On fourteenth of January, tens of thousands of devotees, camping at Sabarimala and surrounding forest areas, worship the Makarajyothi, a bright flame that flickered on a remote hillside called Ponnambalam, facing the temple of Lord Ayyappa. They believe that sighting the Jyothi and worshipping it would bring divine blessings and luck.
The shrine of Sabarimala is one of the most famous Hindu shrines in South India which draws four to five million pilgrims every year. Surrounded by mountains and dense forest of Western Ghats, Sabarimala is believed to be the place where Lord Ayyappa sat in meditation. It is also believed that ‘Sage Parasurama’ who retrieved Kerala, also called God’s own country, from the sea by throwing his axe, installed the idol of Ayyappa at Sabarimala to worship Lord Ayyappa.
Preparation for the worship
Strict observance of certain customs precedes the pilgrimage to Sabarimala temple. The pilgrims attending the pilgrimage should observe austere and devoted life for 41 days. They have to get up early in the morning and perform the rituals and prayers. They have to abstain from all the carnal pleasures and non-vegetarian food. They are supposed to abstain even from sexual pleasures.
A pilgrimage of penance
The pilgrimage begins in the month of November on the day of Mandala pooja and ends in January on the day of Makaravilakku (normally on Jan.14th) when they can see the celestial star, Makara. Throughout this season, pilgrims will be flowing in great number to the temple.
The march of pilgrimage
On the beginning day of pilgrimage, the devotees set out in groups under a leader, each one carrying a cloth bundle called Irumudi kettu, containing traditional offerings obtained from a pooja (ritual service) performed at their residence. On the days of Mandala pooja and Makarajyothi, Sabarimala is turned into a sea of humanity with millions of pilgrims from different parts of the country. One can witness the pilgrims marching in a divine frenzy, singing bhajans (devotional litanies) day and night.
Climbing the 18 divine steps
The essence of the Sabarimala devotion is following the penitential abstinence for 41 days. When the devotees reach the temple, they climb 18 steps to reach the sanctum sanctorum, most divine in all aspects, commemorating the pence they had observed during the 41 days. These 18 divine steps signify ‘the ladder of disciplines,’ which set right the day-to-day life of every human being. These steps signify the conquest of Lord Ayyappa over 18 evils. Those 18 steps are: non-violence, truth, non-stealing, celibacy, avoiding greed, purity, contentment, austerity, scriptural study, surrender to God, preparation for meditation, regulating breathing, control of senses, focus attention on God, indulging in meditation, absorption, renouncing sin, and seeking virtue in humility.
Sighting the Makarajyothi on the last day of the pilgrimage is considered to be very auspicious. It is the most important event of the devotion, when Makarajyothi, a bright flame flickering in a sacred grove at a distant hillside called Ponnambalamedu, will be sighted.
Ayyappa devotion is increasing every year and the number of pilgrims, irrespective of creed, caste, country and community also is increasing by leaps and bounds. It shows the inner craving of man to reach God.