Sri Dharmasastha Sabarimala Temple, Kerala
The world famous Dharmasastha Sabarimala Temple located at Sabarimala in the Pattanamthittu district of Kerala is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world. The Temple is dedicated to Lord Sastha, popularly known as Lord Ayyapan. The Sabarimala Temple is located at the peak of a hilltop named Sabarimala at an altitude of 1535 feet. The Temple complex is surrounded by dense forests which have been converted into the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The forest is locally known as Poomkavanam.
In Hinduism, Lord Dharmasastha is also popularly known as Manikandan and Ayyapan. He is the son of Harihara, often called as Hariharaputra. Hari refers to Lord Vishnu and Hara refers to Lord Shiva. It is believed that Dharmasastha was born out of the union of Mohini (avatar of Vishnu) and Lord Shiva. He holds the combined powers of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Lord Ayyapan is believed to be an incarnation of Lord Dharmasastha and a visual representation of the unity of Shiva and Vishnu.
The Sabarimala Temple can be visited by only men. Devotees who wish to get Lord Ayyapan’s blessings must fast for 41 days. They wear a black or blue dress, do not shave and smear Vibhuti or Chandan on their forehead. They wear a Rudraksha or Tulasi mala as a sign of fasting. The devotees are required to abstain from non-vegetarian food, alcohol, tobacco, sexual intercourse, foul language, shaving, haircut, and nail trimming.
The Sabarimala Temple is also a fine example of the integration of the Buddhist religious beliefs with the Hindu system of worship. Historically, it is believed that a Buddhist shrine existed in the vicinity where the present temple is situated. The Temple was dedicated to the Buddhist God Avalokitesvara, an avatar of Bodhisattva.
The Sabarimala Temple Complex consists of a Ganapathi shrine, a Homakundam (place to conduct Homams), and a Bhasmakulam (sacred water tank). A small shrine dedicated to Devi Mallikappurathamma is situated at the foot of the hill along with the shrines of Nagaraja and Nagayakshi (God and Goddess of Snakes). The small shrine dedicated to Vavurswami is situated near the sacred 18 steps. Vavur was the Muslim friend and confidante of Lord Ayyapan.
Sabarimala Temple History
- The Sabarimala Temple is believed to have been constructed somewhere during the10th -11th century. The earlier structure was a Buddhist shrine dedicated to Avalokitesvara. The shrine has consistently grown popular among the population especially among the southern states of Kerala, Tamilnadu, and Karnataka.
- Mahishi possessed the boon of invulnerability except by the son of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. She started torturing public folk and created fear and panic among the residents of the Earth. Seeing the atrocities, the Gods prayed to Shiva and Vishnu to put an end to this. Lord Vishnu took the avatar of the beautiful enchantress Mohini and had a child with Lord Shiva. As per the Brahmanda Purana, this child would possess the combined powers of Durga and annihilate Mahishi. The Skanda Purana mentions that Goddess Durga herself took birth in a masculine form to annihilate Mahishi. Lord Vishnu gifted the child with a precious necklace pendant that hung around the child’s neck. Hence, he is also popular as Manikandan.
- The legend associated with the Sabarimala Temple and the Lord’s journey on Earth starts with the decimation of the Pandyan dynasty of Tamilnadu. The remaining descendants left Madurai and settled at various locations throughout Tamilnadu and Kerala. They established the Pandalam kingdom in Kerala around the tenth century. The King of the Pandalam kingdom, Raja Rajashekhara did not have a child for a long time and together with the queen, worshiped Lord Shiva for a boon. Lord Shiva obliged and ordered Dharmasastha to take an avatar and be born to them as a child. He was handed over a mission to annihilate the buffalo-headed demon Mahishi (sister of Mahishasura) who was creating havoc in the earth realm.
- Accordingly, King Raja Rajashekhara found the young baby crying on the banks of the River Pampa. A Sanyasi appeared to him and advised him to give the child home and raise him as his own. He told him that when the child becomes 12, his divine nature will be revealed. The King and the Queen were very pleased and grew the child as their own. The child was named Manikandan and was taught the local martial arts form and all the Shastras. In the meantime, the Queen gave birth to another child named Raja Rajan. However, the King decided to make Manikandan the king.
- The Diwan of the Kingdom brainwashed the queen into feigning a sickness so that her child becomes the King instead of Manikandan. The physician gave a false assurance that Tigress milk was the only cure for the Queen’s sickness. Manikandan decided against his father’s wishes, that he will go into the forest to bring a Tigress’s milk. On entering the forest, he decided to annihilate Mahishi first. He entered into a conflict with the demon along the banks of the Azhutha River. Manikandan climbed on her chest and danced violently. Realizing the futility of battling against the avatar of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva combined, the demon prostrated and died.
- After killing Mahishi, all the Gods led by Lord Shiva appeared to Manikandan and turned themselves into Tigers and Tigresses. They accompanied him to the palace. On his return, the Sanyasi appeared and revealed the true identity of Manikandan to the King and the public. King Raja Rajashekhara was overwhelmed with joy and asked Manikandan to stay with him forever. However, Manikandan refused. Then the King requested him to guide him to a place where he could construct a shrine for him as a memory. Manikandan shot an arrow which fell at Sabari, the hill where eons ago a saint named Sabari had performed penance and was visited by Lord Rama. Manikandan ordered the shrine to be built there and promised that he will bless his devotees from there. He later disappeared into the forests.
