Wednesday, August 22, 2012

SABARIMALAI-A Tropical Jewel

At Erumeli
Sabarimala is in the Western Ghat Mountain (Sahyadri Mountains) range of ‘God’s own Country’, Kerala. This fascinating, mountainous forest, as the mythology goes, happens to be a region, once trodden by Sabari, the tribal woman who offered berries to Lord Rama after tasting each of them for its sweetness. Today it happens to be a World Heritage Site, possessing one of the world’s most biologically diverse flora and fauna including Tiger reserves. Let us follow the fifty two km trail of the celibate Lord Ayyappa to explore the beauty with thrill in the most pleasant season from November to January when around fifty million devotees throng there from all over India. The journey shall definitely be more fulfilling, memorable and colorful as to most of the other exciting places in the world, with the participation of better halves and ladies of all age groups in general, as a version of Ayyappa’s depiction is with two consorts Sridevi and Bhudevi.

What a Gait!
The Peda Padam(52 km route) from Erumely is the busiest in the first fortnight of January when the denizens of the forests of Sabarimalai ( elephants, tigers, leopards, deer and gaurs ) make room for the pilgrims  wearing Mala, a garland of Rudraksha or Tulsi beads, and blue or black dress. They have practiced forty one days Vratam (penance and austerities) during which they refrain from non-vegetarian food, alcohol, tobacco, sex and use of fowl language. During this period they walk barefoot, do not shave or have a hair cut, take bath twice a day, visit a nearby temple everyday and sleep on the hard floor at night! All this toughens them up for the bare foot trek through the thirteen hills, carrying the Irumudikettu( package of offerings to Ayyappa and their own provisions) on their heads. Every one becomes a Swamy (one with God) with strengthened physical and spiritual capacities.

Having developed a keen interest, with the help of a friend, I also join a group of Swamies and reach Erumely from Kochi by bus in the evening of 10th January; but without the dress code and the 41 day penance! This is the place (Erumakolli: killed the buffalo) where Lord Ayyappa is said to have killed demoness Mahishi in his pursuit of tiger’s milk! We all have tea and then a refreshing bath. This small town, with river Koratty (originally called river Manimala: I like this name!) is abuzz with fun and fanfare of different groups of Swamies with drums and trumpets to perform the colorful Pettathullai (dance in the market). With colors smeared on their faces, carrying wooden bows and arrows, they go to the Nainar Mosque first dancing to the melodious tune of, “Ayyappan thinthakathom,swamiye thinthakthom”, to honor Vavar swamy, the companion of Ayyappa in the fight against Mahishi  and then proceed to the Valiyambalan temple of Ayyappa.                                                                                         
Vavar Masjid and Temple
                                                      Next day enthusiastically I also part with my foot wear and start the trek with the Swamies, bare foot. But the gravel surface of the path is too harsh for my feet, as they start aching and burning within some time due to lack of any 41-day practice like others! But I have to carry on for 7 km till we reach Poonkavanam, the blooming grove of Ayyappa in Irrumpoonikkara full of dense, lush tropical forests (rubber, teak, sesame, sandalwood and a variety of flowers and creepers) extending to the banks Of river Pampa after Erumely; here the high canopies create an exhilarating path for the pilgrims, preventing even the sunlight to enter most of the time.
Even Sunlight is Prevented
 I have to move on for 3 km more till we reach Arasamudikotta where, with great relief, I let my hurting feet in the crystal clear stream of river Parthode and relax, laid on my back. Here, Ayyappa and his soldiers had taken rest for some time!
Next, trekking two hills and then a plain for another 4km, we reach the Shiva temple in  Kalaketti. Here also I have an opportunity to lie down and relax my aching and burning feet for a while as the giant trees, crowded above me, sympathize! Three km further we reach the banks of river Azutha at 2 pm, I still with very bad feet. There is a very big functional restaurant with tin sheds; slowly, I walk to the river, take a refreshing bath in the cool, flowing water. Come back and order a plate of Idli-Sambar  and Dosa; after eating them gulp two analgesic tablets with lots of water, ask my friends to carry on with the journey leaving me behind as I am feeling quite at home with the surroundings, people and the journey by now. I lie down on my back on the wooden plank, and fall asleep for two hours.
River Azutha in the Background

