The Following article is written by Late Brahmasri V. NILAKANTA IYER - one among the Trios of Sabarimala who were instrumental in spreading the Ayyappa Cult in Tamilnadu
THE LONG ROUTE TO SABARIMALAI
Kottayam is a town on the Ernakulam Quilon line of the Sourthern Railway. It is a big commercial Centre and a bus terminus. From Kottayam, a road goes east to Kumuli, Going twenty-six miles from Kottayam along this road, you come upon a road branching off to the south. Travelling six miles along that road, you come to a town called Erumeli. Erumeli is now a fairly well developed town. But some three to four decades back, it did not look like a town at all. It stood on the border of the old Travancore forests. Now there are rubber estates all round it.
Erumeli is a pilgrim centre. The Majority of pilgrims going to Sabarimalai touch Erumeli before proceeding to their destination; 'Kottappadi' (Gateway) to the forest is there. At Kottappadi, there is a Mahaganapathy installation. To the west of it installed “Vavar”, Dharma Sastha's lieutenant. On the western side of the stream coursing through Erumeli, Dharma Sastha is installed as a Kiratha (Hunter). Most of the pilgrims going to Sabarimalai, go the Erumeli where they obtain permission from Mahaganapathi at Kottapadi to trek their track, pay their respects to Vavar and make offerings at his Mosque, surrender themselves at the feed of Kiratha Sastha and join his battalion there. While returning from Kottappadi, the pilgrims return in the guise of hunters, bringing home bagged game to be surrendered at the Lord's feet-the game bagged, being the 'Ashtaragas' in them.
Sabarimalai is a hill on the western ghats, four thousand feet above sea level. Of the famous eighteen important Sastha shrines on the western ghats, the most famous is the one at Sabarimalai. The distance from Erumeli to Sabarimalai is said to be forty one miles, though actually it is only thirty-eight miles now, as there are several-cuts enroute.
Four miles to the South -east to Sabarimalai is the confluence of the rivers 'Kallar' and 'Pampa'. This place is called 'Triveni' as Kallar is regarded as the 'Jamuna' and 'Pampa' as the 'Ganges' and 'Saraswathi' is believed to join in flow from underneath even as at 'Prayag' in Allahabad. Four miles east of “Triveni” is a place on the bank of the Pampa called 'Chalakkayam'. A good tarcreted road, fit for all vehicular traffic joins Chalakkayam and Triveni. Many people go to Sabarimalai via Chalakkayam. Now the Vehicular traffic terminates at the Bank of Pampa.
Normally tweleve, but really fourteen miles north-west of Sabarimalai is the Mount Estate. Crossing the estate by bus or other vehicle or by track, you come to Vandiperiyar a bus terminus, on the Kottayam-Kumuli Road. Many piligrims go the Sabarimalai by this route also.
Besides the three routes mentioned above, there are other routes to Sabarimalai. 'Thalapparai' route and 'Pathanamthitta' route are rarely used by pilgrims. The 'Ponnambala Medu' route and the 'Dam Site' route are seldom used by pilgrims. The forest track from 'Achenkoil' to Sabarimalai is not used at all by pilgrims.
The three routes most used by piligrims to Sabarimalai are the thirty-eight miles long route from Erumeli, the Chalakayam route and the Vandiperiyar route. Of these three, the first is the traditional route. That was the route by which the Lord, as per the story, went for leopard's milk for the cure of His jealous foster-mother, the Queen's affected ailment. That was the route, which when he followed, he was met by Lord Siva's Boothaganams which turned into leopards and leopardesses. Indra himself turning into tiger for him to ride on, back to Pandalam. That was the route by which king Rajasekhara went to the spot pointed out to him by the Lord's arrow for construction of the Shrine.
Fifty-two years back, when I first went to pilgrimage to Sabarimalai, the route was a narrow track through jungles and forests overgrown by grass and prickly herbs in some places, full of ruts and sloughs in some places, overhung by creepers and climbers in some places and so narrow the people could walk only in single file in some place. Not much distance could be covered by people by marching in columns two or three deep. The pilgrims then could be counted in hundreds.
In November 1937, His Highness the Maharaja of Travancore issued the famous temple entry proclamation throwing open all Government temples and all the temples under Government control to all Hindus for worship, irrespective of Caste. Following this there was a steady increase in the number of Sabarimalai pilgrims year after year. Then they had to be counted in thousands.
In 1947 when our Constitution vouchsafed freedom of speech to us, that freedom was misused in many places for anti-religious and anti God propaganda. The lord of the Sabari Hills then fulfilled Himself by creating circumstances in several States outside Kerala to attract pilgrims. The pilgrims thronging to Sabarimalai have to be counted in Lakhs (and now in millions).
As the Annual number of Sabarimalai pilgrims increased, the 'Maramath' section of the Travancore Devaswom Department arranged with the Maramath Engineer to fill up the ruts and sloughs on the long track, to widen it to some extent, to clear the track and its both sides by cutting away the growing vegetation, by easing the curves and by making the ascends and decends less steep. In this the department was very much assisted by the Ayyappa Seva Sangham. The annual maintenance of the route, I am told, is now mainly done by the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham and partially by the Devaswom Department.
