As a resident of Bangalore, I’d come across several Ayyappa devotees but had hardly paid any attention to them. Their black or blue attire, their ash smeared torsos and faces, their devotional singing amplified over loudspeakers at street corners, were all rather forbidding. “Come for the farewell ceremony,” said Narayan, the owner of a popular restaurant and head of a group of Ayyappa devotees in my neighborhood. “You will get a better idea of who we are and what we do.”
So it is with a mixture of trepidation and curiosity that I step into a colorful marquee put up on a stretch of land off the main road. A dais at the far end has two priests sitting before a sacred fire and chanting Sanskrit verses. Some devotees sit on jamkhanas laid out on the ground. And in one corner three young men thread asters and chrysanthemums into massive garlands.
“We were only ten devotees some years back, now we are a hundred,” Narayan says. He looks somewhat stern in demeanor with his salt and pepper beard and ready-to-frown brow. He has made the pilgrimage to Sabarimala 23 times in as many years. Babu, his youngest brother, who sometimes lapses into impish behavior, has visited Sabarimala a dozen times. And Anand, the second sibling, who has a friendly smile for everyone, made the trip 17 times. “I am not going this time,” Anand says. “Some urgent matters have cropped up. But my brothers are goingäso that’s all right.” It’s not difficult to detect the regret in his tone.
As I start taking pictures, Babu and Narayan stretch their arms at periodic intervals to make a variety of offerings to the sacred fire–twigs, ghee, puffed rice, even pieces of banana. Smoke swirl up in thick clouds. The priests continue chanting and the brothers keep feeding the flames. The fire ritual or homa, is a must before any major Hindu ceremony; it’s meant to purify the venue, to exorcize any evil spirits lurking about.
Behind the priests is a miniaturized version of the Ayyappan temple–idols and portraits of Ganesh, Ayyappa, and Murugan. Ganesh and Murugan are the two sons of the Shiva-the destroyer aspect of the Hindu Trinity (the other two are Brahma the creator and Vishnu the protector). Ayyappa occupies the central position because he is the result of the union of the two male gods, Shiva and Vishnu! (See “The Legend of Ayyappa”, at the end of the article) An elegant staircase in glittering brass leads up to the portraits and idols. “The staircase represents the Eighteen Steps or pattinetam padi that all pilgrims have to climb to pay homage to Ayappa’s shrine,” says Narayan. There are many beliefs associated with the Eighteen Steps-one reference is to the eighteen weapons Ayyappa employed to vanquish demons and enemies. Another allusion is to the eighteen puranas or spiritual treatises of the Hindus. A third points to the sum total of sense organs, ragas (classical melodies) and virtues.
More pilgrims trickle in. A large man with a gray beard and dark glasses catches my attention. He is 61 years old Palaniswamy who has made the pilgrimage to Sabarimala 36 times. A retired technician from Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd, he says that the Sabarimala forests were much denser in his younger days. “Plenty of wild animals. And one had to wade through the River Pamba to reach the temple. The waters swirled up to your chest. My parents permitted me to make the pilgrimage only when I turned 25—those days even if you were married or employed, you had to ask your parents’ permission for everything.”
Palaniswamy says that as he belongs to the middle class it’s important for him to conform to society, to have a circle of friends because what is life without a sense of belonging and without friends? The annual trip helps him to refocus on dharma, the righteous way of life. “You have to be moderate in everything you do. Not good to run after money and pleasures all the time.”
More people gather in the marquee. Women occupy the area farthermost from the dais and watch the proceedings, as if they are forbidden to talk, forbidden to approach the gods. There’s a story behind this too, this distancing from Ayyappa-he was a bachelor all his life; females between the ages of 10 and 60 aren’t allowed into the Sabarimala temple.
“An elderly lady was supposed to accompany us but she fell ill,” says Narayan. “She might join us next year.” The only girl going on this pilgrimage is Narayan’s daughter, the dainty Shravaya. Dressed up in colorful silks and her face aglow with anticipation and make-up, she’s just seven years old. “My sister made the pilgrimage last year,” she quips. “Now she is more than ten years old. So she can’t go.”
In June 2006, Jayamala, a middle-aged cine actress from Bangalore, told the media that twenty years earlier she had sought Ayyappa’s blessings to cure her ailing husband. But the enormous crowds pushed her into the sanctum sanctorum. She fell at the feet of Ayyappa’s idol and couldn’t help but touch it. “It was electrifying,” the actress said. “I was almost in a trance when the priest asked me how I managed to get in. Touching the idol’s feet at temples is very much part of our culture and I never quite understood why women aren’t allowed to do so at Sabarimala. Now, people tell me that several women have managed to enter the temple.”
The temple priests scoffed at the media report. It was impossible, they said, for any woman to get through the tight security arrangements and climb the Eighteen Steps. Whatever the truth, the report throws up a painful paradox: Kerala has the highest literacy in India and women enjoy a higher status than men as much of the region’s society is matriarchal but here was the state’s most popular temple openly stating that women who were fertile were impure because of that very attribute.
