3/15/2008 to 3/16/2008 | India , Kerala

Sabarimala: Jungle Pilgrimage

If you mention the words “Sabarimala,” and “Lord Ayyappa,” to the average Western tourist in Kerala and you will be most likely be greeted with a blank stare.  I would have been one of those blank stares if I hadn’t started thumbing through my Kerala road atlas looking for places to break the journey heading up into the southern Indian mountains known as the Ghats.  The little blurb in the road atlas intrigued me enough to stick it on my itinerary.  Far off the radar of most tourists Sabarimala is the abode of Lord Ayyappa, a Keralan deity, whose popularity has made Sabarimala the second most visited pilgrim site in the world behind Tirumala, in Andre Pradesh, which I visited last time I was in India three years ago.  I really knew very little about the place when I set off from Varkala beach with aim of reaching Sabarimala, including how to get there.  Armed with my road atlas stuck in my pant pocket, I hopped from town to town on the no-frills government buses slowly getting closer to my goal, town by town.  Five bus rides and 7 hours later I made it to Pamba, the end point for vehicular traffic en route to Sabarimala.

I had expected Pamba to be a small town with lodges and hotels to service the pilgrims,  what I found was that Pamba is little more than a parking lot full of buses, vans, jeeps, cars and other vehicles that brought the pilgrims to the trail head of the 5 km path to the temple.  There was a line of restaurants and drink shops along the beginning of the path and a couple administrative buildings that also rented out rooms.  I enquired at two places and was quoted fairly high rates, considering the rooms did not have beds.  I was told there were cheaper rooms at the temple, although I wasn’t real keen on walking up the 5 km and more than a thousand steps, to the temple with all my stuff.  As I was contemplating my options, it began to rain so I ducked into one of the many restaurants to decide over a masala dosa and a cup of chai.  A steady stream of pilgrims walked past heading up towards the temple.  I wasn’t even sure if I would be permitted into the temple, or allowed to stay in the temple pilgrim houses.  There was a sign stating women between the ages of 10 and 50 were strictly forbid from making the pilgrimage, but nothing about foreigners or non-Hindus.  It seemed as if everyone was heading to the temple so I figured it would be more interesting staying at the temple than essentially the starting line, where I was now.  When the rain let up, with my big bag on my back and my camera gear in my waterproof backpack on my chest I began the walk to the temple.  I noticed most people were not wearing shoes on the hike up but there were a few that were, as well as the dholis (guys who carry the lesser fit pilgrims up on chairs), which I decided was license enough for me to leave my hiking boots on.  Going barefoot, carrying my bags, and hiking over wet rock and mud would pretty much guarantee damage to me, my camera, and or my laptop; I figured Lord Ayyappa would understand.  It wasn’t easy hiking up the well trodden yet still rough pilgrim path amidst the intermitted drizzle loaded down with all my worldly possessions, but the atmosphere was fantastic.  Groups of pilgrims were chanting in leader response fashion in a manner resembling chants a sporting event.  The path winds through deep jungle although with the steady string of pilgrims and vendors catering to them, it really doesn’t feel as isolated as it is.  Only when reaching a clearing and looking out over the vast green canopy of trees stretching out in all directions does one get a sense of the remoteness of the place.  Tigers, leopards, and wild elephants roam the areas surrounding the temple although they keep there distance from the chanting pilgrims.  Talking with some of my fellow pilgrims along the way I learned that despite the seemingly large number of people, this was not the season for the pilgrimage, which traditionally takes place in December and January.  At these times, its just one mass of people inching there way towards the temple. Furthermore, despite the difficulty of the walk this was the easy way and the traditional way to the temple involves a 60 km trek through the jungle.  Pilgrims are also supposed to keep a strict vegetarian diet, and abstain from alcohol in the days prior to the pilgrimage.  I didn’t mention I had a beer with my tandoori fish the night before on my last night at Varkala beach.

