Paadayatra – My experience

Swamiye Saranam Ayappa – The chants reverberated all around. It was a sea of black and sometimes blue. There were other colors too like that from a spectrum of light.

I was at the abode of Lord Ayappa, Sabarimala. The Lord of eighteen steps, Lord of eighteen hills, Lord of Kaliyuga, Lord of the jungle, Lord of the Pandi Malayalam kulam. A true magnetic power that attracts millions of his ardent devotees who trek through jungles and hills filled with thorns and stones, leeches and wild animals.

 The number eighteen is significant for the devotees of Ayappa. It signifies the eighteen steps. The first five steps symbolize the five human senses (Panchendriyas) i.e. visual (vision), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) and tactile (touch). These signify the `mortal’ nature of one’s body. The next eight steps symbolize the eight Ashtaragas viz, Kama, Krodha, Lobha, Moha, Madha, Maltsarya, Asooya, Dhumb (Love, Anger, Avarice, Lust, Pride, Unhealthy Competition, Jealousy and Boastfulness). The next three steps stand for three Gunas or Thrigunas (nature-born qualities) i.e. Satva, ( perspicuity, discernment) , Rajas (activity, enjoyment) and Thamas (inactivity, stupor). The last two steps represent Vidya (Knowledge) and Avidya (Ignorance).

It is assumed that after climbing up these eighteen steps reverently, one symbolically detaches oneself from all the worldly ties that bind one physically and mentally to the world . It is only then that a person will be in a receptive condition to be `one’ in consonance with the concept of ‘The Ultimate Creator.

The other significance being,

 • Ayyappa was a master of 18 weapons and the steps signify these.

 • Ayyappa before merging into the idol at the Sanctum Sanctorum, surrendered his 18 weapons, one at each step of Pathinettam Padi.

 • The steps represent the 18 hills existing in and around the region of Sabarimala.

It is thus that a person who climbs the eighteen steps eighteen times is considered to have conquered all emotions and attained the state of brahmasmi – the unity of the individual and God.

I was fortunate to have been able to visit Sabarimala eighteen times. This year was the eighteenth time and considering the significance of eighteen, I decided to do the paadayatra (walk) from my house in Palakkad. I had been planning this for some time. My brother, who is eight years younger had done the paadayatra twice and he had agreed to be the guide. When we decided to go, two uncles joined in along with an old schoolmate of mine. Thus we formed a group of 5.

Day 1 – Dec 26

 The Kettunira (Filling the coconut with ghee) was held in my house on 26th Dec. This day was auspicious, a Saturday and the day of Mandala Villaku. The Kettunira was done in the presence of Guruswami in the morning. With utmost devotion and penance, we completed the kettunira and the pooja. In the afternoon around 3PM, we left on the paadayatra… on the pilgrimage of our lifetime.

The pace was relatively good and easy. We soon crossed the Palakkad railway station, vadakkanthara and took the first halt at moothanthara temple. It is here that I had the first experience of the respect that people have and show to paadayatra swamis. A person passing by on a bicycle saw us and stopped to ask us the details about our journey. He invited us to his house to have some food and rest, but we politely refused since we had just eaten lunch and had some distance to cover before we could halt for the night. Where else would a total stranger walk up and offer food and rest at his house. Lord Dharma Sastha is the true unifying force.

We started off again and reached Kannannur on the national highway 47. My feet were beginning to ache by now. The footwear that I was using was biting me. This was a new pair of hardware that I had bought couple of days back. I must have been stupid to ignore some common sense that any runner should have shown. Never try out a new pair of shoes or footwear on a long run. Try it for short runs and get used to it! I had committed a gross error in judgment and the repercussions would follow. I decided to change the pair of footwear and brought a new pair of slippers to continue the journey, but the damage was already done.

We reached Chithali Ayappa Temple off NH47 a little past 7. We had covered about 22 Kms that afternoon. The temple priest had closed the sanctum sanctorum and was about to leave for the night, when we walked in. We setup camp at the outer periphery and ate the dinner that we had carried with us. Some chappatis and chutney We were carrying foldable mats and also a bed sheet each for the bedding. We then settled for the night with the alarm set for 2:30 AM. This would be first full day of our paadayatra.

