India and South Asia are home to countless exquisite places of worship. No where is this statement truer than in South India, specifically in Kerala. The famous Ayyappa Swamy Temple in Sabarimala is not only one of the most visited pilgrimage sites for Hindus, but it is also home to the venerated Hindu God Ayyappa, who is the son of the Hindu deities Shiva and Mohini. The Sabarimala Temple is located on a hilltop and is surrounded by dense forests and mountainous terrain. Its seclusion does not hinder the forty to fifty million pilgrims that come to the shrine annually. What attracts these devotees is not only the divine Ayyappa Swamy but also the rich history, architecture, and traditions of the temple.
The Sabarimala Temple is nearly 1,000 years old. It is said that the temple was constructed by a royal member of the Pandalam Dynasty of Kerala. According to the Hindu tradition, a king of the Pandalam Dynasty built a shrine for his adopted son Manikandan, an avataram (form) of Ayyappa. This shrine was built as Manikandan wanted to renounce all of the wealth and the Pandalam Kingdom to become an ascetic. At the shrine, Manikandan, through meditation, became one with the divine and Ayyappa. This shrine and site developed into what is today the famous Sabarimala Temple. The present-day shrine is the fruit of the rebuilding that occurred after the previous shrine was subjected to arson and vandalism in 1950, which was an intentional act to destroy the idol of Ayyappa.
The Sabarimala Temple is an architecturally stunning place. It has a gold-plated roof for the inner sanctum structure, and there are also four golden finials on top. The temple houses two mandapams (pillared halls) and a dhvajasthambham (flagstaff), which is a quintessential feature in South Indian temples. Devotees who have the Irumudikettu (a double-headed baggage that one carries on the head) climb eighteen sacred steps to temple sanctum. Those who don’t have the Irumudikettu can worship through the Northern Gate.
In addition to the main temple to Ayyappa, the temple complex also has shrines and temples to the Hindu Gods and Goddesses Ganesha, Nagaraja, Shiva, Bhagavati, Maalikapurathamma, Rama, and Hanuman. Devotees also pay darshana (homage/prayer) to these deities as well.
The traditions of Sabarimala are very intriguing. For starters, the temple traditions are a mixture of four unique sects/philosophies in Hinduism: Shaktism (worship of feminine divinity), Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu and his avatarams), Shaivism (worship of Shiva and his avatarams) , and Sramanism. Here are a few of the notable traditions that are found in Sabarimala.
- The devotees visiting Sabarimala undergo 41 days of ‘purification’ where they cleanse the body with a shower in the morning and evening, minimize eating as much as possible & eat only vegetarian food, wear a simple type of clothing that is not ‘fancy’, observe celibacy, and do not lie/sin. The idea behind this ‘purification’ is to eliminate human desire and to focus on the divinity of Ayyappa.
- There is absolutely zero caste distinctions or any form of caste discrimination that is observed by the Sabarimala Temple or devotees. All devotees are welcome regardless of their jati (community of birth) or varna (determined solely by one’s occupation, skills, and characteristics).
- No religious discrimination. Members of all faith groups, not just Hindus, are welcome to visit the Sabarimala Temple and pray to Ayyappa Swamy.
- Not open all year. The Sabarimala Temple is only open during the first five days of each month (as per the Malayalam calendar), the Mandala Pooja Days (November to December), Makara Sankranti festival, and Vishu (a Hindu festival celebrated on a day in April). Devotees have to carefully plan for their pilgrimages because of this.
- Women are welcome and encouraged to make a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. Every year, thousands of women make the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. Females under the ages of 10 and over 50 have always been welcomed in the temple, and there are many female deities worshipped inside the Sabarimala Temple, including Maalikapurathamma and Bhagavati. Traditionally, women who were of a ‘marriageable’ age had to wait until they turned 50 to make the pilgrimage because Ayyappa, the main deity of the temple, took a vow of celibacy, and he is worshipped in the form of an underaged teenager in Sabarimala. Some Hindu temples have similar/stricter rules for men where they are not allowed to enter after a certain age. However, a ruling by the Indian Supreme Court has allowed women, irrespective of their age, to enter the temple, and activists say that devotees have also been largely accepting of the decision.
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