According to the legend, the temple of Shabarimala and the deity of Ayyappa have always been regarded as the Pandalam Raja's very own, and it is not considered proper to proceed to the temple without the King's knowledge and permission. To make it easy for the pilgrims to obtain the necessary permission, a representative of the King sits even today, with all the royal insignia, on a raised platform at the base of the Neelimala Hill. The pilgrims offer a token amount to the royal representative, and receive a vibhuti from him.
This marks the beginning of the steepest climb of the pilgrimage, the 3 km trek up the majestic Neelimala Hill, atop which sits Lord Ayyappa in all his glory. The pilgrims wind their way up the difficult trial in an unending stream, the hill reverberating with the constant chanting of thousands.
At the first sight of the Pathinettampadi, the holy eighteen steps, a full throated cry goes up from the devotees - SWAMIYE SHARANAM AYYAPPA. It is the realisation of the mission.
Built on a plateau of about 40 feet high, the Ayyappan temple commands a lofty view of the mountains and valleys all around. The ancient temple has been rebuilt after a fire in 1950, consisting of a sanctum sanctorium with a copper-plated roof and four golden finials at the top, two mandapams, the belikalpura which houses the altar, and the flag-staff. Replacing the earlier stone image of the deity is a beautiful idol of Ayyappa in panchaloha, an alloy of five metals, about one and a half feet tall.
There are several explanations regarding the significance of the Pathinettampadi, but in all of them, the emphasis is on the number 18. One popular belief is that the first 5 steps signify the five indriyas or senses, the next 8 ragas, the next 3 the gunas, followed by vidya & avidya. Crossing these would take the devotee closer to self-realisation.
Finally, at the eighteenth step, the devotee is a last face to face with the image of Lord Ayyappa or DharmaSashta. A circumambulation brings him right in front of the sanctum sanctorium, and the pilgrim is filled with a sense of accomplishment and utter peace. But there is one more thing to be done - the Ghee Abhisheka or bathing of the idol in ghee, which marks the culmination of the pilgrimage. The ghee-filled coconut which the pilgrim has carried in the front section of his irumudi is broken, and the ghee is offered to the deity. Another important abhisheka is of vibhuti, which is also brought by the devotee in his Irumudi.
To the south west of the main temple is the shrine of Lord Ganapati, known as Kannimala Ganapati. The special offering to this deity is Ganapati Homam and there used to be a large homakunda in front of the shrine, which burned constantly, fed by the coconut shells thrown by the devotees, after offering the ghee. As the coconut shells are consumed by the fire, the sins of the devotees are believed to be cleansed. Due to the growing crowds in the temple, the homakunda has now been shifted to a location below the temple. About a 100 metres away is the shrine of Malikapurathamma. En route to the shrine is the temple tank, Bhasma Kulam,in which hundreds of devotees take a holy bath in memory of the great tapaswini Sabari who entered a fire to end her mortal life. It is after that the peak is named Sabarimala. On account of the number of people who bathe in the tank, the water is frequently drained out and refilled with fresh water.
Situated on a small hillock, the Malikapurathamma temples houses the shrines of the Devi & Kaduthaswamy. Devotees also worship a trident and lamp here, and offer coconuts. The coconuts are not broken, however, but are just rolled on the ground around the temple.
To the left of this temple are the shrines of Snake God and Godesses, Nagaraja and Nagayakshi. Here, tribals beat on drums, play stringed instruments and sing Sarpa Pattu to protect devotees and thier progency from the harmful effects of snakebites.
At the foot of the Patinettampadi are the two shrines of Kaduthaswamy and Karuppaswamy, who stand like dwarpalakas or guardians of the holy steps, to ensure that they are not polluted by those who tread on them without fulfilling the rigid austerities required of them. They are also believed to protect the devotees from the evil sprits of the forests. According to the legend, Kadutha was a warrior who helped the Pandalam King defeat the armies of Udayanan. When the King came to Sabarimala to reconstruct the temple, Kadutha came with him to protect him. Ultimately, he became so attached to Ayyappa that he decided to spend the rest of his days with the Lord.
Also near the Patinettampadi is the shrine of the Muslim Vavarswamy. While there are several accounts of identity of Vavar, it is generally believed that he was a warrior who was defeated and subdued by Ayyappa, and later became a close associate. It is believed that Lord Ayyappa himself instructed the King of Pandalam to build a Mosque for Vavar at Erumeli and a shrine at Shabarimala.
The Vavar deity is believed to be as old as the original deity of Ayyappa himself, and records show that the shrine was renovated sometime in 1905. Here, the poojas are conducted by a Muslim Preist. There is no distinguishable idol, but a carved stone slab that represents the deity. A green silken cloth is hung across the wall, and there is also an old sword. The special offering here is green pepper. Many devotees also bring a goat to offer to Vavarswamy, mainly in the belief that pilgrims accompanied by a goat will reach the temple safely. These goats are later auctioned by the temple authoties.
The layout of the Ayyappa temple is believed to have originated from the specific instructions of the Lord himself, who wanted Malikapurathamma on his left a few yards from Sannidhanam, and his trusted lieutenants Vavar and Kadutha to be positioned as his guards at the foot of the holy 18 Steps.
Half way between Sabari Peetam and Sannidanam is Saramkuthi. The Kanniswamy peirce their arrows here which they bought from Erumeli. At this place is a Banyan tree called the Sharam kuthi Aaal
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