Day 2 – Dec 27

 We got up early and took bath at the temple pond. Sudeep (my brother) had been anointed as the Guruswami for his experience in paadayatra. He went about his responsibilities very diligently – Smearing ash on the forehead and lighting camphor to be shown on all our irumudikettus amidst the chant of swamiye saranamayappa. We started and moved along the NH amidst the traffic. We turned off at erattakulam towards Kannambra where we to rest in the afternoon. After having breakfast at Manjappra, we reached Kannambra Nair veedu around 10 AM. In between me and Rajesh (my schoolmate) almost lost our way since we were ahead of the rest by almost half a kilometer and hence we did not take a turn that we were supposed to. This is significant since I was walking fairly fast – ironically in the next 2 days, I would be bringing up the rear, because of my feet. At Kannambra, an elderly lady from the Nair Tharavadu offered us lunch as she does every year. We requested her for Kanji (rice gruel), but she insisted on feeding us sumptuous lunch. It is here that I saw the blisters. 2 blisters had formed on my toes. I found it difficult to wear my slippers.

After the midmorning rest and the lunch, we started off again around 2:30 PM. We again hit the NH and headed towards Pattikkad. My feet badly hurt and this slowed my progress considerably. Jagadeesh Mama kept me company at the rear of the pack. We crossed the Kuthiran Mala Sastha temple and I went up to have darshan. I had tears in my eyes when I walked out because of the feet. It started drizzling and we were in a hurry to reach pattikkad before it rained heavily. We reached camp at 7:30 PM. Sleep was difficult because of the pain and the blisters. By now I had developed blisters in 2-3 other parts which made it difficult to land.

Day 3 – Dec 28

 We got up at 2:30 and started off again at 3 AM. Rajesh had brought a pair of ankle caps and I wore them hoping that it would make it easier. Progress was slow and we reached the agricultural University in Mannuthy when I decided to walk only with the Ankle cap. The progress was easier then till the highway became a 4 lane. The newly laid asphalt made it difficult to walk bare feet. What the growth had done was that it had also wiped out all the shops and hotels by the road. There was not a place to sit, neither a place where one could buy something to drink. Just miles and miles of road. What was worse was that you could see the flyover up ahead but no matter how long or how much you walked, it would still be far away! I was now struggling badly. I realized that the new pair of foot wear that I had bought was made of some cheap compound and it was proving allergic. I decided to throw this one and buy a simple pair of rubber slippers. But the damage was deeper as I realized later. After a great struggle, we managed to reach Kurumali temple around 10 AM. We setup camp and we would not be walking in the afternoon. This gave my feet some rest and gave me some time to recover. We had come about 80 KMS from home. We had bought some rice and the temple priest made some gruel for us. People were so kind at heart and I was moved. The swim in the river was refreshing. It also rained in the evening.

Day 4 – – Dec 29

We encountered some more swamis on the way. There was a group from Manjalur, near palakkad. This was an interesting group. They walked with only their irumudi. An auto rickshaw carried their supplies and went ahead to the next halting point. The driver doubles up as the cook and prepared food/setup camp before the group reached the point. Interesting arrangement.

We left Kurumali at about 2:30 AM. We had decided to leave early since we had a long way to cover today. We were planning to reach Perumbavoor which was about 50 KMS away. I prayed to Kurumali Devi and started walking hoping that my feet would not act smart! In a short while, my hopes were dashed. The blisters were painful and it slowed my progress considerably. At one point, the others were so far ahead that I could not see them. There were tears in my eyes. I also tried to jog to keep up! Thankfully we reached Chalakkudy and stopped for some rest. There was a hartal called in Kerala and hence the roads were almost deserted. After the morning tea/coffee from chalakkudy, we started out again and reached koratty junction. My brother and Unni mama suggested a shortcut which took us away from NH47. On this road, we had breakfast from a hospital canteen, which was the only open eatery around since it was a hartal. We continued to walk. I was struggling with the pain in my feet. The blisters were very painful and the road was never ending. I really wondered if this was really a shortcut as my brother had suggested. Finally we reached the Koratty temple and it was right on the highway! am still not sure about the shortcut.

