Surrendering the ego

Moods of bhakti: the true bhaktas take a vow of 41 days of sexual and dietary abstinence with strict adherence to rituals. — Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

THE COLOURS start appearing towards mid-November — the ritual hues of black, blue, and saffron. From the beginning of the Vritchika month till the Makara Vilakku in mid-January, several lakh devotees of Sabarimala Sastha, or Ayyappa, begin their pilgrimage by train, bus, car, vans, and yes, even on foot to the fabled shrine in Kottayam district, Kerala.

The pilgrims themselves are called Ayyappas, signifying their oneness with the celibate deity. The true bhaktas take a vow of 41 days of sexual and dietary abstinence, as well as strict adherence to rituals.

The impressive number of pilgrims has spawned a local industry, mainly concentrated around City Market, Gandhi Bazaar, and Ulsoor, that caters to the pilgrims' needs like dhotis and angavastrams, tulasi and rudraksha malas, flowers (including the mandatory kasturi chendu), plantains, puffed rice, as well as cassettes, CDs, and MP3s of Ayyappa bhajans.

Not to mention hiring of lights and sound systems, banners, vehicles, and elephants for the Ayyappa vilakku processions, all embracing both bhakti and commercialism. As the signs of the times, the sacred irumudi, which has to be borne on the head while making the steep climb to the shrine, comes with readymade paraphernalia like puffed rice, sugar candy, sandal, agarbathi, vibhuti, coconut, ghee, and so on. And these days, other hot-selling items are Ayyappa pendants, photos, and idols.

Surrendering the ego

The season is good for cooks too as devotees have to perform annadanam for others during the bhajan sessions.

Time was when the Sabarimala season would see a rash of Ayyappa movies being released in all local languages. This trend seems to have given way to a rise in sale of Ayyappa bhajans, especially by K.J. Yesudas, a Christian who is one of the deity's most famous devotees. The singer exemplifies the secular nature of Ayyappa. All Ayyappas are one, and whatever creed or class they belong to, they have to surrender themselves to the deity.

All of them walk barefoot from the banks of the Pampa river to the shrine. The route is far from comfortable. The road is usually slippery, and it drizzles most of the time. Sanitation facilities are rudimentary, to say the least. "I don't know how I do it each time," says K.P. Premachandran, middle-aged, hypertensive, and borderline diabetic, who works for a French company. "But I see people much older and frailer walking resolutely. This inspires me. It does wonders to my spiritual side, this total surrender of my ego."

T.V. Leela made it when she turned 60. Being arthritic, she could not walk those distances. "I was carried in a doli. There are these people who carry you for a price. It is magical to see their speed and stamina."

The truly committed make it all the way on foot. There is a clutch of devotees from the Avenue Road area who walk it, taking the Mysore or Hosur route. Most travel in groups, but there are those who do it alone. This lot reach in time for the Makara Vilakku, that falls on January 14.

While the lesser mortals take the shorter route up to the shrine from Pampa, the others take the circuitous, hazardous 48-km path from Erumeli, through the forests.

Surrendering the ego

During the Sabarimala season in Bangalore, elephants, very much a part of Kerala's cultural ethos, come from Palakkad and Thrissur with their mahouts.

They are hired by the local Ayyappa sanghas for Rs. 4,000 to Rs. 5,000. Fully caparisoned and accompanied by the traditional percussion orchestra, the panchavadyam, they present a mesmerising spectacle as they do their rounds.

The Ayyappa cult gained popularity in Bangalore about 60 years ago. Now there are Ayyappa temples in areas as disparate as Malleswaram, Vishweshwarapuram, Maruti Sevanagar, Kalasipalyam, HAL, and so on.

This year, the season opened on November 16. It closes on January 20.