Passing by various temples in Chennai last week, I often saw men dressed in black lungis emerging carrying bundles on their heads. These men are embarking on the Sabarimala pilgrimage to the Ayappa temple in Kerala.
December is the pilgrimage season in South India. The Sabarimala pilgrimage to the Ayappa temple in a hilly region of the state of Kerala bordering Tamil Nadu, is one of the most popular. It receives millions of visitors every year and is reported to be the world’s second largest annual pilgrimage site after the Hajj in Mecca.
The Sabarimala pilgrimage is reserved for men only because women are not allowed to visit the shrine of Ayappa, described as a ‘celibate hermit’. Before starting the journey, pilgrims go through a 41-day ‘austerity’ period during which they must eat only vegetarian food, avoid alcohol and tobacco, abstain from sex, wear a black lungi and beads around the neck, not shave or cut their hair or fingernails, walk barefoot, sleep on the floor without a pillow, and abstain from physical and verbal violence.
Before starting the pilgrimage, the pilgrims seek their blessings from a local temple. Each carries on his head a blanket and a cloth bundle containing traditional offerings like a coconut, ghee (clarified butter) and betel leaves. They make the long journey in groups, travelling in mini-buses. The last four kilometres are made on foot up a steep hill through forests, before reaching the 18 holy steps which lead to the shrine of Lord Ayappa. Here the devotees break a coconut before climbing the holy steps to receive darshan from the god.
A few years ago I took these pictures at the Kapleeswarar temple in Mylapore, Chennai of pilgrims preparing to leave for the Sabarimala pilgrimage.