We rested at shed setup at the Koratty temple. It was slightly crowded. Looked like Koratty was a popular halt for a lot of groups. A group of youngsters under the aegis of Ayappa seva samithi had prepared gruel and tapioca for the swamis. I was amazed by this group. They were doing all this as a service. The saw me limping and found out about my blisters. One person immediately took me to a hospital nearby. We consulted a doctor who used his tools to tear open the blisters and remove the puss. He then dressed the wounds and gave me an injection, some antibiotics and painkillers. Both my feet were bandaged and I looked like I had run into a bus. The volunteer from the seva samithi did not allow me to pay the doctor and instead paid from the group fund. I was certainly amazed by the group and the yeoman service rendered. They certainly followed the Ayappa Dharma in spirit. May Lord Ayappa bless them.

The people from the samithi suggested that we stay overnight at Koratty given the condition of my feet. We decided against it and decided to aim for Perumbavoor as planned originally. The pain had come down and I too agreed to leave. We started off from Koratty at about 2:30 in the afternoon. The walk up to Angamaly was quite easy except for the heat. The roads were literally empty of traffic and that helped. We soon crossed Angamaly and turned into MC Road (SH1 as it is called now). As we continued on, the pain in my feet returned slowly. It was throbbing. I began to slow down and fell behind the others. We crossed Kaladi which was about 14 Km from Angamaly. This is the birthplace of Jagadguru Sri Sankaracharya. The traffic had now picked up since the general strike ended at 6 PM. We crossed the river Periyar slowly. By then I was trailing the others by some distance. In a little while, I stopped and I called the others back. I could not move further any inch. We rested for about 15 minutes and had some refreshments. The others encouraged me and told me that we could take rest at Perumbavoor which was about 7 Kms away. I could not imagine walking for 100 mts leave alone 7 Kms! Finally after a lot of persuasion, I mustered enough courage and started walking. We were progressing very slowly. It then started drizzling. We continued, but after a while the rain became very high. About 3-4 Kms before Perumbavoor, we were forced to stop. We stopped at a shop hoping that the rain would stop. It rained for about 2 hours non-stop. I slept on a mat in front of the shop for about 2 hours and the rest did me good. My feet were less painful now and when the rain subsided, we could get to Perumbavoor in an hour. It was midnight by the time we reached. The temple was closed and we tried to wake up the guard, but he was not to be seen anywhere. We waited for a long while, but with no luck. Finally a savior turned up and called the guard on his cell phone and he came out and welcomed us. Without any delay, we settled for the night.

Day 5 – – Dec 30

Since we reached very late in the night, we decided not to walk in the morning and instead leave in the evening. In the morning, I prayed to Shri Dharma Sastha of Perumbavoor. I must also mention that I experimented and learned the art of taking bath in a temple pond without getting my bandaged feet wet. It was like taking part in a circus acrobatic show. If I get a chance, I will provide people a demo. This art would of course be perfected in the next 2-3 days with great deal of practice.

We decided to consult a doctor again to dress up the wounds. We visited Dr. Jose nearby. He reminded me of an ex-military surgeon near my house who always had a syringe ready for anyone. Dr. Jose dressed up my wound and suggested that I call this off. I politely refused. He gave me a painkiller and another set of tablets. I did not then realize the effectiveness of his treatment, but would soon do so.

Lunch was served by the Ayappa temple committee members in Perumbavoor. This was another group that impressed me. They served a traditional sadhya to all the swamis who were there in Perumbavoor. This group was also responsible for providing all the amenities and facilities for swamis at Perumbavoor which is a very popular edathavalam (transit point) for Ayappa devotees. This is one fact that impressed me throughout. A lot of small groups of volunteers were doing a lot without getting the kind of publicity that Ayappa Seva Sangham gets. I sometimes feel that Ayappa Seva Sangham has now turned commercial in some ways. May Lord Ayappa provide his blessings and guidance to such people.

