During the last few years, there has been a revival of interest in religion among our people; there is a spurt in the people’s demand for books on religion; old temples are being renovated; new temples are being built; and millions are going on pilgrimages to these temples every year. Among these pilgrim centres, scattered over all parts of India, there are two located in the state of Kerala, namely, the Sri Krishna Temple of Guruvayur near the sea coast and the Ayyappan Temple of Sabarimala in the Western Ghats.
Sri K.R.Vaidyanathan, who had already written an informative book on the former: Sri Krishna: The Lord of Guruvayur, which has already gone into its second edition, has now produced his second book: Pilgrimage to Sabari Since our political independence in 1947, our nation is engaged in various measures to wipe out the centuries-long material poverty of millions of our population. Fifty years earlier, Swami Vivekananda had expressed, in the course of his lecture at Ramnad, the desire that our nation would adopt ‘some sort of materialism, toned down to our own requirements’, and he had this good word to say, in the course of his lecture at Paramakudi a few days later, with respect to the positive contributions of modem Western materialism:
‘That you are here today to welcome one who went to Europe to preach Vedanta, would have been impossible had not the materialism of Europe opened the way for it. Materialism has come to the rescue of India in a certain sense, by throwing open the doors of life to everyone, by destroying the exclusive privileges of caste, by opening up to discussion the inestimable treasures which were hidden away in the hands of a very few who have even lost the use of them.”
Along with this, he exhorted his countrymen to keep their hold firm on their millennia-old national tradition of renunciation and spirituality, and take energetic steps to resist the incoming of the tidal wave of a cheap form of materialism and world lines into the country. And, speaking in Calcutta a few weeks later, he said: ‘Renunciation - that is the flag, the banner, of India, floating over the world, the one undying thought which India sends again and again as a warning to dying races, as a warning to all tyranny, as a warning to wickedness in the world. Ay, Hindus, let not your hold of that banner go. Hold it aloft’.
‘We want orthodoxy, even the hideously orthodox, even those who smother themselves with ashes, even those who stand with their hands uplifted. Ay, we want them, unnatural though they be, for standing for that idea of giving up, and acting as a warning to the race against succumbing to the effeminate luxuries that are creeping into India, eating into our very vitals, and tending to make the whole race, a race of hypocrites.
‘We want to have a little of asceticism. Renunciation conquered India in days of yore; it has still to conquer India. There may be thousands..., who have drunk deep of enjoyment, this curse of the West - the senses - the curse of the world; yet, for all that, there will be other thousands in this motherland of mine to whom religion will ever be a reality, and who will be ever ready to give up, without counting the cost, if need be.’
This is the background against which we have to view the present active interest in our people to protect and cherish their spiritual heritage in the modem revolutionary transition. Apart from offering valuable information and guidance about the Sabarimala temple to intending pilgrims in East and West, Sri Vaidyanathan has also, in this book, highlighted the ever widening spiritual appeal of the Ayyappa cult with its unique stress on a healthy asceticism, religious fervour, the spirit of equality, and openness and welcome extended to the followers of not only all the sects of the Hindu religion but also to the followers of all the other religions of the world.
The north-east monsoon ends in Kerala by the middle of November. The landscape presents a beautiful picture with sprawling rice fields and groves of palms, a constant study in green. The climate is pleasant and cool, the mild winter contributes to devotional feelings in the minds of people. Hundreds of bearded, black-clad men are seen everywhere with their foreheads smeared with vibhuti, sandal paste and Kumkum giving them a radiant and ascetic look. They are the devotees of Lord Ayyappa who presides in his temple set in primordial splendour atop the high hill of Sabari or Sabarimala (‘mala’ meaning mountain). They go through a 41-day penance abstaining from sex, meat and intoxicating drinks before undertaking one of the most arduous treks up the forested mountain chanting the celebrated three words “Swamiye, Saranam Ayyappa”, - Oh Lord Ayyappa, I come to Thee for refuge.
Apart from engendering mystical and spiritual feelings among the devotees, the pilgrimage inulcates bhakti, equality of all men before God and tolerance. The temple doors of Sabarimala are open to everyone, inspective of caste, creed, religion or social status. The high and the low meet on equal terms in the presence of the Lord who is known as Dharma Sasta - one who teaches and upholds dharma.
