Dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple is the most famous and prominent among all the Sastha temples in Kerala. It is situated on a hilltop named Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district. The temple is open to people belonging to all religions but is unique as it is not open throughout the year. It is open for worship only during the days of Mandalapooja, Makaravilakku and Vishu.
It is said that the pilgrims have to observe celibacy for 41 days before going to Sabarimala. Pilgrims take the traditional forest routes as well as the one from Pamba which is less physically challenging to reach the temple. Pilgrims are expected to lead a simple pious life known as ‘Vrutham’ for the successful completion of the pilgrimage.
Ideally, ‘Vrutham’ starts from the day when the pilgrim adorns a chain (Mala in Malayalam) denoting willingness to undertake austerity. This ritual is known as ‘Malayideel’ in local parlance. The devotee may wear a bead chain with the locket of Sree Ayyappan. Once the chain is worn, the devotee has to lead a life free of worldly pleasures. Vices such as smoking and alcohol use are also strictly not allowed.
Religious practices mandate that the Mala should be accepted after prayers from a temple priest or a Guruswami – a person who has completed 18 Sabarimala pilgrimages. Alternatively, the Mala may be also worn in the prayer room/place of one’s own home. The Mala may be taken off after the completion of the pilgrimage.
'Neyyabhishekam' - Neyyabhishekam is the most important offering to Lord Ayyappa. The ghee filled coconut is used to perform this ritual. The ritual starts at 4 AM and continue till Ucha Pooja (1PM). After performing the darsan of Lord Ayyappa and upa-prathistas, the group of Ayyappa pilgrim will make a Viri under the leadership of Guruswamy. They collect all ghee filled coconut and arrange in the viri.
After taking bath at Bhasmakulam, the team leader, usually a Guruswamy will break all ghee filled coconuts and collect the ghee in a vessel to offer it at the Srikovil.
The priest after performing the Neyyabhishekam will return a portion of the ghee back to the devotee. The ghee obtained from the Srikovil is taken back as a divine prasadam. For devotees who don’t bring ghee filled coconut, Devaswom board has arranged facility to get “Adiyashistam neyyu”.
The ghee symbolizes the human soul and through the abhishekam of the ghee on Lord Ayyappa the soul merges with the Supreme Being. The jeevatma is ghee and the paramatma is Lord Ayyappa.
Once the ghee is removed from the coconut, then the coconut symbolizes Jadam or dead body. This is the reason why the coconut is then offered in the huge Aazhi or fire in front of the temple.
'Padi Pooja' – Padi Pooja, pooja of the 18 holy steps ‘Pathinettampadi’ is held on select days after the floral bathing of the idol called ‘Pushpabhiskeham’. The pooja is conducted in evenings and is performed by the Tantri, in the presence of the Mel Santhi. The hour-long ritual by decorating the Holy Steps with flowers and silk cloths after lighting traditional lamps on each step, concluded with performing “aarathi” by the thantri.
‘Udayasthamana Pooja’ – Udayasthamaya literally means from sunrise to sunset. Hence it implies worship from sunrise to sunset. Udayasthamana pooja is conducted from dawn to dusk (from Nirmalyam to Athazha pooja). In addition to the Nithya pooja, special poojas with Archanas and Abhishekams are conducted to obtain the “Anugraham” of Bhagavan which enables to fulfill the wishes of the devotees. Out of the total 18 poojas, 15 are done before noon and there are 45 kalasabhishekams.
(Information sourced from the official website of Sabarimala, Travancore Devaswom Board and sabarimala.kerala.gov. in)