(“Amateurs write for themselves, professionals write for others”. This Blog is written to relive an intensely personal and emotionally exhilarating experience. I hope some of it emerges from reading it)
My boss was caustic. “Is this the time to take leave?, Couldn’t you have attempted this next month” ? I mumbled something and exited his room. Well, some decisions have no logical explanation.
I reached home pretty late. After completing my prayers and dinner, I started packing for the pilgrimage to Sabarimala Ayyappan temple. This packing is an art by itself, as we have to physically carry whatever we take. Do I need two sets or three sets of change of clothes, which bag to take?, which medicines to be selected and so on.
By the time the packing got over, it was well past midnight. I had a brief sleep and got up at 3.00 am. The flight was at 5.30 am. The cab had come in time and I reached the airport at 4.15 a.m.
The lady guard took one look at the ticket and said “yeh to Terminal 2 ka flight hai” (This is terminal 2 flight ). Now, I had not looked at which Terminal the Air India flight was to take off. This is the International Terminal which is 10 minutes away on an empty road and a longer time away during peak hours. I rushed back with frantically looking for an auto/taxi and miraculously one auto slowed down. I was about to get in when an unshaven rough looking individual intervened and said “you cannot get into the auto”, our tax is in queue. I felt helpless, it was 4.25 am. The counter would close in the next 15 minutes. I got into it and found that the 10 minutes ride costs me Rs.450 an exorbitant amount. The chap sitting next to driver took Rs.450 and got down. The taxi driver told me that chap is the broker and asked for a Rs.20 tip. I gave it and checked in without any further mishap.
The flight took off and I was out of Kochi Airport at 7.45 am. I had looked up the Kochi airport website and found that a bus would leave for Kochi Town at 7.50 am. This is an AC Bus, with provision for keeping luggage. I was charged Rs. 46 to reach my cousin’s house which is around 20 KMs away. The drizzle had stopped. In the midst of the upcoming concrete jungle, the beauty of Kerala was visible in patches – a backwater, lush greenery, independent houses with garden patches and so on. There is always a pleasure and heart break when I am in Kerala. The eye-catching natural beauty within which the normal day to day life is carried on (as compared to great scenery found in hill station or forests) reminds me that I hail from this part of India. What pains me is that I cannot live in Kerala as it does not offer any career opportunities (my father migrated from our home town in 1930s and things haven’t improved much thereafter).
Sabaarimala temple is situated on the top of the hill (4.50 KMs from the Pamba river bank. Till early 1930s or 1940s, it was a small temple known mainly to Kerala inhabitants with some pilgrims coming from Madurai side of Tamil Nadu. ( made popular by Film Actor M.N.Nambiar and Stage Actor Rajamanickam Pillai). There is an old 1942 photograph of Sabarimala which depicts this.
There were two routes – both through dense forests. The more popular route thru Erumeli which entails trek over 46 KMs. The other are through Kumili is lesser – around 30 KMs but equally tough.
In 1960, a shorter route was devised whereby only for final hill on which the temple is situated needed to be traversed. (4.50 KMs). This is the route used by major pilgrims. Any way the larger forest route is open only from mid November to mid January and passes through a reserve forest.
A former boss once made a perceptive comment that Sabarimala, Tirupati and Guruvayur are popular because these are “Gods which Deliver”. This is perhaps a cynical comment. But the fact remains that the number of pilgrims in these temples have grown over the years, lending some credence to this view.
Like in thousands of other pilgrims, Sabarimala evokes strong emotions in my mind. Each year involves a different experience. Ascending a hill barefooted carrying our offering on our head is not easy for a desk bound individual. But the final goal (sounds like a corporate vision mission statement) makes it a part of a larger and very emotive experience.