Around 2:30 PM we left Perumbavoor. We were on MC road and it was a busy road. We crossed Keezhilam very soon and reached Thrikkalathur. This is a Devi temple and the priest here was the chief priest at Malikkapuram (manja matha) some years back. With the income that he earned there, he bought some land for this temple and has renovated this temple. Very difficult to see priests like this in the “age of Kali” (not a take on William Dalrymple). After praying at Thrikkalathur, we moved on to Moovatupuzha. I was dead tired by then and my feet were again paining. The fact that the dressing was a little too tight, made it even more difficult. I would have called the Lords name many times in pain. We eventually reached Moovatupuzha by about 7:30 PM. The annual temple festival was going on there and it was crowded. There were some cultural activities that were happening. We were scared that we would not be able to stay there. We needn’t have, based on our experience. The temple committee were waiting to welcome us and had already made arrangements in a separate hall. This was too good. We settled for the night. Jagadeesh Mama, Unni Mama and Rajesh had gruel. Brother had gone to sleep and I had some Kerala Plantain. Since the first night at Chithali, I had stopped having dinner and was instead surviving on 2 bananas. The temple festivities continued in the background and we all dozed off.

Day 6 – Dec 31

We left Moovatupuzha at about 4 AM and walked towards Marika. We left behind MC Road and moved into smaller by-lanes that were bound by rubber plantations. The roads wound up their way and this gave an indication that we were now entering the hilly region. We reached Marika around 8 AM. At Marika, we setup camp at a roadside Mother Mary church. It was a very small roadside church frequently found in south Kerala. People stop by and offer candles and there is no priest. This was one of the most enlightening moments. A set of Hindus on a pilgrimage resting in a church – how much more secular can it get? We bought some candles and lit them in front of Mary and called out “Swamiye Saranamayappa”. The people around were helpful and requested us to stay there for the day, but we had to reach Ramapuram that evening to stick to our schedule. We left Marika at about 2 PM and headed towards Marika. The road we followed was a shortcut that cut across some mountains. If we were to follow the road, we would be going to Koothatukulam from Moovatupuzha and then head towards Ramapuram. We had some hot banana hoppers on the way. I must say that the produce in these smaller towns and villages were organic and very tasty. So much unlike Bangalore.

We reached the Karthiyayani temple at Ramapuram around 6:30 PM. When we reached there, the local people were preparing for “Thiruvathira Kali”, a traditional dance form in Kerala where a group of ladies dance around in a circular formulation. We then realized that it was Thiruvathira, a day of festivities in Kerala revolving around Lord Shiva. It was also the 31st of December. The temple was well maintained by the Travancore Dewaswom Board. This is another thing that struck me. The board seems to be doing some good work in temples across the state by using the revenue from Sabarimala.

The ladies gathered around the lighted lamp by about 9 PM and started off the dance. I went off to sleep immediately since we had another long day ahead. The others too slept. By now, we were all used to sleeping in the open air. The ladies continued their dance till midnight and then left. I could hear them, but was too tired to sit up. There were also some people on the main road celebrating the New Year in high spirits, both within and outside.

Day 7 – Jan 1

The first day of the New Year saw us waking up at 3 AM and leave for Pala. We kept a good pace. My feet had settled down by now. Dr. Jose’s medicine had worked. The fact that I was not wearing a normal rubber slippers also helped. Overall I was becoming more and more comfortable as we progressed. The dressing continued in its place. We made good progress and stopped at Pala for the morning coffee. We crossed Pala and headed towards Poonkunam. We stopped at Poovarani Siva temple. The first darshan of the new year was of Lord Siva at Poovarani. We ran into the Manjalur group here. I found from the others that this is a place where they normally halted for the day, but we decided to move on to Elikulam and take complete rest for the day rather than walk in the afternoon.

We reached Elikulam. This temple is a little off the Pala-Ponkunnam road. A very small, but beautiful and well maintained temple. There was a marriage hall next to it a school. The authorities opened the hall for us to rest during the day. My brother’s friend lived nearby and he arranged rice gruel and mango pickle for lunch. I removed the bandages from my leg and washed the feet. I felt a lot relieved then.

While we were there, there was a girl who was practicing a dance drama in the hall. Her instructor told us that they were practicing for the District level youth festival. The girl studying in 5th standard, was very energetic and we were all impressed by her performance. We wished her all the best for the competition. We later found out from a local news paper that she had indeed won the first place. Lord Ayappa’s blessings.

