Sabarimala through the ages: How a small hill shrine became a popular pilgrimage site

The Sabarimala shrine had, for centuries, remained a kind of secret place accessed only by the “true” devotees who knew the protocol to be followed. But by the 1980s, all that changed.
Sabarimala through the ages: How a small hill shrine became a popular pilgrimage site
Sabarimala through the ages: How a small hill shrine became a popular pilgrimage site
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“’Wake up, wake up,’ the man who was on watch shouted. We all jumped up. The fire in the middle of our circle was dying down. Our leader fanned it frantically until it began to blaze. The night was dark. We could hear the elephants crashing through the forest towards us. We picked up whatever was at hand…plates, dishes, ladles. We started banging them and shouting ‘Swami saranam. Ayyappa saranam.”

Appukuttan’s face was animated and his frail old body shook with excitement as he acted out the experiences he had had on his pilgrimages to Sabarimala in the 1940s. He was a young man then, and obviously the annual treks through the forest covered hills were the highlights of his otherwise mundane everyday life as a farm labourer.

For a month or more every year, over a period of 18 years, Appukuttan got transformed into an Ayyappa Sami (Sabarimala pilgrim) and was treated with respect for the duration of his pilgrimage. The moment he wore his sacred rudraksha mala and donned his black mundu and started walking barefoot, people’s attitude towards him changed. After a month of abstaining from liquor, non-vegetarian food, and sex, he was ready to go.

The climax of the pre-pilgrimage preparations was the final puja at the local temple. From there he picked up his irumudi kettu (the cloth bag with the sacred offering of ghee, coconuts and other puja items), and placed it on his head and followed his Guruswamy (group leader) into the hills.

Appukuttan’s descriptions were vivid and colourful. The Sabarimala trek in those days was arduous and dangerous. The pilgrims walked through hills covered by thick forests inhabited by elephants and tigers. They crossed big rivers and walked barefoot across rocks and thorns.  They slept under the stars, bathed in rivers, cooked on firewood in the open and sheltered from rain in wayside mandapams. They formed big groups at times to protect themselves from the wild animals.

The women of the household had an important supportive role to play. They were the ones who ensured that the religious protocol was observed at all times. They, too, practiced abstinence, but they never went on the pilgrimage themselves. And may be they never wanted to.

“Ayyo, I would be exhausted by the time he left,” Appukuttan’s wife Vijayamma told me, “I had enough to do looking after the children and running our house.”

While women in the 10-50 age group were barred even then, there is evidence to show that some young mothers from influential families did enter the temple with their infants to conduct the “choroonu” or rice feeding ceremony. A top former bureaucrat from Kerala has recently publicly spoken about his own choroonu ceremony conducted by his parents (including his young mother) in 1940. There are records to show that a former Maharani of Travancore also visited the temple in 1940 with her sons.

Most probably the elite women did not walk barefoot through hills and dangerous forests.  Maybe they were carried there in pallakis. Perhaps they went on the fixed days on which women were permitted to enter. May be they did not enter through the main gate or climb the sacred 18 steps. But the point is they did enter and did perform pujas there.

The Sabarimala shrine had, for centuries, remained a kind of secret place accessed only by the “true” devotees who knew the protocol to be followed. But with increased accessibility thanks to a bigger network of road and rail services, by the 1980s all that changed.

What began as a trickle of pilgrims from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka soon became a groundswell. The protocol became weakened and pilgrims began taking short cuts. In Kerala itself, many of the Sabarimala yatris no longer felt obliged to observe the one month long period of abstinence. Many were in demanding office jobs or had to travel on work and just did not have the time or bandwidth to observe the dietary and other regulations. They would do a quickie cleansing, take a cab all the way to the hilltop shrine and return, all within a week.

November to January became the busiest season in Kerala. With the monsoons over and the weather cooling down, tourists poured in from all over the world and so did the Sabarimala pilgrims from across the country. The yatra itself has become an excuse for a holiday. Busloads of men, young and old, whizzed across to the hilltop shrine. Perhaps they were abstinent on the way up, but after their darshan was over, their behaviour could change dramatically!

By the late 1980s, VIP yatris also discovered the shrine. Film stars, big shot politicians, top sports stars and bureaucrats, carried the irumudi kettu, donned the Sabarimala uniform and trekked at least part of the way. Today, an estimated 45-50 million devotees visit Sabarimala every year. The roads leading to the shrine are jammed with vehicles coming in from all over the country.

As the crowds began to swell out of control, there was some attempt to bring in order and provide amenities. Toilets, health clinics and yatri nivases came up. A helipad was created. The pilgrims were asked to follow some rules of conduct to avoid polluting the rivers and causing environmental damage.

During the 1980s, just when the boom had started, I asked the then Devaswom Board Chief about the ban on women of a certain age group entering the shrine. Was it still possible to stop them, I asked, when there was such a flood of people?

He became very distressed. There were so many pilgrims coming from other states, he said, and to them this was just a picnic. There were reports of brawls and drunken behavior. There were women who certainly did not look like they belonged to the permissible age group.

“You cannot stop each and every one of them and question them about their age. They misunderstand and get annoyed. They want to defy. They bluff about their age,” he said. 

But on certain days women were permitted, he said, and so, although I was then in the banned age group, he offered to take me in on one such day. I declined… I didn’t like the idea of being permitted in only on some days and through an alternate door… I disliked the stigma of pollution attributed to my womanhood.

In 1990, a PIL was filed in the Kerala High Court against Chandrika, a former woman commissioner of the Devaswom Board, who had conducted the rice feeding ceremony of her grandchild inside the shrine. Though she herself was over 50, her daughter who accompanied her was in the prohibited age group. This was when various organisations like the Kerala Women Lawyers’ Federation got involved in the issue and asked for a lifting of the ban which they said was archaic, unconstitutional and discriminatory.

But, in 1993, the Kerala High Court upheld the restriction saying the ban “imposed on women aged above 10 and below 50 from trekking to the holy hills of Sabarimala and offering worship at Sabarimala Shrine is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial.” It not only upheld the Devaswom Board’s right to impose the ban it also stopped the comparatively new practice of allowing women of the restricted age group into the shrine on certain days.

By 2008, the case had gone to the Supreme Court. It dragged on for 10 years because no government was willing to take a stand on this contentious issue.

Today, although the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of Gender Justice, there are many devotees, including a large number of women, who oppose it. Obviously the battle is not done and dusted.

The Sabarimala season has started with a bang. The problems have become even more intense. Devotees, activists, politicians of every hue, journalists of every gender, women who are ready to wait, and others who are happy to bleed, tantris, non believers have all churned the ocean of complications. What will finally emerge is at the moment anyone's conjecture.

Views expressed are the author's own.

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