This year I joined Kannan, my son-in-law – who is also a veteran pilgrim with a family tradition of sabrimala pilgrimage. The group consisted of 67 pilgrims including children and senior citizens. The starting point was a suburb in Kochi . The main offering to the Lord is ghee which is put in an emptied coconut and sealed. This is put in a two part bag (called Pallikettu) along with rice offering and other items. This bag is tied in the middle and carried on the head till we see Lord. The ghee is then offered to Lord in the form of Abhishekam. A portion of the ghee is returned to us as Prasad. This process is called “Kettunira” –loosely meaning filling the bag containing the offering
After visiting Vaikom Kadathurithy and Ettumanur (all ancient Shiva Temples) and Udayanapuram (Karthikeya Temple) we reached Pampa at 2.00 am It was raining heavily at and we slept in the bus. We awoke at 3.00 am left the bus to cross Pampa river and take the first step to ascend Neelimala – a hill on the top of which Lord Ayyappa resides.
We stepped out of the bus and within three minutes it started raining heavily. We rushed to cover. Luckily it stopped within few minutes. Pamba was flowing with full force which was a sight to behold- as we had seen only a dry riverbed or one with stagnant water. We crossed the bridge and after waiting for some time, took bath in the river. The water was cold but pleasant. My slip disc prevented me from living in the water for long. Also the rain continued, albeit with smaller intensity.
We started the trek at 5.00 am. After bowing to the deities in Ganapati temple, the ascent started. The entire ascent is cemented or paved with stones. Some parts are covered. There is an iron hand hold dividing the ascent. My last year’s ascent was in the afternoon. Besides burning my foot, it also left me panting for breath after every two minutes climb, leaving my elder brother (who is fit and climbed easily) worried about my health. I was apprehending a similar experience this year.
The Pallikettu was lighter than of earlier years. Neelimala, to my mind has a will of its own. It retains a distinctive personality by ensuring that no two years are same in terms of experience. It has three steep ascents flowing one after another. We are not sure where one ascent ends and the next one begins.
One step at a time seemed to be a good principle. Focus on the path, keep the Pallikettu safe on the head (with a bed sheet covering it), do not look up or down, both can be frightening. The recognized and advised method of climbing is to keep chanting prayers and climb steadily. Avoid too frequent steps, take limited quantity of liquids to keep hydrated, do not take solids, the dhoti worn should assist in free movement and so on. There is no dress code, even shorts are seen.
Some moments stand out one set of pilgrims were chanting the prayer “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa” continuously in a steady volume. I was trying to recite same prayers in my mind but was more focused on the ascent. At this moment I wondered, why I could not chant equally loudly – at least within myself.
Kannan was walking step by step with me. He was neither too close nor too far and motivated me to take the next step. In such an ascent, the battle is won in the mind first and then by the body. Prior experience does help at times in knowing what to expect but still the body craves to end the strain it is being put to at the earliest. The rains started midway and we had to cover the Pallikattu in a plastic cover. Appachimedu (the last and steepest curve) ended after a seemingly endless climb and we reached the plateau.
It was nearly 7.00 a..m. We were close to the temple. The goal of a month’s observances is visible. The rain had thinned. Then the temple slowly became visible. There was hardly any crowd. The holy 18 steps (lot of legend and principles associated with these steps) was not thronging with pilgrims . The steps ,made out of stone , are now covered with brass. Earlier, we used to break a coconut on the steps- in the first year on the first step and so on. The coconut used to fall on our legs and the coconut water used to make the steps very slippery .After the steps were covered some years back, the coconut is broken on the two sides of the 18 steps. Breaking of coconut is a symbol of overcoming all obstacles.
Along with Kannan, I climbed the 18 steps. The expectation of seeing the deity echoed in my heart. Is it that the we see the Lord or more importantly- we believe that the Lord sees us in front of Him?
There is an elevated corridor circling the main sanctum through which the pilgrims pass . The circle ends close to the Sanctum . We descend the steps and go into the queue which is closer to the Deity. This darshan (seeing the Lord) is with the Pallikettu on our head and is the most important one. Symbolically, it represents all our hopes, aspirations, expectations, which we now place before Him. Viewed from a more mature angle, it is the sheer pleasure of seeing the Deity in person -who we otherwise see in our mind’s eye during prayers.
The queue moves slowly as the crowd is less and the policemen are less aggressive. The abhishekam is going on. My turn comes. I see the Lord partly covered with Ghee. His eyes seem all seeing. There seems to be a welcoming smile playing in his lips. I feel – as do all other pilgrims I expect- that I am in royal presence. There are chants of Lord coming from the throats of pilgrims all around. But in my mind, there is stillness. All other sounds are shut out. I hold the Pallikettu in one hand and the other hands touches my heart trying to convey what a human being would want to tell his or her most favorite God.
