonderful part is the foto "something called happiness" but u have not mentioned that moment in the content.....y is it so?
5th July 2008

I too felt that the moment defined the pilgrimage, especially on a hill which would bar the girl once she is 10 years old. Doesn't the picture speaks for itself?

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