There is an ever intriguing presence about a group of people in Sri Lanka who are attired in black clothing during the months November to December. These are pilgrims who undertake severe vows and make the trip to Kerala, India to go on pilgrimage to Sabarimala, the abode of Lord Ayyappa.
This deity is worshipped by close to 10 million devotees each year, making Sabarimala one of the largest pilgrim sites in the world. Just a few days ago several batches that went on pilgrimage to Sabarimala returned to Sri Lanka. The Weekend Nation spoke to Vijekanthan Guru Swami who played the role of tour guide to a group of pilgrims who went from his place of religious worship situated in Colombo 13 and named Sri Dharma Shastra Peedam.
Guru Swami, a pleasant young man in his thirties, greeted us and sat on the ground in his small shrine. He asked us whether we needed chairs, but we responded by saying that we too preferred the floor. “Lord Ayyappa gives you strength and finds you the money to go on the pilgrimage. You only have to observe strict vows and have faith in the Lord,” said Guru Swami who has been on this pilgrimage 23 times. About 5000 Sri Lankans go on pilgrimage to Sabarimala each year.
His name is Gunanada Vijekanthan. He was bestowed with the title ‘Guru Swami’ after completing 18 visits to the abode of Lord Ayyappa. Those interested in doing the 60km trek through the jungles of Sabarimala need to prepare mentally about two months before the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is mostly made by men even though a relatively small number of female devotees too join the party. According to Guru Swami, girls who haven’t attained age and women who have reached menopause are the only females who can make the trip to Sabarimala.
The time when people started visiting Sabarimala was about 5000 years ago. It’s easier to relate the time the pilgrimage began to Kali Yuga, the time when people began moving away from religion and started acquiring bad (Tamasic) qualities. Guru Swami said that going on pilgrimage to Sabarimala helps eradicate sins accumulated during a period of 64 human births. History reveals that a pious king by the name Rajashankara, who didn’t have children from his wife, was presented with a child, who after his death became this much worshipped deity. The gifted son is said to be the son of god Vishnu and god Shiva.
It is said that this child grew up to be a person with exceptional skills. The king conveyed the idea that he wished to make his son the ruler of the nation for a single day. The son consented and on the day he enjoyed kingship he fired an arrow from his bow. He then requested from his father to build a shrine where the arrow fell. This is the shrine in Sabarimala that exists today.
Devotees have to take strict vows. They have to begin the period of austerity by wearing three chains (mala). Devotees have to abstain from consuming meat and liquor and can’t shower nor trim their nails during this period. They also have to observe celibacy, stick to a vegetarian diet and avoid attending weddings and funerals. A devotee who begins the period of vow has to abandon his dream of going to Sabarimala if there is a death in the family. He is only eligible again to go on pilgrimage after the rituals and ceremonies associated with the funeral conclude.
Devotees continue to wear black during the two months of preparation and walk barefoot till the day arrives in January to travel to India. Guru Swami said that devotees live akin to beggars during this period because life takes the form of simplicity. “When people observe that you are preparing for the pilgrimage, they even restrain themselves and won’t talk unnecessary things with you,” said Guru Swami. All would-be pilgrims are treated with the same respect that is shown to Lord Ayyappa himself.
The trek through the jungles is challenging and devotees walk close to 60km. Walking barefoot is a must. “The jungle is full of herb. When you walk on herbs, all your little ailments receive treatment,” explained Guru Swami.
Pilgrims to Sabarimala are mostly those who are less affluent. A good number of them don’t have even half the finances needed for the journey. But amazing things do happen. Krishantha, a member of the tour party this time, said that he had as little as three thousand rupees to begin with. “After taking vows and during the period where I prepared for the journey I somehow found the needed money,” he said. According to Guru Swami, a Sri Lankan travelling to Kerala needs about Rs 37,000 which also includes the cost for the air ticket to India.
It must be said here that though devotees belong to different religions, there isn’t a clash of cultures nor is there problems caused to Indian authorities. But there seems to be no help or facilities extended from the Indian Government to pilgrims who go there in large numbers.
Devotees may belong to different religions. What they must have is complete faith in Lord Ayyappa. The shrine in Sabarimala jungle is open between January 5 to 10 where devotees take with them rice, coconut, salt and ghee and offer them to Lord Ayyappa. These items are blessed and then returned to devotees who keep them as blessed items.
Lord Ayyappa devotees have interesting stories to relate. People with boisterous character have on their return acquired the traits of being calm and collected. Krishanthan knows of a person who was dumb but later acquired the ability to speak. There is a small percentage of pilgrims who fail to complete the journey; largely due to the fact that they didn’t observe strict vows.
What’s really amazing is that all who make it to the shrine get their prayers answered.