What does one tell the Lord in such moments? Health, wealth , prosperity, progeny, happiness, contentment, material needs and wants? The mind blanks out sending a 1024 KBPS message to the brain that no e mail needs to be sent. It is not possible or even needed to ask or demand or submit a list with several annexure to the Lord.
The sheer joy of being in His presence for those 10 seconds to 20 seconds is enough.
Those 10 or 20 seconds are the most significant moments of the pilgrimage. It does not make any difference if those 10 or 20 seconds are in January when we are one among several thousand pilgrims who have stood in queue for 7 or 8 hours (which I have done) or we walk in on a cold rainy morning with few pilgrims in the queue ahead of us. The importance of the first darshan with Pallikettu remains the most important one for every pilgrim,
Kannan and I complete the darshan and join the team in the nearby building where a room is reserved for us. The body now reminds me of the strain I have put it to. I take rest till 11 a.m. and go and have another darshan. In the meanwhile, the Group has made arrangements to offer the Ghee for Abhishekam to the Lord and get a portion of it back as prasadam.
It is Onam week- a major festival in Kerala. The Onam feast of the temple is open for all pilgrims. The feast is exquisite and very enjoyable. The evening is spent in the temple where our group has a Bhajan.
The Temple closes at 10.00 p.m. There is prayer- popularly known as Harivarsanam- sung by Yesudas in a memorable manner after which the temple doors close. Hearing this song is a ritual for most pilgrims. The song heard during the cold night over the loudspeakers has an indescribable beauty. It was sung by Yesudas for a Movie on the Lord and is played every night. The time seems to stand still, all noises seems to fade, only this song seems to be playing in the air and in our hearts. You do not want it to end. I believe that Lord enjoys it as much or even more than us. There is a beauty in the song and how it is sung from the heart which has a lasting impression on all pilgrims.
The next day is Onam. We get up by 4.0 a.m. have a cold water bath and go to temple to bid good bye to Lord . The mandatory coconut and the Pallikettu with the prasdam of Ghee packed in it is in our hands. There is not much crowd. We see the Lord. Abhishekam has started. Lord is covered in Ghee. His eyes are visible and seems to be recognizing our presence. The feeling that we are in royal presence is evident.
What do we tell Lord? The mind again blanks out. I just want to share the joy of being in Sabrimala once again with Him. Wish those 10 or 20 seconds are longer. Could I make a longer Power Point Presentation to Him, if the crowds were thinner? No. I would just stand in front of Him, dumbstruck, trying to offer some prayers.
As always, I make a promise to myself that as long as it is possible, I should visit Sabrimala each year. I bow to the Lord and reluctantly exit the queue. We circle, break the coconut and prepare for the descent.
There is a drizzle. So the bags have to be covered with plastic. The descent also is sternous due to steepness. One step at a time is the motto. I have a knee joint pain which acts up. Still, the descent takes around 90 to 100 minutes. We are down at Pampa. We have some tea and breakfast and leave for Ernakulam.
We reach Kannan’s house around 2.30 p.m. The procedure is that we untie the Palliettu in our house, remove the Rudraksha Mala worn at the commencement of the austerities from our neck and open the ghee and consume a small portion of it and share it with other family members.
This marks the end of this year’s pilgrimage.
I undertook this pilgrimage in the midst of job related pressures and health issues. The Group I joined was unknown to me and I had not gone to Sabrimala during monsoon as Kerala rains are quite heavy and could cause great inconvenience. None of this mattered. It was a beautiful experience. The rains did not cause any great inconvenience. The darshan of Lord was unlike that I had ever witnessed earlier. The Group was hetrogenous and relaxed. Some of them sang very well and made the bus journey joyous.
Most importantly, the pilgrimage soothed the frayed edges of mind and spirit and revived. It.
Persons who have undertaken pilgrimage to Sabrimala may be able to identify some of the experiences and emotions described above . It is unique and impacts each individual differently.
I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed narrating it.