By Swami Harshananda
Śabarīmalai literally means ‘the hill of Śabari.</ref>
Sabarīmalai or Sabarigiri is one of the most popular places of pilgrimage even now. It is said to have got this name from Sabari, the humble lady-saint of the Rāmāyana fame, who lived here and attained liberation. It is 190 kms. to the north of Thiruvanantapuram, the capital of the Kerala State. The hill is 950 metres above the sea-level and 12 metres from the surrounding ground level. On it's top is situated the temple of Ayyappan (Ārya or Śāstā).
Temple of Sabarīmalai
According to the local legends, the temple was built by Viśvakarman, the architect of the gods, and the original image of the deity was prepared by the sage Paraśurāma. The present image which is 46 cms. in height is made of pañcaloha and installed after a devastating fire destroyed the temple in A. D. 1951.
One of the special features of the hill is the Patinettupadi, a flight of eighteen steps. This is supposed to be the ladder to heaven. These steps are about 1.8 metres wide and very steep. They represent eighteen principles which have to be transcended to attain God. These eighteen principles are:
They are to be climbed only by those devotees who have taken the prescribed vows. The vow comprises the following disciplines and has to be strictly observed for 41 days before:
- The darśan of the image in the temple
- Wearing black, blue or ochre dress
- Wearing a rudrākṣa or tulasi garland of beads
- Strict celibacy during the period
- Visiting temples
- Avoiding meat, alcoholic drinks and drugs
Initiation of Vow
Initiation into this vow is to be done under the guidance of a guru, either in a temple or in one’s house. It consists of preparing an Irumudi, a bag-like contrivance with two compartments. One compartment must contain a coconut filled with pure ghee which is to be used to bathe the image and some items necessary for worship. The other compartment should be filled with food articles needed for the journey. Irumudi has to be carried all the way on one’s own head.
Significant Days for Visiting Sabarīmalai
The pilgrimage season is from November to March. From mid-November to mid-December, the temple is opened for 41 days. Makara Saṅkrānti, usually on January 14, is the most crowded time of the year. On this day Makaravilakku, a mysterious divine light, is seen on the Kāntamalai hill, also called as Ponnambalameḍu, and disappears. Lakhs of devotees assemble on this day just to witness it.
The king Rājaśekhara had prepared a number of excellent ornaments for his adopted son Maṇikaṇṭhan or Ayyappan to be worn on the day of his ascension to the throne. However, the young prince had refused to wear them, but had promised to be decorated by them on the Makara-saṅkrānti day every year. So, even now, these ornaments called as tiruvā-bharaṇam, now in the possession of Rājaśekhara’s descendants, are brought from the palace of the king at Panthalam in a ceremonial procession and the image is richly bedecked with them just for a day.
Another aspect of this pilgrimage by the devotees to Śabarīmalai is taking a bath in the river Pampā. This small river takes its birth in the nearby Kāntamalai hill and flows below the 18 steps of the temple. It is said to have been brought to this earth from heaven by Parameśvara or Śiva himself. Women in the menstruation age are not allowed to enter the temple since Ayyappan is a strict celibate. The total number of festivals observed in this temple is 16.
- 190 kilometers is almost 118 miles.
- Thiruvanantapuram is the present day Trivandrum.
- 950 meters is approximate 3100 feet.
- 12 meters is almost 40 feet.
- It is approximate 18 inches.
- Pañcaloha means five different metals.
- It is approximate 6 feet long and 20 cms. or 8 inches.
- Darśan means seeing.
- It is almost 88 kms. or 55 miles away from Sabarī-malai.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore