Pilgrimage to Sabarimala: an NRI’s perspective
Occasionally I get to answer queries by colleagues about Sabarimala. Then, with pronounced enthusiasm I talk about the uniqueness, the universality of Lord Ayyappa, and His abode. The temple extolls the virtues of the great Vedic philosophy, 'Thathvamasi' proclaiming that the Lord and the devotee, are one and the same at His sanctum. Like the Lord, the pilgrims, rich and poor, all are called swami or Ayyappa. This temple may be the only one in the world that has a shrine dedicated to a Muslim, Vavar, who befriended Lord Ayyappa during his journey. Thus the temple is the epitome of religious harmony as it is open to all, irrespective of caste, creed, or religious affiliations.
The Sabarimala temple in the midst of the lush tropical rainforest and surrounded by many hills of the Western Ghats is remote from nearby inhabited places. A trek to the temple takes an arduous 5-kilometre journey up the hills via difficult mountain paths, and rough terrains. This tiny temple attracts the largest pilgrim crowd during the months of November to January. Rest of the year, the temple is open only for few days every month. The ardent devotees are asked to undertake a self-managed abstinence programme that stipulates a vegetarian diet, fasting, and meditation rituals for 41 days prior to the pilgrimage. The penance is to condition one’s body, and mind from urges, impulses, and indulgences. Casual visitors and other devotees are allowed in but not via the sacred 18-steps at the main entrance to the temple sanctum.
I was longing for the past many years to make a pilgrimage to the temple. Finally, it came true, and the pilgrimage became the highlight of our visit to Kerala. The day was hot and humid with plenty of sunshine. The drive to Pampa, main entrance point to the temple hills, was pleasant via hairpin curves, beautiful greenery, and magnificent views of the rubber, teak, and tea estates. Drive through the rain forest in a misty morning was very calming.
We started our trek towards the temple from the base at river Pampa around 9 AM; already the temperature was around 35 degree Celsius. I stood at the foothills and took a long look at the path ahead of us. After 40 years, my physical confidence was a bit shaky but mind was adamant. After five minutes of steep climb, I realized the hard path ahead of me. It was exhausting and difficult to begin with.
The steep climb of three hills stretching about five kilometres took us over three hours. It was tiring but exhilarating. I saw young, old, and young-at-heart walking barefoot with deep conviction and enthusiasm. I saw many struggling, many as advised took rest after few steps and then kept on climbing. The altitude or the rainforest didn’t do much to the temperature; it kept on rising. The rock slabs, bricks, and concrete pavement below our feet were reaching unbearable temperature.
I saw billboards proclaiming, “It is Lord’s abode, please keep it clean”. There were a plethora of billboards and notice boards everywhere informing, restricting, and warning devotees about plastic, littering, relieving themselves, forest fires, pickpockets, etc. Words without appropriate actions don’t mean much. Rules without enforcement do nothing.
The natural beauty of the forest, steep mountains, and the climb itself impressed our children. They read about Lord Ayyappa, and the temple before the journey. However, the sight of garbage, objectionable sanitary conditions, and the overall state of the holy place disappointed them. The heat or the walk did not deter them, but the stench and the garbage did.
As a welcome relief, we saw tractors (instead of mules) hauling goods to the temple. However, human carriers were still carrying elderly and people with mobility issues to the temple and back from the bottom of the hills. We were concerned about the poor labourers (human-carriers) toiling in the heat.
The infrastructure and facilities for the pilgrims didn’t change much, other than few buildings, during the past forty years. Inadequacies are numerous. Basic facilities including sanitation and waste disposal are still being developed, and at some places non-existent. Garbage removal is absent or limited. Potable water quality is questionable; hence everyone depends on bottled water producing heaps of plastic waste all around.
We got darshan fairly fast, as it was not the high pilgrimage season. I stood overwhelmed in front of the Lord; a magnificent thought of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all’, an all-encompassing ‘Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavanthu’ feeling, went through my mind. At least for few moments my mind was calm, and clear of many anxieties. We spent a few hours at the temple, walking around and visiting various shrines. Then rested a bit and prepared for the downward trip that was equally tricky, and exhausting.
During the downward journey, a few thoughts filled my mind about the environment, and how we take it for granted. Our deficiencies and inactions contaminate the pristine environment, land and water alike. Thus, we negate our responsibilities to other living beings, and to our own generations yet to come. While the devotees are requested to obey the rituals and rigors for the pilgrimage, they are seldom made aware of the environmental responsibilities.
(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)