Upon reaching Sabarimala, drenched in a combination of sweat and rain, I was surprised by the size of the concrete pilgrim village that had grown up around this temple once surrounded only by jungle.  Among the richest temples in India the governing body had certainly not spent any of its money on an architect.  The pilgrim lodges that surrounded the shrine were built in a style that managed to fused elements of an inner-city housing project with the classic Soviet era apartment block.  The temple itself, a small elegant and understated gold roofed shrine, was almost completely obscured by the maze of concrete walk ways, waiting areas with their corrugated metal roofs built to accommodate the massive crowds of pilgrims.  Most of the pilgrims were staking out places in the covered hallways and waiting areas to sleep for the night.  Preferring the security of a locked room, I made my way to the accommodation office that dealt out rooms in the pilgrim lodges.  I started talking with a man from Trivandrum while in the line for rooms.  This was his 49th trip to Sabarimala the first of which was in 1959.  Back then he said the temple was only open for a short time in December and January and the devotees would camp in the jungle around the temple.  There was a trench dug around the shrine to keep out the wild animals.  The increase in popularity in recent years had lead to temple remaining open longer and the concrete jungle of buildings that now surrounded the shrine.  He then invited me to share a room with him and his friend, an offer which I gladly accepted, as the only rooms available were 350 rupees (almost $9, which can get you a decent room in Delhi).    The room was Spartan in the most extreme sense of the word, with no furniture at all, woven sleeping mats were dolled out to provide a minute separation from the concrete floor.  Having settled in to our room I then accompanied my two companions there temple visit.  The atmosphere was vibrant with activity as the pilgrims went about their rituals.  Around the main shrine as masses of people sought to receive their darshan (viewing of the god) men rolled them selves on the ground circumambulating the shrine.  The man I was with spoke with temple authorities controlling the crowds, being the only foreigner amidst thousands of Indian pilgrims I got special treatment, and was ushered in for a close viewing of the icon without a wait.

To say I got a good night’s sleep on the hard concrete floor amidst the sounds of firecracker offerings echoing through the concrete halls late into the night only to start up again well before dawn, would be far from the truth.  My two companions were leaving early in the morning, earlier than I cared to, so I paid them for my share of the room and the deposit.  When I later approached the booking office to get back the deposit I was wondering if I would have any problems given it was in a different name even though I had the key and the deposit slip.  It seemed to be no problem except that I was asked to sign the same signature.  Fortunately he had at least signed in English making my forgery attempt even possible.  I actually surprised myself how close I came.  While it certainly wasn’t going pass the scrutiny of any expert at a quick glace it was pretty good.  I collected my deposit and set off back the 5 km to the road.  That was until I was stopped by two men that identified themselves as police officers, although they didn’t have any identification or uniforms and spoke very little English.  I was somewhat skeptical and said hi then said I needed to get back in order to catch a bus.  They asked for my passport via a third guy who acted as an interpreter.  I was not particularly eager to turn my passport over to two random guys claiming to be police officers so I said I didn’t have it with me motioning like it was back towards where the road was.  It was at this point when a forth guy entered the conversation telling me I needed to go back to the accommodation office.  I wondered what the charges for forgery were in India as I walked back to the office accompanied by the two men who it turned out were in fact police officers.  The men at the office asked to see my passport and I produced it for them, keeping one hand on it so as not to let it out of my hand.   I was then informed that as a foreigner I was supposed to registrar with the police to come here.  I began to see a shake down coming, and politely explained I had no way of knowing that since there was no sign and no where else did I have to register.  They took my passport and visa information and made some phone calls.  I was almost convinced that a “fine” which of course could be paid right now was coming.  But to my surprise they just asked me if I enjoyed my Darshan (viewing of the god) and sent me on my way, adding they don’t get many foreigners visiting here, an understatement.

1 comment to Sabarimala: Jungle Pilgrimage

  • Satish Kumar

    That was a pretty good article here. I hope you enjoyed the trip. Yes, a little backward on the luxury in accommodation, but thats not something for what the pilgrims give priority too.

    If you had traveled in the month of January, you would have gotten a chance to see the “Makara Jyothi” which is a star that shines in the Jungle at a specific time. The atmosphere prior to which is really worth an experience, and holy.

    Have a nice time and keep exploring more! Wish you all the best!

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