The Devout Traveler’s Guide to Sabarimala

Sabarimala, the erstwhile land of Lord Ayyappa, is a famed religious destination in South India where thousands of devotees come from everywhere and seek blessings – some for the first time in their lives, some for the nth time.



Sabarimala has an interesting mythological history, linked to the lives of King of Pandalam, who had no offspring of his own but yearned to have one for several years, his queen and Manikandan. King Rajashekhara Perumal was blessed with an infant whom he came across during one of his visits to the forest.

This blessed infant was born as a result of the fusion between Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu. A holy man appeared from nowhere and informed the king that this infant boy has divine qualities and the king would be aware of it when the child becomes 10 years of age. The boy was named Manikandan.

Ayyappa was known as Manikandan before he was conferred with the title “Ayyappan”. Manikandan was named so because when the king found him lying in the forest he had a golden chain with a bell around his tiny neck. Manikandan  – the one with the bell around his neck.

Lord Ayyappa

Image by MYSTIKAL HOLIDAYS via Flickr

Thus the baby, born out of Hari (Vishnu) and Hara (Siva), had his human sojourn through King Rajashekhara Perumal. One of his exploits was to kill Mahisha, a demon woman because she was wreaking havoc not only on earth but also in the abode of the gods. The gods appealed to Lord Vishnu who decided to confer with Lord Siva, and the story goes that Lord Ayyappa was born as a fusion of the two lords.

The astonishing growth of Manikandan made the Queen and the ministers green with jealousy. They hatched a devious plot where the Queen feigned illness and the royal doctor suggested “tiger’s milk” as the only remedy. The underlying idea was to get rid of the boy, Manikandan forever.

The king, in a desperate effort to save his queen had to send his favorite child (the king and the queen later had a child of their own, after Manikandan came to live with them) to the forest. Manikandan surprised them all when he came back with a group of tigers, he himself riding atop one. The queen and the ministers realized their folly and sought pardon from the king.

Manikandan proceeded to Erumeli to kill Mahishi, which was the real purpose of his birth. Manikandan then requested his father to build a temple at the spot where his arrow would strike, and this was how the Sabarimala temple was built.


Image by vinod kannery via Flickr

Situated at a height of about 1547 feet above sea level, the great temple of Sabarimala is located at the Pathanamthitta district in Kerala. In the vicinity of the temple, known as Poonakavanam, you can see 18 mountains and each of these mountains are known by different names.  

Sabarimala is one of these mountains and this where the temple of Lord Ayyappa is situated. River Pamba, one of the most sacred of all rivers in India originates from these mountains and this where the devotees of the lord have a dip before they go in for their “darshan”.


18 sacred steps

Image by www.keralapilgrim via Flickr

The devotees of Lord Ayyappa climb the 18 sacred steps leading to the temple every year after going through severe penance and concentrating on chanting the Lord’s name throughout the penance period. They also have to keep strict fasting and observe rules of the “vrutham”. The devotees climb the 18 steps carrying “irumudikkettu‘” or the of bag sins on their head.

Before reaching the sacred 18 steps, the devotees walk through dense forests, over mighty mountains and rivers carrying their “irumudikkettu”, fearing neither beast nor bird. They walk with the lord’s name on their lips, entrusting their lives to the divine being, who they believe would protect them should they come to any harm.


Image by Avsnarayan via Wikipedia

The devotees, known as “Ayyappans” themselves are dressed entirely in black. They walk in a united fashion through the forest carrying the “irumudikkettu’, chanting the lord’s name, and the lord showers his holy blessings on them.

The most noted fact about Sabarimala is that people from all religions are welcome here and the lord would bless anyone who comes with his name on their lips. Only ladies between the ages of 9 and 60 are not allowed within the premises of the temple, though.