There are a few boys amongst the pilgrims around me. For twelve year old Ravikumar, this is going to be his first pilgrimage. “Some of my class mates made the pilgrimage. So I decided to go too. Uncle Nagaraj is taking me.”
Thirty year old Nagaraj, a barber by profession, has made the trip once before but didn’t do it last year because he got married. “You can’t go to Sabarimala in the first year of your marriage. The belief is that you are much too involved with your wife to give the time or attention Ayyappa deserves.”
Narayan tells me that they will travel by vans and SUVs. They would cover holy places like Nanjangud, Guruvayoor, Chothinikere, Yettamanoor, Vihan, Ejanab, and finally reach the Pamba River, which is considered as sacred as the Ganges. After a dip in the river, the pilgrims trek the Chalakayam route of about five kilometers to Ayyappa’s temple. “One can take the Erumeli and Vandiperiyar routes also but those involve 45 and 60 kilometers of arduous trekking through forests and hills. Only the young and the strong can do them.”
All devotees around me are attired in just a single black, blue, or saffron sheet of cloth, the dhoti, covering the lower half of their bodies. “Some people don’t like black because they feel it symbolizes the dark side, so they are free to opt for blue,” Narayan says. “The saffron is usually for the senior devotees.”
But two things are common to all-first, the forehead and arms smeared with wood ash, the mark of a Shiva devotee. The second, all of them wear two necklaces–one is russet colored and the other peach. Both are made of 108 beads-the sacred number in Hinduism. The peach is of sandalwood, a favorite of Ayyappa. The russet beads are of rudraksha, a hardy berry.
“The rudraksha mala is actually the necklace of peace,” says fifty year old Hucchhappa, a vegetable vendor. “Its purpose is to have a calming effect on Ayyappa who is believed to be a little short tempered.” As I watch, he patiently separates the necklaces on his son’s neck; they have entangled. Both father and son have made the pilgrimage five times. “I hawk vegetables all day,” Huchappa goes on. “It’s hard work, pushing my cart through numerous lanes and roads. But Ayyappa has given me strength to do it. I earn an honest livelihood. That’s enough.” The son, as tall as his father but slimmer, nods agreement. He is 20 and in his first year of college.
Just then five musicians specially summoned from Kerala arrive by a van and without much ado take up positions in the middle of the gathering. Soon they churn up a terrific tempo with drums and cymbals. It’s a mesmerizing spectacle-brown torsos glistening with perspiration, strong sinews rippling with the tautness of caged animals.
The two priests on the dais begin the abhisheka-bathing the idols with an assortment of sacred fluids and pastes. Devotees from the core group go up to take a specific vessel or bottle from the priests. Babu trickles a bottle of honey all over the idols. Narayan does the same with milk. Palaniswami is given a vessel of coconut water. Some others perform with turmeric paste, ghee, and curds. And all the while devotees lustily chant Ayyappa’s name with a fervor that borders on hysteria. It’s not difficult to imagine the rest of the half a million strong Hindu pantheon, up there in the heavens, squirming with envy.
Chelluvaraj, a thickset man with an easy smile, is 46 and has visited Sabarimala 22 times. He is taking along his ten year old son, Shivraj, for the third time. “You have to root your children in traditional practices from a young age. A strong foundation means less chances of veering away.” He is into real estate business and says that his life has improved because of Ayyappa. “I was one of the founder members of this group. At that time each of us contributed one rupee and 50 kilos of rice to Ayyappa.”
Each devotee now contributes Rs 1,750 (about $ 50). It covers expenses for the trip and also offerings to Ayyappa-six dry coconuts filled with liquid ghee and then sealed with wax, a bottle of rosewater, a bottle of honey, some sugar candy, betel leaves, turmeric and vermilion powders, and joss sticks. All these are tied into a cloth bundle, the irumuddi ketti and carried on the head. Without the bundle, no devotee is permitted to climb the Eighteen Steps at the temple.
“If you don’t have enough faith, the liquid ghee will harden and can’t be used for anointing Ayyappa’s idol,” says an elderly lady who’s been watching me intently for sometime. She is short and thin and her shoulders stoop like broken wings but her eyes are bright and clear. She is the wife of the main priest who is conducting all the ceremonies here. He is K Subramanya from Thiruvanthapuram in Kerala and 68 years old. Bangalore has been his home for the last forty years. “I worked as a storekeeper in a factory. I have two sons and one daughter and we went through a lot of difficulties. By Ayyappa’s grace, we are in a happier situation now. I will do the annual pilgrimage as long as I am physically fit.”
But one can’t just go off on the pilgrimage. Every devotee has to isolate himself for 41 days. “You have to purify your body, your mind, before meeting Ayyappa,” says Narayan. The isolation means a bath twice daily and abstinence from meat, liquor, tobacco, and sex. The devotee keeps a few basil leaves with him to chase away impure thoughts and avoid physical and verbal violence. He has to sleep on a straw mat, use a wooden block for a pillow, walk barefoot, not oil his hair or body and not shave his beard or cut his hair. “But you are free to go about your normal work to earn your livelihood. Only whomever you meet, whether child or adult, you should address him as ‘Swami’. It essentially means that you see Ayyappa in everyone.”