All forests upto Azhutha river and a little beyond have now been cleared. People could go upto Azhutha in jeeps till a few years back, Now they can go upto Pampa in jeeps.
There are three festive occasions at Sabarimalai every year – MANDALA VILAKKU, MAKARA VILAKKU and VISHU. From about the middle of November till about the end of December there will be many pilgrims going tand returning from Sabarimalai. The same will be the case from the beginning of the first week till the end of the third week in January. This phenomenon will repeat betweeen the tenth and fifteenth April.
Erumeli, Chalakayam and Thriveni will also be very busy in connection with the festive occasions at Sabarimalai, the vast majority of pilgrims that go to Sabarimalai for Makaravillakku, choose the long route to trek. Even most of the people hiring buses and other vehicles for their trip alight at Erumeli and trek the long trek directing their vehicles on particular dates to go to Chalakkayam or Vandiperiyar as the case may be, to pick them on their return.
While the vast majority of pilgrims going to Sabarimalai for Makaravilakku choose the long track, the vast majority that go for Vishu, choose the Chalakayam route though most of them touch Erumeli also. Regarding the pilgrims that go for Mandala Vilakku, their route may almost be the same by the long route, the Chalakkayam route and Vandiperiyar route.
The vast majority of the pilgrims that go to Sabarimalai by the long route and the Chalakkayam route invariably choose to return via Chalakkayam. A good number of them return via Vandiperiyar. Comparatively not many return by the long route.
The pilgrims trekking the long route have to cross seven streams and climb eighteen hills in the course of covering thirty eight miles.
The first stream they have to cross is 'Perai Thodu' – two miles east to Erumeli, though now a bridge has been thrown across. On the western side of the streams, there is an old elephant cage in dilapidated condition, in which elephant caught from forest by pitfall, were shut up and tamed. This is called 'Anakotil'. Many pilgrims stay one night at 'Anakotil' before proceeding further.
The first hill the pilgrims have to climb is the Perai kunnu. Going up eight hundred feet, they climb down five hundred feet on the other side to reach the foot of the hill, thus finding themselves at a height of three hundred feet. In the case of all the eighteen hills the ascends are more than the descends on the opposite sides. Thus each hill represents a step. These eighteen hills correspond to the eighteen steps on the eastern side of the Sabarimalai temple leading upto its precincts. Each hill-top is called a “Fort:. Each fort is guarded by an 'Amnaya Devatha” of the Lord and is fit for the pilgrims' camping during night enroute.
A sanctity, a divinity is associated with the long route. The pilgrims trekking the route are said to be in the safe custody of Devi and Bhoothanatha. From Erumeli upto the top of the Azhutha Hill, Devi is said to be safeguarding the pilgrims. From the top of the Azhutha Hill to the top of the Karimalai, Bhoothanatha is said to be so safeguarding the pilgrims. From the top of Karimalai to Pampa, Devi is again said to take charge of the pilgrims and from Pampa to Sabarimalai, Bhoothanatha is said to take charge again.
Rheum, phlegm and pile are in the human system in a certain proportion. According to Ayurveda, when there is a laxity or superfluity of any one or more of these in the system, diseases are caused. A trek of the long route helps to cure such diseases to a certain extent. From 'Perai Thodu' to the Azhutha hill, all the flora on either side are curatives of rheumatic troubles. The transpiration of the flora makes the atmosphere medicine charged. In the course of trek, you breathe more times than ordinarily and so more air of the medicine-charged atmosphere enters your lungs than usual. It will be good if you spend one night in that atmosphere.
A twelve mile walk from Erumeli to Azhutha must make a pilgrims' muscles and joints ache. A dip in the Azhutha river-which flows a long distance over a bed of 'Karim Kuringi' a specific curative for rheumatism and a massage under water will relieve him of such aches. This has been the experience of many.
Form Azhutha Hill to Karimalai all flora, consisting of gooseberry, gainut etc are curatives of phlegm troubles. A night stay in that atmosphere is also desirable.
From Karimalai to Sabarimalai, all flora consisting of Rudraksham, Bhadraksham, Akil, Sandal etc are curatives of pile troubles. All water you get there, flows over beds of iron in that atmosphere the pilgrims stay at Pampa and Sabarimalai.
After crossing Perai Kunnu you come to a place called “Arayakudi” The place is so called, because a few “Arayans” (tribals) have settled their abodes there. Beyond Arayakudi, is a wide, deep valley. The valley and the region beyond is called “Koyikka Kavu”. At one end of the valley there was a lake. Koyikka Kavu was an elephant habitat. The elephants, besides drinking from the lake used to bathe and wallow in it. The other denizens of the forest also drank from the lake. Since the clearance of the forests there the lake has completely dried up.
