Shayana Pradikshanam devotional practice of pilgrims at Sabarimala
The shrine of Sabarimala is one of the most remote shrines in southern India yet it still draws three to four million pilgrims each year. Before beginning the multi-day walk through the mountain jungles to get to Sabarimala, the pilgrims prepare themselves with 41 days of rigorous fasting, celibacy, meditation and prayer. Finally arriving at the shrine, the pilgrims will wait in line for hours, even days, to have one or two seconds in front of the image of Ayappa. After seeing the deity, many pilgrims will complete a vow called Shayana Pradikshanam. In the Malayalam language of Kerala, Shayana means “body” and Pradakshinam means “revolution,” so Shayana Pradakshinam means “revolution with the Body.” This devotional practice is done not only in Sabarimala but also in other temples in Kerala.
The Sabarimala shrine is only open a few times each year: the Mandalam festival covering 41 days from November 15 to December 26; the Makaravilakku from January 1-14; on Vishu, the day of the vernal equinox in April; and during smaller festivals in May/June and August/September. The shrine, unlike many in southern India is open to persons of all religious callings, and there are no caste restrictions during the pilgrimage. However, women - unless they are younger than six or older than sixty - are not allowed to come to Sabarimala. This is explained by referring to the celibacy of Ayappa and the concern that he might be lured away from his shrine by a woman his age (if certain readers find this somewhat sexist, they are informed that there are particular goddess shrines in south India which men are forbidden to enter). It is said that during the pilgrimage periods no tigers are found along the forest trails leading to Sabarimala. This is explained as resulting from Ayappa’s power over tigers. Other holy places associated with Ayappa are Kulattupuzha, Aryankavu, Accankovil, and Kantamala.
Additional notes on SABARIMALA and AYAPPA
Shiva does not call upon Vishnu after mating with a tribal woman. The story goes that Shiva gives a boon to an asura (a demon) that allows him to merely touch a person on his head and he will fall dead. The asura then thanks him and wants to try out the boon on Lord Shiva himself. In fear, Shiva runs and calls upon Lord Vishnu for help. Lord Vishnu in the guise of the beautiful maiden Mohini, which literally means "enchantress" or "seductress", approaches the asura. She questions him about why he is chasing Shiva. The asura tells her how he has received this boon and wanted to test it on Shiva himself. Mohini tricks the foolish asura by telling him that the boon was really ineffective and Shiva did not want him to know that. If he wanted, he could test it on himself. The asura placed his hand on his own head, believing her, and he falls dead. Shiva is very grateful towards Vishnu but is enchanted by his female form. They have the child Ayappa to satisfy the demigods' plea to save them from the torments of the demon Mahishi. Ayappa is then raised by the King of Panthala, Rajashekharan, a truly royal king not a tribal king, who was childless. Right after adopting the child Ayappa, whom he called Mani Kanda, meaning ‘one who wears a bell around his neck’ (for the child was found wearing a small bell on a chain around his neck that attracted the king's attention who was out on a hunt with his men), the king has a child of his own. When Ayappa was about to reach age, the queen feared that her own child would lose his right to the throne, so with the minister of the court, she schemed to murder Ayappa. She faked being ill saying that her stomach was in unbearable pain. The minister bribed the court physician to say that the only remedy would be a female tiger's milk. Ayappa, willing to do anything for his mother, goes on the dangerous mission alone to get the milk. Instead, he meets Mahishi and slays her. The gods in happiness and joy assume the form of tigers and accompany back to the palace to give the so-called needed milk remedy. Upon seeing this, the queen confessed her schemes and begs forgiveness from the young prince. Ayappa, forgiving his mother, takes upon the right of celibacy and leaves the palace to reside on Sabarimala. Women are not allowed to go to the temple, not in fear that Ayappa might leave the shrine, but that women will desire and fall in love with the beautiful celibate god. They are allowed after they have reached menopausal age.
For further information on the pilgrimage to Sabarimala, consult:
Gangadharan, N.; Pilgrimage to Sabarimala; in Pilgrimage Studies: Sacred Places, Sacred Traditions; The Society of Pilgrimage Studies (Dubey, D.P. editor); Allahabad, India; 1995