Who is Ayyappa or Sasta that evokes such great veneration among so many? What is it that impels hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to undertake this pilgrimage disregarding the hardships and hazards of the journey? Ayyappa ia one of the three Saiva deities, the other two being Ganesa and Muruga. While Ganesa is popular throughout India, Muruga and Ayyappa are generally known only in the south. Muruga is claimed by Tamils as exclusively their own deity while Ayyappa, the son of Siva by Mohini (Vishnu in the guise of an enchantress) is the deity of the Keralites, because according to legend, he played his human drama in Kerala. From distant Kerala, Ayyappa has been however, gradually casting his halo over other states, and even abroad. The feeling of ecstasy and the spiritual solace one derives after visiting the shrine is something unique and indescribable. This explains the increasing popularity of this none-too-easily accessible shrine.
We have heard of inspiring accounts of the arduous pilgrimages to the great Himalayan shrines - Gangotri, Yamnotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. But little is known to those outside the southern states about the great pilgrimage to Sabarimala. There are a few books in Malayalam and other southern languages, and one or two booklets in English. This book is an attempt to provide a more comprehensive account of the origin of this great deity, the significance of the rigorous austerities one has to observe, the adventurous trek itself and the esoteric meaning of the entire pilgrimage in order to satisfy the curious reader and to equip the devotee with full knowledge of the pilgrimage he undertakes.
The author had the privilege of writing a book, “Sri Krishna, The Lord of Guruvayur”, the most popular deity of Kerala. Published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, the book has found favour with devotees all over India and is in its second edition. Sabarimala Sasta is another popular deity of Kerala. As one who has been undertaking the annual pilgrimage to this holy shrine since 1970, the author thought he would share his experiences with readers and find fulfillment in presenting a book on this unique deity.
The writer has referred to several books and magazines in the preparation of this book and these have been acknowledged at appropriate places, by way of foot notes. His thanks are due to authors of these publications, especially to Swami Srikrishandas Achyutha, author of Srimad Bhagawatham and Sadguru Sant Keshavadas, author of Self Realisation from whose works he has quoted freely. He is also thankful to Mr. T.T.Vijayaraghavan, Assistant Editor, The Economic Times, Bombay, for going through the manuscript and making many valuable suggestions.
Lastly, the author is extremely Ranganathananda for blessing this foreword grateful to Swami work by writing a foreword.
The author is grateful to the devout public for the ready acceptance of this book, like his other two works, “Sri Krishna: The Lord of Guruvayur” and “Temples and Legends of Kerala”.
A new Chapter 9 – experiences of some Devotees – has been added to the second edition as also an Appendix B indicating the periods when the Sabarimala shrine will remain open to the pilgrims.
During the past decade there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of pilgrims visiting Sabarimala and in the income from devotees. In 1970-71, the income was only Rs.24 lakh. In 1976-77, the revenue shot up to Rs.160 lakh. Ten years later, during the 1986-87 pilgrimage season, the temple earnings tipped the scales at a record Rs.7.5 core, pointing to the ever-increasing popularity of Lord Ayyappa.
Then there has been other interesting developments. In 1983, a major dispute arose in Kerala on the lines of Ayodhya controversy over the find of a granite cross in Nilackal, one of the 18 holy hills in Poonkavanarn. While the Christians tried to build a church there, several Hindu organisations opposed the move. However the dispute that raged for months was happily resolved with the Christian leaders agreeing to shift the Church’s location from Nilackal to Angamuzhi, thus reinforcing the religious harmony that always marked the Sabarimala pilgrimage.
In 1985, a Devaprasnam (astrological investigation to know the divine will) conducted at the temple revealed the declining efficiency of pujas performed at the temple, defilement of the “Poonkavanam” and the temple premises and the inadequate facilities provided to the pilgrims. As a result, the Devaswom launched a fresh programme and provided several amenities like comfort stations, pilgrim shelters, flyovers and so on.
The renovation of the Patinettampadi in 1986 by covering the granite steps which were decayed with panchaloha was another significant development. From time immemorial, Sabarimala shrine is forbidden to women between the ages of puberty and menopause. The controversy whether the restriction is justified has been raging for some years now but no one has been able to offer any plausible reason. Another subject of controversy is the Makara Jyoti. While the Rationalists Association alleges that the phenomenon is man-made, the faithfuls simply assert: “Man-made or God- made, not every one goes to Sabarimala to see Makara Jyoti.
It is man’s faith and quest for peace that send him there. The ‘41 days’ abstinence and the trek through the hills go to make a new man of the pilgrim and that is what matters”. In view of the importance of these topics, a new chapter entitled “Over the Years” has been added to this edition, in addition to updating the text wherever necessary.
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