- The legend of Makara Vilakku is related to Lord Rama and Lakshman. On their journey towards Lanka, they met a tribal named Sabari at the present day Sabarimala. Sabari offered the Lord, fruits that he was carrying with him. While eating the fruits, Lord Rama observed a divine person doing penance. On enquiring the tribal about the person, he informed that it was Sastha. Lord Rama went to meet Sastha. On seeing the arrival of Lord Rama and Lakshman, Sastha stood up and received him to his abode. The day is celebrated as the Makara Vilakku day.
Significance of the Sabarimala Temple
- The idol of the presiding deity is made of the special Panchaloha element. The Panchaloha is traditionally an alloy of five metals. The composition of the alloy was kept as a secret for several centuries and is often mentioned in the Shilpa Shastras. The metals involved were later found out to be a mix of Gold, Silver, Copper, Iron and Lead. It is believed that worshiping idols made of the Panchaloha material imparts balance, self-confidence, health, fortune and peace of mind.
- The 18 steps that one has to climb to reach the main sanctum are extremely sacred to the devotees. They have been mentioned in several religious texts and several songs and bhajans have been composed about them. Several versions are present regarding the importance of the 18 steps. According to a popular belief, the first five steps represent the five senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin), the next eight represent the Ragas (Tatwa, Kama, Krodha, Moha, Lobha, Madha, Matsraya, and Ahamkara), the next three represent the Gunas (Satwa, Rajas, and Tamas) and the last two, Vidya and Avidya. It is believed that anyone who climbs these steps achieves self-realisation. Some also believe that the 18 steps denote the number of weapons with which the Lord annihilated Mahishi and some believe that each step represents each Purana.
- It is believed that on the day of Makara Vilakku, Lord Dharmasastha stops his penance to bless the devotees visiting Sabarimala. Thousands of ardent devotees gather at Sabarimala to view the divine Makara Jyothi light up on the other side of the hill. Every year, the evening of Makara Sankranthi witnesses the event of Makara Jyothi at the top of the Ponnambalamedu hill. The Makara Jyothi celebration has turned into a controversial issue as recent evidence point that the occurrence of the divine flame is actually manmade.
- It is believed that the installation of the deity Lord Ayyapan was done by Parashurama himself on orders of Lord Dharmasastha.
- The Sabarimala Temple is one of the largest annual pilgrimages taken by devout pilgrims throughout the country. It is estimated that about 40-50 million devotees visit the shrine during November – January season. The revenue from the temple is estimated at about 230 crores.
Sabarimala Temple Timings
- The Sabarimala Temple opens at 4am and closes at 11pm. The Temple is closed for darshan at 1:30pm and reopens at 4pm.
- The Temple is open to male devotees during the days of Mandalapooja, Makaravilakku (Makara Sankranthi) and Vishu. The Temple also remains open on the first five days as per the Malayalam calendar
- The Nirmalya Darshanam and the Ganapati Homam begin at 4:05 AM and 4:15 AM respectively.
- The Usha Pooja (Morning Pooja) begins at 7:30 AM and the Ucha Pooja (Noon Pooja) starts at 1 PM.
- The Deepardhana (Evening Pooja) commences at 6:30 PM. The Athazha Pooja (Night Pooja) starts at 10:30 PM.
The Sabarimala Temple follows a very strict dress code for men who wish to seek the blessings of the Lord. One must not wear any upper garment like shirts or vests. One must wear a black or a dark blue dhoti to view the Lord. Ladies between the ages of 10-55 are not allowed to visit Sabarimala. Ladies above the age group should wear a saree inside the temple premises.
Festivals celebrated at the Temple
- Makara Vilakku – This is one of the most important festivals celebrated at the shrine. The festival begins on the day of Makara Sankranthi and continues for seven days. It is believed that the idol of Lord Ayyapan was installed in the temple o this particular day. The God is decorated with precious jewelry brought from the Valiya Koyikkal Sastha Temple at Pandalam. A representation of the Lord riding on a tiger is displayed on the platform of the Manimandapam. The idol of Mallikappurathamma is taken around in a procession on an Elephant’s back till the holy 18 steps and then returns by circumambulating the shrine.
- Vishu – The Malayali New Year is celebrated in mid-April and is known as Vishu locally. People wear new clothes and decorate their homes with lights. Offerings are made to the God with Payasam, Appam, and Milk Sweets. The ritual arrangement of items like rice, fruits, betel leaves, arecanut, konna flowers, mirror, and coins are presented in front of the Lord and Pooja is performed for them. After the morning rituals of the day, children burst firecrackers celebrating the birth of the New Year.
- Onam – The State festival of Kerala is celebrated in the month of Chingam (Aug-Sep). The grand festival is celebrated for 3 days. The day signifies the birth of the Vamana avatar of Lord Vishnu and the subsequent homecoming of the King Mahabali. It is also considered as a festival of harvest.