Main rituals of Sabarimala at a glance:


Image by Anoop Sasindran via Flickr

  • Wearing the blessed chain and black attire throughout the entire period of fasting until they finish the pilgrimage
  • Observing strict penance
  • Carrying the “irumudikkettu” during pilgrimage
  • Bathing in the River Pampa
  • Following severe penance and vrutham
  • Bringing of the thiruvabharanam from Pandalam palace, brought as a procession by the representatives of both the palace and the devotees
  • Offering obeisance at Erumeli Sree Dharma Shastha Temple and shrine of Malikappurathama; just 100 meters away from the Sannidhanam
  • Climbing the 18 steps or the “pathinettampadi”
  • After the pilgrimage, the devotee returns home and removes the “irumudikkettu” and the chain; this signifies the end of rituals

The pilgrims start their 41 day fast by initiating themselves at a temple and wearing Rudrakshamala (beaded chain) or Tulasi mala (chain made with Tulasi leaves) with Lord Ayyappan’s locket on them. This chain would be handed over to the devotee after a pooja at the temple.

It is believed that bathing in the River Pamba would absolve the devotees of all their sins and soothe them out of the tiredness and fatigue suffered through the long trek in the jungle. Once they have finished bathing, they will start climbing the slopes towards the temple chanting in stupendous rhythm “Swamiye… Saranamayyappa” (meaning “Oh Lord, Give us refuge”). The rituals, the strict fasting and other “vruthas” followed by the Ayyappa devotees prepare them to brave the hardships faced during the entire pilgrimage.

According to legends and believes, the first 5 steps signify the five senses of the human body – eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. The 8 steps that follow are the deadly ragas that we should avoid – tatwa, kama, krodha, moha, lobha, madha, matsraya, and ahamkara and the final 3 are the gunas everyone should follow – satwa, rajas and thamas;  this is closely followed by vidya and avidya.

These 18 steps are what the devotees climb in order to reach the sreekkovil (where the deity is installed). Once they follow the penance strictly and follow fasting rules, climbing these steps would bring them closer to self-realization.



Image by P.sandeep via Flickr

The most auspicious day the temple falls on Makara Sankranti day every year, usually January 14th. Austerities to visit the temple would begin on Vrichikam 1 or November 15th and once the 41 day fast is successfully completed, pilgrims start visiting the temple. The main pilgrim season is thus followed from November to January, also known Mandalakala.

Sabarimala Related Locations

Vavar Mosque

Image by Babish VB via Flickr

The devotees of lord Ayyappa chant the name of the lord throughout the entire journey, and the tempo rises when they near the temple. Famed spots near the temple are:

  • Erumeli Sree Dharma Shastha Temple, where Lord Ayyappa is believed to have killed the demon Mahisha
  • Kalaketty Siva-Parvathy temple, the place where Siva tied his bull when he came to visit his son after the Mahishi killing
  • Malikappurathamma, where Malanada Bhagavathi shrine is located and where the goddess waits her eternal wait to marry Lord Ayyappa, who promised her that he would marry her in the year no “kanni Ayyappans” (a first visitor to the temple is known as Kanni Ayyappan) visit the temple
  • Shrine of Vavurswami at Erumeli and Sabarimala, where Vavaru, a Muslim becomes the closest confidant of the lord after being defeated by him.

We hope this article shed some light on the history and significance of Sabarimala. It is truly a mesmerizing destination for the devout traveler!

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  1. Aaloka on February 1, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    My trek was great , Kerala likewise was great it have a decent green range on the planet. I need say thank you for help and after that my driver was great however some lodging it has not great sustenance… .

    Thank you

  2. srinivas on December 6, 2017 at 7:56 am

    Dear Mam.

    is there any bus facility from chengannur to pamba during monthly pooja days(may be on march 15th 2018,meenam of malayalam calendar,from 15th midnight ) as i will reach there by midnigth.and what are opening and closing time and dates for meenam.

  3. Anjali Raveendran on November 24, 2018 at 9:58 am

    Article you shared about Sabarimala Temple is really great. You gives interesting informaton about Sabarimala. Keep writing more and more articles like this.

  4. Anjali Raveendran on December 28, 2018 at 6:02 am

    Always Welcome.

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