The musicians continue their drum beating and cymbal clashing. A senior devotee races down the dais and begins to dance with the gusto of a street urchin. He is the cynosure of all eyes. The musicians churn up a faster beat. The man dances even more wildly and then abruptly falls to the ground. He gasps as he lies on his back but his eyes are closed. Narayan sprinkles water on the man’s face. He trembles and gets up and looks around as if he’s in another universe. “Swamiye!” the man shouts and every body responds with a robust “Ayyappa!”
But Narayan seems to have had enough of this dramatic spectacle. “Time for food,” he announces in a commanding voice and gestures for all of us to move to the adjacent land where two more marquees are erected. A score of volunteers are ready with buckets of food to serve out the feast on banana leaves. Narayan tells me that it’s customary to feed as many people as possible prior to the pilgrimage. “It’s a token of our appreciation for their support and encouragement.” This time food has been cooked for over 5000 people of this district.
I clean my banana leaf with water and the servers line up to dish out the fare. It’s simple but tasty-kosumbri (soaked green gram tossed with diced cucumber), cabbage curry, chick pea curry, vegetable pilaf, sliced onion in curds, white rice, sambar, and two sweets-mysore pak and rice cooked in jaggery. Later, Narayan asks me whether I enjoyed the food. I did, I assure him.
Two hours later an elephant decorated with a plate of ornamented brass carving on its forehead arrives at the venue. As it stands swaying its trunk and shuffling its loosely chained feet, people gather around as if a colossal train is about to leave a railway station. “We are going on a procession in the neighborhood,” says Narayan. He and two other devotees carry the idols and portraits of the gods. The idols are placed on a tractor converted into a chariot. The portraits move up to rest on the elephant’s head.
About a dozen young girls line up in twin rows on the road. Each girl holds a steel plate with a lit mud lamp, flowers, and betel leaves-a traditional heraldry for something sacred and auspicious. Behind the girls are the women, the wives and sisters and mothers who will bid farewell to their husbands, sons or brothers. Next are the musicians from Kerala. And then the pilgrims themselves with much of their hair and bodies splashed with color-an allusion to surrendering of ego to Ayyappa and also to celebrate his legendary victories over evil.
I accompany the procession as it winds its way up a steep road and into the lanes of a residential locality. I feel a great sense of elation; I am also a part of this stunning farewell to a hundred pilgrims who will carry with them the prayers of this neighborhood to Ayyappa. An hour later we return to the marquee and the pilgrims prepare to leave by cars and vans. Narayan comes up to me and shakes a stern finger in my face, “You should make it to Sabarimala next year,” he says. I mumble a yes and walk away. Just one thought tosses in my head: whether I can summon enough strength to abstain from liquor, cigarettes and sex for 41 days.
The Legend of Ayyappa
A tantalizing story in Hindu scriptures is that of Ayyappa, born from the unexpected union of two male gods, Shiva with Vishnu. Once upon a time, the story goes, Vishnu disguised himself as a beautiful maiden, Mohini, to retrieve the nectar of immortality stolen by the demons. At that very moment, Shiva decided to pay a visit to Vishnu’s abode to discuss some heavenly politics. Shiva came across Mohini instead and fell for her like the proverbial ton of bricks. The result was a baby boy, Dharmasastha.
Many years later, when the widely respected but childless King Rajashekara of Thanjavur in southern India prayed to Shiva for an heir, Shiva ordered Dharmasastha to take on the form of a baby near the banks of the Pamba River. The king while hunting in the nearby forests chanced upon the wailing infant and happily adopted it. He named the baby, Ayyappa.
Ayyappa grew up to be a fearless warrior, defeating many of the king’s enemies. However, a more cunning enemy was the king’s principal courtier who fancied himself as the next ruler. Seeing that the king had already chosen Ayyappa to be next in line for the throne, the courtier tried to kill the warrior by various covert means but in vain. Time passed. The queen gave birth to a male child. The courtier persuaded the queen to conspire in a plot to kill Ayyappa. “Only then will your own son become the next king,” said the courtier.
The plot unfolded; the queen pretended a severe headache, various medications were tried but to no avail. Finally the courtier announced that only the milk of a tigress could banish the headache. Ayyappa volunteered to perform the impossible task. Shiva got wind of the plot and disguised himself as a tigress. He strode into the palace with Ayyappa astride. The palace was thrown into turmoil. It was then that Ayyappa revealed his true identity to the king.
Begging forgiveness, the king vowed to punish the evil courtier but Ayyappa said, “It’s really not his fault, O King. All this was preordained. But I request you to build a temple at Sabarimala. Not only would it honor the union of Shiva and Vishnu but also help troubled devotees.” Subsequently, Ayyappa renounced his princely life and went into the forests. The belief is that he still meditates there for the well being of all people. (R.A.)
© 2008 Ramesh Avadhani. All rights reserved.