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Experience of devotees

The chant “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa” can be often heard in the Indian states of Kerala and Tamilnadu as several people fervently and frequently pray to their favorite deity, Swami Ayyappa. Not only devotees from Kerala and Tamilnadu but also from several other states in India also consider a pilgrimage to Sabarimala as an experience by itself.

Western people’s interest also has also been aroused to know, understand and read about Sabarimala, the abode of Ayyappa and the pilgrimage to that temple located at the top of one of the hills in the western ghat mountains of India. Several Malayalees ( people of the state of Kerala are thus called as they speak a language called Malayalam, this is also the language of Amma,the Hugging Saint, who is very popular in the West,in US etc) settled in the US along with their companions from other states such as Tamilnadu, Andhra etc also travel all the way to Kerala to have a darshan of Swami Ayyappa at Sabarimala.

Mythologically, Ayyappan is the son of Shiva and Vishnu who took form as Mohini; during the search for Amrithu (the celestial nectar, the drinking of which makes one immortal) from the ocean of milk. After birth, the boy child; thus born, was left in a forest with a precious stone (jewel or Mani in the local language; thus Ayyappa also has a name Manikantan which means one who has a precious stone around his neck) .The child less king of Pandalam who was on a hunting trip to the forests found that child, took an immediate liking to it, carried him to the palace. The queen was overjoyed to be blessed with a child. The minister of the king issued notes of caution to the queen. As the minister was hoarding a sinister interest in his mind of usurping the kingdom, once the king has lost his youthfulness and vigor. The minister was afraid, if there is a successor to the king that will upset his secret intentions. Hence the minister started making schemes to do somehow expel the little boy away from the palace; even kill him if need be.

Ayyappa alias Manikanta grew up in the palace under the lovingly watchful eyes of both the king and queen and several teachers who were appointed by them. When Ayyappa was just fourteen, the queen under the influence and recommendation of the wicked minister; sent him away to the forest to bring back leopard’s milk, as that was advised to be the only cure for a stomach pain that she was suffering from. Manikantan did her bidding, returning to the palace riding a leopard, with several other leopards following them! The sight astounded everyone; the royal couple realized that Manikantan was no ordinary boy, but a divine incarnation.

The ever-compassionate Ayyappa used to be kind, merciful and compassionate to one and all. Soon he informed his foster parents that he has to leave the palace as he needs to do meditation and needed a secluded atmosphere, away from the hustle and bustle of the palace. He shot an arrow which landed atop Sabari hills, indicating that that is the place where he would be seated. Leaving the palace, he ascended the hills, where he attained moksha or salvation. As Hariharaputra he is worshipped by all and came to be known popularly as Ayyappa.

The pilgrimage to Sabarimala every year begins with self-purification: physical, mental and emotional. Brahmacharya for 41 days (abstinence from worldly pleasures) is recommended, as an advance preparation before commencing the annual trip to the holy seat of Ayyappa. Devotees address each other, during this 41 day period as Swami; in holy remembrance of the fact that Ayyappa himself was always a celibate and divine person. After forty one days of penance, prayers and spiritual preparation the devotee is ready for the pilgrimage.

Devotees carry the Irumudikettu (two-fold bundle; representing all good deeds in one and all bad deeds in the other fold). One with a ghee-filled coconut and other articles of worship. Chanting the Lord’s name, the devotees set out to the Sabari hills. After crossing the holy river Pamba, they continue on foot up the mountain path. Further up, pilgrims reach the wildlife-infested Karimala, where the mountain is black colored as the soil is of that hue. After some rest which many badly need by this time, the journey resumes uphill.

The 18 holy steps to the sanctum sanctorum at Sabarimala (represents the 18 holy epics/ Puranas).The devotees who climb these steps experience the darshan of Lord Ayyappa.

The symbolic meaning of the holy pilgrimage to Sabarimala consists of the following.

When one climbs all the 18 steps, it is equivalent to having gone through all the holy epics. That enables a devotee to surmount all physical and mental limitations and takes him to the Ultimate Truth and Wisdom represented by the enchanting idol of Swami Ayyappa.

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