Beyond 'Koyikka Kavu' eight miles away from Perai Thodu is “Kalaketti Ashramam. Two miles from it, is the 'Alasa' river now called 'Azhutha'. As the story has it, the Lord went to Devaloka in the month of , 'Panguny (Meenam) when the 'Uthram' star was in ascendancy, caught the demoness “Mahishi' by the horn and threw her down on the earth. The body is said to have fallen on the eastern side of Azhutha. The Lord came down and danced on the body. When she died, 'Leelavathi' absolved of her sins, emerged from “Mahishi's body. Lord 'Siva” and 'Parvathi', coming on their riding bull and tethering it to a tree, witnessed 'Mahishi Mardanam' destruction of evil-from Kala Ketti. Hence the sanctity of the place. Sabarimalai pilgrims who have haunts of evil spirits, offer coconut and camphor at Kala Ketti for their relief.
Nearly a two miles trek brings the pilgrims to the Azhutha river. Almost all of them have a dip in the river and get refreshed. Many pilgrims have a night camp on the bed on either bank of the river.
Almost every pilgrim that starts Erumeli makes some purchases or other from the 'Pettai' there. Each novice pilgrim-first year pilgrim or 'Kanni' as he is called-purchases a toy-shaft, each second year pilgrim, a toy wooden club, and each third year pilgrim, a toy wooden sword. Each pilgrim buys a mat woven with sized screwpine leaves for him to sleep on.
While immersed in the water in Azhuthai, each novice pilgrim is asked to take a small pebble from the bed and keep in with him. This he is asked to deposit at 'Kallidum Kunnu'. Fording cross the river, the pilgrims start climbing the Azhuthai Hill or Azhutha Medu' as it is called. Going up a little more than half of this 'Azhutha Medu' you come upon a curve to the right, to the south. At the corner of the left curve, is a big flat rock. That is said to be 'Kallidum Kunnu'. The novice pilgrims are asked to deposit there the pebbles they picked up from the bed of river. It is believed that they are putting them to inter the body of 'Mahishi'. In these days heaps of pebbles help the pilgrims to know the track also.
Climbing up the 'Azhutha Medu', the pilgrims reach the top at the northern end of a small plateau. This places is called 'Udumpara Kottai'. Many pilgrims have their night halt there. There they do poojas and bhajans. Many pilgrims take ash from hearths there and smear it all over the body, from head to foot. Bhoothanath' is believed to be the presiding deity there and the Bhoothaganams are supposed to dance in and around all fires, lit up there and so the ashes are their Prasadams. Besides, the wood burnt there is all medicinal. This 'Prasadam' is believed to be a curative for epilepsy. Coconuts and camphor are also offered there. The Ayyappa Seva Sangham has arranged for the supply of spiced boiled water to the pilgrims at 'Udumpara Kottai'.
Leaving further, the pilgrims reach the southern end of the plateau. It is called 'Inchipparakottai'. There, the presiding deity is believed to be Devi'. There also some pilgrims have night halts.
After Inchipparakotti, the descends begin. At the foot of the hill, the place is called “Mukkuzhi”. It is so called because, to the north of the track of the spot, there were three big pits dug, forming a triangle to be covered with thin planks and strewn over with sand and dry leaves to catch elephants. Now only one pits is clearly seen. Many pilgrims have night halts at “Mukkuzhi” also.
There is another route, though a little longer, from “Azhuthai to Mukkhuzhi”. This circumscribes “Azhutha Medu” on the northern side and takes you to 'Mukkuzhi'. The piligrims going by this route can avoid climbing up and down the 'Azhutha Medu' though they have to walk a little longer.
From Mukkuzzhi is a long trek till they come to 'Elavan Thavalam' where they can have a halt if they want. Then they, go on to 'Puthu Cheri' and “Karivalam Thodu”. Now-a-days many pilgrims halt at “Karivalam Thodu” though formerly none ever halted there.
Leaving Karivalam Thodu, the pilgrims proceed to the foot of 'Karimalai', climbing seven terraces, they reach its top. Many have a night halt on the top of 'Karimalai'. Pilgrims do poojas and bhajans there.
On the top of Karimalai, there is a perennial spring, believed to be the result of a thrust of the Lords arrow into the ground, to find water for his following. The spring is now a well walled, six feet well, with steps to go in and come cut. It is now covered with planks. The water in the well is now taken out, well boiled and spiced and distributed among pilgrims by the Ayyappa Seva Sangham.
Climbing down Karimalai, you come to the right bank of the river 'Pampa'. Walking past Cheriyanavattam and 'Valiyanavattam' you reach 'Pampa'. Where all pilgrims halt for one day atleast, if not more.
The pilgrims absolve themselves of all sins by dipping in the Pampa. They do poojas and bhajans there. They do religious rites to propitiate departed ancestors. They feed as many people as possible. They give away clothes and money as much as possible.
Absolved of all sins, the pilgrims go up 'Neeli Malai', climb up 'Appachi Medu' and reach Sabari Peetam. The first, second and third year pilgrims bringing toy arrows, toy clubs and toy swords are asked to deposit them at a place, where a huge pipal tree stood.
It is a good many years since the tree has fallen down. That was the tree which the Lord's arrow struck when he shot it to show the king Rajasekhara, the spot for the construction of his shrine as he had enjoyed. That place past, the pilgrims walk up to Sabarimalai, climb up the Holy Eighteen Steps and reach the DIVINE PRESENCE.