At 5 pm in the evening I wade through the knee deep waters and move towards Azuthamedu, a steep climb of 3 km. From here onwards the earth becomes very soft and slowly my feet also start getting back to normal, making me extremely joyous that I shall be comfortable rest of the trek! “Kallum mullum kaalukku methai” (the stones and thorns are like a carpet to the feet,) I start singing the local folk verse! Further, I leave my, cumbersome-to-carry, broad brimmed straw-hat on a stone for some one to pick up, as I don’t find much use of it on the shaded paths ahead. I steadily move ahead, having tea in a place or two; stalls selling tea, snacks like banana chips, sweet succulent pineapple slices, and plantains are spread through out the way. I reach the peak Kallidumkunnu and then Inchippara nearby.
Tops of Giant Trees
Very Dense Forests
 Here the pilgrims take rest and at 9:30 pm. I steadily climb down the steep, dusty slope from Inchippara, with the hardened roots of huge trees, all the way. We reach Mukkuzi in the night where the much revered temple of the Divine Mother is; here I have dinner of  boiled tapioca and salad and find a place to sleep among friendly people chitchatting about the remaining journey. Next morning, 12th of Jan. we start for Kariyilaamthodu, eleven km through thick foothill forests  with the Azutha and Karimala hills on each side. This is a happiness giving, lush area with gigantic, gentle trees standing there for ages like sages showering blessings on the passers by, as we some times sight the droppings of wild elephants in some places! Three km further, we reach the foot of lofty Karimala ( elevation 1440 meters),the most arduous climb of the trek! It has to be climbed in seven stages and at each stage one thinks that he has reached the peak! At last I reach the top gasping for breath; there are two ancient wells here, where Ayyappa and his soldiers are said to have quenched their thirst. Resting here for some time, I start climbing down steadfastly, the adventurous zigzag slopes flanked by dense forests on the seemingly unending descent. On the way, I find some Swamies enjoying a smoke before they enter Sabarimala proper!

Finally, I step into Valyaanavattam, in the valley of Karimala where the special devotees carrying Thiruvaabharanam (ornaments to adorn Ayyappa during Sankranti Pooja) take rest. Further, I reach Cheriyaanvottam, and then walking along a tributary, I reach the enormous, soothingly picturesque river bed of Pampa, where Rajasekhara, the king of Pandalam, found the child Ayyappa! This place is alive with activity as I move about with a chopped tender coconut with a straw in it, sucking the sweet, thirst quenching water. The beautiful river emerging out of the woods and people bathing in it is a sight to behold; the 18th century poet, Ramanuja Ezuthachan, father of modern Malyalam literature, described the banks of Pampa as the most enchanting: Pampa sarathadam lokamanoharam.
The Cheriyaavattam side of Pampa has hundreds of temporary camps where pilgrims can stay even up to two or three days. I stay in a guest house on the banks of Pampa and after having a refreshing cold water bath late in the evening, move around in the festive atmosphere. “behold,” the festival of lights in the river Pampa where hundreds of  well-lit lamps placed on special floats move in the river to the accompaniment of rhythms with traditional instruments. The whole scene is so brilliant and colorful that I just get immersed in the fare for a long time! This is the victory celebration of Ayyappa over the brigand Udayanan.                                                                                                                                      
Early in the morning next day (14th Jan), I climb the steps   to the huge and artistic temple of Ganesha at the foot of Neelimala, take His customary blessings and begin the final steep climb to the destination. At dawn, the mountains and clouds and the mist together create beautiful, surrealistic views on one side!
A surrealistic View
 At the top, I reach Appaachimedu, which has deep gorges on both sides; and then Sabaripeetham, where Sabari offered berries to Lord Rama. Another kilometer further is the spot Saramkuthiyaal, where Ayyappa and his soldiers discarded their weapons after the liberation of Sabarimala temple. We are very close to the temple and the whole area vibrates with the melodious slogan, “Swamiye sharanam Ayyappa”, (unto the feet of Ayyappa) and sounds of fireworks.

Near tht Temple
The time is 10:30 am and I am walking through a high, very big, long shed (made for the pilgrims to form queues) with a dais on the other side for announcements and cultural programs. As I proceed, to my left I see the 18 holy steps, the golden staff and the shrine. The temple on the hillock is in the midst of a valley surrounded by picturesque, flourishing, green mountains.
The Temple with long Queues

 As I am not in the orthodox, rigorous dress code carrying Irumudikettu on my head, I go for the Darshan of the Lord from the other side; but when I reach the Sannidhanam,(sanctum sanctorum) Ayyappa in His unique Veerasana pose with Yogapatta (a girdle supporting circling the back and supporting the knees of a seated person) and delivers the same message, “Aham Brahmasmi, tat twam asi” (I am Brahman, that thou art) to me also!
Swamy Ayyappa Temple, Sabarimala, Kerala

Gathering for Makarjyoti
The delightful period of the journey culminates with millions of people sighting the Makar Jyothi in the evening. It is a pit of camphor lighted in honor of Ayyappa (as Aaratito Him) from the heights of Ponnambalmedu, a mountain range fifteen kilometers away!
Child Swamy!

  Raja Ram Atre

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