Poojas and Rituals
- Neyyabhishekam – The Abhishekam is considered as the best way to do service for the God. Pilgrims bring Ghee inside a coconut from their homes. For the pilgrims coming from outside, the temple makes arrangements for the Seva. These coconuts are then opened and the deity is bathed with the Ghee. It is believed that the Ghee symbolizes the human soul and by pouring it over the God, one merges himself with the Paramatma.
- Ashtabhishekam – This Abhishekam is one of the popular Abhishekam performed on request of the devotees. The eight items used for the Abhishekam are Vibhuti, Milk, Honey, Panchamrutam, Tender Coconut water, Sandalwood paste (Chandan), Rosewater and Water.
- Ayyappachakram – The Ayyappa Chakram can be obtained at the Temple Counter and this is presented at the feet of the Lord to receive his blessings.
- Ganapathy Homam – The Homam can be done at the Temple dedicated to Lord Ganapathi. This Homam should be performed at the beginning of any ventures in life, whether personal or professional.
- Kalabhabhishekam – The Kalabhabhishekam is performed for strengthening the intelligence and consciousness of the devotee. The special Pooja is performed with great reverence and dedication.
- Laksharchana – The names of the Lord are repeated in the form of a Mantra 1 lakh times. The names are repeated in a group.
- Nithya Pooja – All the Poojas of the day are performed for the Lord on behalf of the devotee.
- Padi Pooja – This unique and grand Pooja is performed for the holy 18 steps of the Temple sanctum. Each step represents a facet of life and is worshiped separately. It is believed that one attains spiritual enlightenment after performing the Pooja and is relieved of all curses and evil effects in his life. The booking for the Pooja must be done online or much before in advance.
- Sahasrakalasam – The ritual involves offering 1000 pots (gold. silver and brass) of holy water to the Lord. The Pooja is performed for general happiness of mankind.
- Udayasthamana Pooja – This unique Pooja is a ritual where 15 special Poojas are performed throughout the day (Udaya for Sunrise and Astha for Sunset) for the deity in the name of the devotee. The rituals begin at dawn and proceeds in succession till dusk after which the devotee and other attendees are given Prasadam of the Pooja.
- Harivarasanam – The most popular devotional song dedicated to Lord Ayyapan is the famous composition Harivarasanam written by Srinivasa Iyer. It is a lullaby for the Lord and is sung in front of the main shrine after the night Pooja every day. The composition is written in Sanskrit and is 8 stanzas long with 352 letters
How to reach Sabarimala Temple
- By Air – The nearest airport is the Cochin International Airport at a distance of 160 km. Alternatively, one can also land at the Thiruvananthapuram Airport situated at a distance of 170 km. Regular buses are available from these cities till Sabarimala.
- By Train – The nearest railway station is Kottayam at a distance of 90 km. Kottayam is well connected to cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Guwahati, Vizag, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Mangalore and New Delhi.
- By Road – The Kerala State Transport operates buses from major cities and towns in Kerala to Sabarimala. Other nearby towns that can be used as a transfer point to Sabarimala, especially for pilgrims from Tamilnadu and Karnataka are Thrissur, Kottayam, and Ernakulam.
- Vehicles are allowed only until Pamba, 5 km before the main shrine. The new route is comfortable and easy to traverse.
- However, many devotees still trek through the longer and difficult older route through Erumeli. The distance from Erumeli to Sabarimala is roughly 60 km.
Where to stay
The Sabarimala Temple Administration operates a pilgrim complex at Nadapanthal and Pandyathavalam. Several guest houses have been constructed by them to meet the needs of the devotees. The rooms are clean and hygienic and can be booked at nominal rated by visiting their official website.
Where to eat
A lot of small hotels have been set up near the base of the Sabarimala hills and at Pamba by the Sabarimala Temple administration. The cuisine provided is pure vegetarian and South Indian.
- Erumeli Ayyapan Temple – The Temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa is situated 61 km from Sabarimala. The traditional route to Sabarimala begins at Erumeli where the pilgrims begin their trek to reach the peak of Sabarimala hills known as the Neelimala. The Temple’s deity Lord Ayyapan is represented here as an archer. This is also supposed to be the place where Lord Ayyapan killed the buffalo faced demon Mahishi.
- Pandalam Valiyakoyickal Temple – The Temple is closely associated with the Sastha Temple of Sabarimala. The deity worshiped here is the family deity of King Rajashekhara of the Pandalam kingdom. The jewels of Lord Ayyappa are kept at this temple and are taken out in a procession amidst high security. A divine presence of a Garuda can be seen circling around the treasure.
- Nilakal Mahadevar Temple – The Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva lies on the traditional path taken by the devotees to reach Sabarimala. The Temple is small nd dedicated to Lord Shiva, father of Lord Ayyappa.
- Chengannur Mahadevar Temple – The famous shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati is located 97 km from Sabarimala. The main Shiva Linga is covered with Gold and represents the image of an Ardhanareeshwara – a Shiva-Shakti form. This Temple legend states that Kannagi, who burnt the city of Madurai down to ashes, came here to perform penance.