On the occasion of Shivaratri today, many people from the city undertake the Shivalaya Ottam. Nita Sathyendran charts the journey of the pilgrims

By the time you get to read this article, early on Shivaratri (February 27), S. Soman, a city-based athletics coach would be well on the way to completing the ‘Shivalaya Ottam’, along with five of his friends, all of them dressed in saffron dhothis and chanting ‘Govinda, Gopala.’ So would businessman Vijayakumaran Nair and his wife, Vasanthakumari, who hail from Chembakassery. Joining them on the day-long pilgrimage would be scores of other devotees, men and women, young and old.

Shivalaya Ottam, an annual pilgrimage on the occasion of Shivaratri to 12 specific Shiva temples in Kalkulam taluk of Kanyakumari district, Tamil Nadu, has become quite popular with many devotees from the city and its suburbs and also from the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.

Ideally, the Shivalaya Ottam is undertaken on foot (after all, ottam means run in Malayalam). However, nowadays, only the most ardent of devotees, literally, run the distance. “The pilgrimage involves a circuitous journey, starting from Thirumala Mahadevar temple at Munchira, near Marthandam to Sankaranarayana temple, at Thirunattalam. Pilgrims have to cover a distance of about 80 to 110 km in around 24 hours. You have to be really fit to complete the journey on foot. Usually, the pilgrimage starts at around 4 p.m. on the previous day when Thirumala temple opens for evening darshan. Only then can the pilgrims on foot make it in time for the evening deeparadhana (pooja with lighted lamps) at Nattalam,” says 67-year-old Soman, who has been undertaking the pilgrimage for the past decade. “I once attempted the journey on foot but was so exhausted that I could only go to six temples,” he says.

Perhaps that’s why many devotees these days prefer to travel the route on vehicles. Local tour operators even arrange special coaches and cars for Shivalaya Ottam. “Even if you are travelling by car, bus or two-wheeler, you have to leave the city well before dawn to cover the distance on time. On the day, there will be huge traffic snarls on the route, particularly from Balaramapuram to Marthandam. There will be so many people and cars on the road that you can only inch forward,” says Vijayakumaran. For 15 years now, every Shivaratri, 65-year-old Vijayakumaran and Vasanthakumari, 55, have been undertaking the pilgrimage on their scooter. “We leave our house at 3 a.m. in order to catch ‘nirmalyam’ at Thirumala temple. The average distance between each of the 12 temples is about six to eight km. Also, at each temple there would be serpentine queues to get into the sanctum sanctorum. It’s a taxing pilgrimage yes, especially for old people. But, at the end of it I always feel refreshed and at peace,” adds Vijayakumaran.

Sense of camaraderie

Another highlight of the pilgrimage is the sense of camaraderie as local residents come out en masse to host the pilgrims. “It’s a joyful atmosphere, as even the locals get into the spirit of things. There is no question of getting lost because there are lots of people to guide you. At each temple arrangements would have been made to feed the pilgrims and even take showers if needs be. When they see us walking by, local people will hand out glasses of tea, juice, or sambharam and feed us breakfast and lunch,” says Vinod Surendran, a college student from Enikkara, on his fifth pilgrimage.

Vijayakumaram adds: “All you really need to take along with you on the pilgrimage is bhakti.”

TWELVE TEMPLES IN ORDER…

Thirumala Mahadevar temple, Munchira

Mahadevar temple, Thikkurichi

Veerapathira temple, Thiruparappu

Nandeeswarar temple, Thirunanthikara

Theempilankudi Mahadevar temple, Ponmana

Sri Kirathamurthi temple, Pannippagam

Neelakandaswamy temple, Kalkulam (Padmanabhapuram)

Kala Kandar temple, Melangode

Sadayappar temple, Thiruvidaikode

Sri Parithipani Mahadevar temple, Thiruvithancode

Mahadevar temple, Thirupannikodu

Sankaranarayana temple, Thirunattalam

AROUND THE CITY

Many devotees in the city, particularly those who can’t make it for the Shivalaya Ottam, observe the occasion with a pilgrimage to any 12 of the major and/or minor Shiva temples in the city or district. “Devotees usually start in the evening on Shivaratri and they finish in time for the first deeparadhana (pujas with lamps) that happens around at 4 a.m. the next day. We cover around 35 km. Ideally, devotees are supposed to circulate each of the 12 sanctum sanctorum 108 times, reciting 108 mantras. However, due to paucity of time most of us circulate once and leave the 108 rounds till the very last. Many devotees also take time out to write the sloka ‘Ohm Nama Shivaya’ 108 times on pieces of paper provided by temple authorities, which we then drop into a hundi,” explains Shyam J., a clerk with the Revenue Department, who regularly undertakes the shorter ‘Ottam’ with his wife, his mother and young daughter. Some of these temples on the shorter circuit are Sreekanteswaram temple, Thaliyil Mahadeva temple, Karamana, Mahadeva Temple, Pipinmoodu, Gowreeshapattam temple, Kussakode Mahadeva temple, Thirumala, Chengalloor Sree Mahadeva Temple, Poojapura, Pazhaya Sreekanteswaram temple, Overbridge, Sri Mahadeva temple, Manikanteswaram…