Sabarimala is one of
the most popular pilgrimage destinations in South India during the festival season in the
months of November, December and January. A pilgrimage to Sabarimala involves severe
austerities, and a trek through the Western Ghats. Sabarimala enshrines Sastha
or Aiyappan - Hariharaputran - the son of Shiva and Vishnu-maya.
Sastha is a popular deity in Kerala,
and is enshrined in several of its temples. Five temples dedicated to Sastha are of great
importance. Kulathuppuzha enshrines Sastha as a child, Aryankaavu enshrines him as a young
lad, Achan Koyil enshrines him with as a householder with his consorts Poorna and
Pushkala, Sabarimala enshrines him as his Vanaprasthasramam, and Ponnambala-medu enshrines
him as the highest yogi. These five shrines represent the five stages of life as described
by the scriptures. Ponnambalam is a spot on a hill where the Makara Jyoti (light)
on the day of Makara Sankranti.
Legend: Sastha or
Aiyappan is revered as the son of Shiva and Mohini - Vishnu-maya. Legend has it that this
divine child was discovered on the banks of the river Pampa by the ruler of the kingdom of
Pandalam. The childless king brought up this child Manikandan as his own. A plot hatched
by the vile queen sent the valiant Manikandan in search of leapord's milk, as the only
suitable cure for the queen's feigned illness. The valiant prince killed the demon Mahishi
in the jungle and relieved its inhabitants of untold suffering and returned to the kingdom
with a herd of tigers. The divinity of the child revealed, he requested the king to build
a temple on the hill Neelimala, where the saint Sabari was engaged in penance.
The temple: Eighteen
steps are seen leading to the sanctum, and these steps are considered to be very sacred.
Only those who have observed the 41 day penance (see below) are allowed to climb these
steps. The pathinettu padi shrine is also seen at the Azhagar Koyil temple near Madurai,
which has a subsidiary shrine to the guardian deity Karuppannasami.
Millions undertake the (once)arduous
pilgrimage to Sabarimala with 41 days of penance. Much of the route used to be accessible
only on foot through rocky jungle paths. Much of the route now is on motorable road.