The Sabarimala trip

Kannan, my Bombay cousin makes annual pilgrimage to Sabarimala, mostly during the month of Feb. I had last visited the shrine close to ten years back. This year, I decided to join him and his group. The temple opens each month (during the beginning of the Malayalam month) for 4-5 days. We planned to reach Sabarimala on 13th evening and depart on 14th morning. While most of the group members were from Bombay, there were two of us from Bangalore and another from Madras.

(Yeah, I know, Madras is Chennai and Bombay is Mumbai - people with sentiments around this can skip this and move on)

The dates had been decided and the tickets booked well in advance. The return was quite tight, expecting us to be back in Ernakulam latest by 4 PM. We had a 5 PM train to catch and the Bombay group had the 7 PM flight.

We departed from Ernakulam after kettunira by 10 AM on 13th. There were 20 of us and we were in a 29 seater vehicle. Whether it was the traffic or the route or the vehicle or the driver, we made rather slow progress, reaching Erumeli around 1 PM. In the course of seeing the Vavar's mosque and the temple there and having lunch, we ended up spending 2 hours. We also had to take a longer route from Erumeli to Pampa, since the police blocked the shorter route, citing that our vehicle could not take the steep slope.

Ultimately, it was 5.30 PM when we reached Pampa, to find a sea of pilgrims. 12th Feb was Shivaratri, a holiday in many States. That, coupled with second Saturday on 13th meant, a 3 day weekend - an ideal opportunity for many pilgrims to visit without taking any leave.

Bath in Pampa was ruled out. Pampa was more like puddles of dirty water and it would have been difficult to get submerged even lying down. There was a downpour as we crossed the bridge, making pilgrims run helter and skelter for cover.

Did I mention the weather was hot? Oh boy, who would have thought it is winter in India? As far as I know, Kerala has no winter. The "All Black" dress code does not make things any better. Add the humidity factor and you have an "all perspiring" situation

We commenced the 4km climb to Pampa. Our original plan was to have a darshan of Lord Ayyappa before padi puja commenced at 7.30 PM. The climb typically took around 90 minutes. Based on the pace, we split into multiple batches. The first of our subgroups reached Sannidhanam by 7.15 PM only to hear that pathinettam padi (18 steps) was already closed for padi puja. By the time, the rest of the group made it to the top, it was close to 8 PM. We joined the heavy rush of pilgrims to climb the 18 steps with our erumudi. We were in queue.

Padi puja typically takes about 45 minutes, but today it seemed to go on and on. Later, we heard that Anil Ambani was in the shrine, as well as a few other VIPs. Perhaps, this led to an elongated puja.

The bottomline was, it was close to 9.45 PM that pilgrims were allowed to climb the 18 steps. By then the crowd had swelled to alarming proportion. Pilgrims were tired, exhausted, hungry and impatient. The temple usually closed by 10.30 PM and many feared they would not have darshan.

Pilgrims were allowed in small batches to climb the steps. By the time our turns came, it was 10.30 PM. There were all signs of stampede in the area leading to 18 steps. There were children, women and aged in the group and as people pushed each other, they were affected.

Amidst the chaos, we climbed up the 18 steps or to put it differently, we were pushed and pulled up. People familiar with the local Bombay trains are used to being led into and out of trains. This was a similar experience.

Some of us managed a glimpse of the Lord before the temple was closed to the background of Harivarasanam.

We got rooms nearby and many of us had dinner around 11.45 PM. We now had to open the erumudi and break open the coconuts to prepare for the abhishekam next day.

By the time, these were completed, it was 1.30 AM.

After a couple of hours of nap, we were up and ready for the morning darshan. The crowd was as strong as the previous night - many pilgrims preferring to rest in the queue leading to the shrine.

The less said about the effort involved in getting the darshan, the better. Suffice to say all of us managed a glimpse of the lord, some by hook, some by crook - cutting lines, sneaking through gaps and so on.

It was 8.45 AM and time for us to climb down. This takes less time and 10 AM found the first of us in Pampa. However, it took another hour for the rest of us to gather together and then cross the Pampa.

We then confronted an interesting problem. We were unable to contact our vehicle driver - with the driver's phone being unreachable due to no signal. We had to take a jeep to search for the vehicle and bring it to our group. It was 11.30 when we commenced our return.

We drove almost non-stop, stopping just for body breaks and to pick up some plantains and managed to reach Vytilla at 3.45 PM. Luckily, we could take the shorter route to Erumeli since the vehicle could negotiate the downward slope.

All of us managed to catch our respective return vehicles.

A few lessons learnt were these.
  • Never undertake the trip during public holidays, especially long weekends
  • Where possible, check if any VIPs have planned a trip the shrine. If so, reschedule
  • Travel in the night, reaching Pampa in the morning. The morning climbing is less arduous and chances of darshan are brighter
  • Now I know the importance of guruswami or the leader. There needs to be a leader and his instructions need to be followed without question by the team. Our group had no leader or one too many!
  • Don't plan too tight - it is important to have buffer for contingencies

As for the temple...

  • It is disappointing to see how poor the amenities are, considering the revenue it brings. The place is quite dirty - with coconuts, ghee and rice making the place unhygienic. Off-season meant less cops, which meant less control over crowds.
  • Pilgrims standing the long queue had no clue as to what was happening. How easy it is to set up showing the events in the shrine along with regular status updates. Wonder, when the administration will grow up.
  • Another amazing revelation was the absence of a single working ATM in the shrine. There was one ATM (Dhanalakshmi Bank), but this was locked up.
  • What about mobile signals in Pampa? Looks like BSNL works, but pretty much nothing else.
Let me add a poem penned by my uncle, Chandran capturing the essence of the trip...

The group of twenty that we were
Each one ready to serve with what he can
All thoughts came up shared so well
To make the trip ever so memorable

Thanks are to all who participated,
No distinction when all contributed
Trust and confidence that brought success
and for all adjustments when needed

First timers experienced what they heard from seasoned
Enjoyed each step on the climb up with sharp cuts on legs
Fast accepted pains with cheers when completed the trek
And had eventually been awarded the Darsan of Lord

And above all The Lord on top gave his blessings
With Lord Ganesha solving problems en-route
We pray with folded hands to give us continued courage
And confidence to move forward as best He decides.

He is The Almighty, the Omnipresent whom we name God
Who gives the strength and tools to live in this World
The power that He possesses is really immeasurable
Who being considered the creator, care-taker and balancer

The universe of universes are still being explored
An ant sitting on an elephant top, is what our earth in size
The humans we are nothing when compared to such earth
All deeds we do His commands the results what come way

The glimpse of Lord in the high range Sabari hills of Kerala
An experience one time trekking the mountain stretches
The Countdown to the eighteen steps to reach His dwelling
An event marked in memory throughout life when done with


  1. Vinay C: My experience is that everytime you visit sabrimala you are always in rush and tight with time. But somehow everything falls in place and you never miss your train or flight. May be its Lord Ayappa testing our dedication and will to sacrifice and then give us what we ask for.Swami Sharanam!

  2. yes.. a leader in the form of Guruswami plays a vital role,
    but in such short trips you never get time for any orientation and that necessarily leads towds forming smaller sub groups .
    .. by the grace of LORD AYYAPPA every one had a great darshan got the glimpse of LORD,Inspite of all the complexity every one reached their resp destination in high spirits (as perc schedule)

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