Sabarimala: A tradition that transforms


Shankar, aged 57, from Wayanad district of Kerala was a government employee till last year. When he was young, like most of his friends, he too used to go for movies, have an occasional drink and smoked a few times a day. Having a family (with wife, two children, and parents) to look after, he used to struggle to make both ends meet with his meagre salary and so he used to work in fields after office hours. A hard worker and perseverant person by nature, he along with all his friends had another habit – a yearly habit. That habit was the yearly pilgrimage to the hill temple of Sabarimala during the auspicious months of December-January called “Mandala-kaalam”. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is a very unique one, especially if you compare it with all the other temples in Kerala.

The Sabarimala temple is situated on a hill, inside the forest, in the southern district of Pathanamthitta. Traditionally, to do a pilgrimage to this temple, a person has to follow a rather strict daily routine for 30-41 days. Shankar and his friends also followed this same traditional routine during the 41 leading to December. During these days Shankar and his friends take many vows, some of them being: (a) they would be not take alcohol, (b) they wouldn’t smoke, (c) they would abstain from sexual contact, (d) they also decide not to watch any movies, (e) they would not eat meat or egg, (f) they would wake up at 5 a.m, take bath and then go to near by temple, (g) after work, they will again take bath in the evening and go to temple, (h) they will try to see the divinity in everyone around them, (i) they would not use curse words or abuse anyone, (j) they will try to not get angry, and there goes on a list of some of the best moral, social, spiritual qualities that we always wished we could have throughout our lives. Not just Shankar and his friends, but their whole family takes a vow to support them. Therefore, their wives would also get up early and take bath before cooking, and try to see the divine transformation in their husbands during these 41-days. Shankar also makes sure his two kids, a 7 year old daughter and 9 year old son joins him in taking these vows (although for them, these vows were never difficult, except may be waking up in the morning!!).

This vow doesn’t end there. After this 41-day traditional routine, Shankar, his two kids and friends set out to trek up the hill to visit the Sabarimala temple (it takes about 2-2.5 hours to trek up the hill). From the time they leave from home till they reach the temple, during the whole trekking, all of them keeps a traditional bag called “irrumudi kettu” on their heads or shoulders which contains some offerings of coconut filled with ghee and few other traditional offerings made at this temple. After trekking bear-foot to the temple, they wait in queue for around 5-6 hours among almost a quarter of a million people who come to the temple every day. All during their trekking and waiting in the queue, their minds are filled with the thought of the residing deity of Sabarimala – Swami Ayyappan, and they together chant “Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa”. Tiredness, boredom, and fatigue are nowhere near these people whose only goal is to have the “darshan” (literally, to see) of their favourite deity. After waiting in the queue, they move nearer to main temple area, climb up 18 steps to reach the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and get the darshan of their favourite deity. Their minds fulfilled by satisfying their wish to see Ayyappa, they then climb down the hill and head back home.

The special temple that Sabarimala is!!

Sabarimala is one of the very handful of temples in India, where the pilgrimage requires a devotee to take a 41-day long “vratha” (set of vows) before visiting the temple. It is special because, in almost 99% of the Hindu temples all around India, and especially Kerala a devotee can go in and get to “see” the residing deity (which is in the form of an idol) without taking up any vows. Although most Hindus do try to not harm any animals (by not taking non-vegetarian food) at least on the day when they visit temples, there are generally no hard and fast rules that govern the predisposing conditions to go to a temple. However, the Sabarimala pilgrimage, which has been going on for many centuries (as even recorded by British invaders in 1800’s), demands the devotee to follow a rather strict set of vows.

Sabarimala tradition in the context of Hindu Culture

The Hindu culture, which has been a continuum of civilization for at least over 10,000 years, contains a set of values and traditions that will ultimately help a human being to realize his full potential. Hindu culture is, in fact, a living entity, a never stagnant one. It is nourished and evolves with the inputs from thousands of sages and Self-realized masters who have lived and guided humanity in every century. Hence, it has 1000s of texts, 1000s of commentaries, and hundreds of thousands of stories made to communicate the essence of Hindu culture in various ways, according to the disposition of each individual in a society.

Among the many concepts in Hindu tradition, one that is fundamental is that of “Purushartha” – the four fundamental aspects of human life. These are (a) kama – the endless desires that prompt each of us to act in this world, (b) artha – in order to fulfil our desires, we need to attain wealth (including knowledge, money, etc…), (c) dharma – the righteous ways by which an individual should attain artha which will ensure harmony in his/her life, family, society, nation, world and the entire universe, and (d) moksha: the goal of human life, which is complete freedom from our likes, dislikes, fears, attachments so as to abide in a state of complete bliss and contentment forever. These four aspects cover the ultimate goal as well as the path to reach that goal for each human being. All of us, in any part of the world, are aware of (a) and (b), i.e., kama and artha. However, most of us forget the part (c). Only when (c) “dharma” is followed would that benefit the entire society and the individual would get qualified to reach the final goal of human life.

In order to make humans follow the path of dharma (so that we attain wealth (artha) in a righteous manner and fulfil our desires (kama)), our sages and saints have prescribed personalized and individual-specific practices. Hindu tradition is very special, in the sense that it accepts the widely varying dispositions of different individual’s tastes and has carved out practices that are conducive for that individual’s spiritual and material growth.

The temples and practices in each temples are also prescribed by sages and saints so as to help the people who visit the temples progress through “Purusharthas”, to finally attain Moksha. Since almost 90% of the people in the society are going after wealth and fulfilling desires without giving any concern to “dharma”, the temples play a very important role in maintaining the “dharma” consciousness among people.

In this context, the role played by the Sabarimala temple gains immense importance. The devotees, by taking the 41-day vows, are once again reminded about the dharmic way of life – one that will help themselves, the society, nature and the entire creation. By restraining their minds to abstain from going unintelligently behind wealth and desires, at least for 41-days, they give themselves a taste of the dharmic way of life. It is also interesting that when the devotees climb the 18 steps of Sabarimala temple, they are greeted by the Vedic words – “Tat Tvam Asi” – which could loosely be translated as “the bliss that you are searching for, is in fact within you”

After following this yearly-practice, many devotees have got the mental strength to not only abstain from smoking, drinking, and many other habits that were once a cause of worry to their family and society at large, but also have climbed the stairs of spirituality to understand that their goal of life is “moksha” and they have to follow “dharma” while fulfilling all other goals in life.

In Kerala, we find hundreds of thousands of families that have been completely transformed due to this yearly pilgrimage. Shankar is just one of them.

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