We watched the deeparadhana (a pooja performed with lamps) in the temple in the evening. That night, we vacated the hall and moved back to the temple premises since we would be leaving at 3 AM. We then settled for the night. As usual, I ate some bananas.

Day 8 – Jan 2

We left Elikulam at 3:30 AM and walked towards Ponkunnam. We had to climb a steep hill and on top of it, there was a very big catholic church. We rested briefly and lit the candles that we had carried over from Marika. We then continued and reached Ponkunnam. After the morning coffee, we headed towards Chirakkadavu Mahadeva temple. This is another big temple that is maintained by TDB. The facilities were excellent. We prayed at the temple and had breakfast at a hotel nearby. We then took rest. Since the temple was still open for a long time, I watched the proceedings from close quarters. The temple staff and ambalavasis (don’t know what we could say in English) were all engaged. It was enlightening to watch them go about their chores.

In the afternoon, after a dip in the pond, we started on our walk. This time I did not have to do any acrobatics to take bath. My feet were a lot better now and I had taken off the bandage. We were headed towards Vizhukkathodu which would be the last halt before we reached Erumeli and then joined the regular pilgrims in the trek via periya patha.

My brother took us through some narrow lanes and in the process we discovered a very short route to Vizhukkathodu. We reached there by about 6 PM. There is an SNDP hall there. A small office, but cozy. When we reached there, it was filled with stuff from a recent rally that they had. We contemplated whether to stay there or whether to move on to Erumeli. Vizhukkathodu is a very small village with a few shops and there was obviously no other place to halt for the night. We spoke to the Secretary of the local SNDP shakha and he opened the office and cleaned it up for us. We were moved. From the beginning of the our paadayatra, people had been kind to us and gone out of the way to provide us assistance. Lord Ayappa bless them all.

We had dinner from a small hotel nearby. I stuck to my routine bananas. The village was very busy with all the workers and locals congregating for the evening chit chat. It was fun to watch and observe the local discussions centered around politics et all. A truly rustic scene.

Before retiring for the night, we spoke to the party that was going to join us at Erumeli. They were staying at Ettumanoor after having left Palakkad that morning. The party consisted of my mother, Uncle, Brother-in-law and a friend from Bangalore. We were to meet them at Erumeli and then we would all trek the periya patha for the final leg of our pilgrimage. We would all then return in the 10 seat vehicle back to Palakkad.

Day 9 – Jan 3

We got up around 4AM and took bath. The bath was under a tap fed by a hand pump by the road side. Here was me, doing this while I would have struggled to do the same, any other time, any other place. Lord Ayappa is a great leveler.

We proceeded towards Erumeli and reached there by 8 AM. Erumeli was very crowded. We had breakfast and waited at the Dharma Sastha temple. The other party joined us around 10 AM. My Uncle decided to proceed towards Pampa in the vehicle and meet us there. The others were coming with us on the periya patha trek. We left Erumeli around 11 AM. It was not a good decision as we found out later.

We crossed Peroor Thodu soon and my Brother-in-law completed the formalities there. He was going to be walking on the periya patha for the first time. Periya Patha (Translated as Big Route) is the trekking route from Erumeli to Sabarimala. It is about 50 Kms and traverses mountains and jungles. There are no places to stay except for some temporary shelter put up by some shop keepers. This route is only open for a few days for the pilgrims and is otherwise a protected tiger reserve.

Sun was scorching and both my mom and I struggled. The pain in my feet were back because I was now walking bare feet. As my feet landed on the hot rocks and hot sand, I was in bad pain. My mother was getting tired quickly because of de-hydration and our progress was very slow. We stopped at Kalaketti and rested for some time. I literally cried because of the pain while walking barefoot. We finally managed to reach Azhutha river by evening. We took bath and carried small stones as per the rituals associated with Azhutha crossing. We then climbed the Azhutha hill, a very steep hill that is difficult for people to climb. My mother was struggling and we rested frequently to make sure that she was comfortable. After we reached Kallidamkunnu (Azhutha hill top), we started the descend.

Darkness had set in and we all carried torches. We progressed slowly. The descend was very painful and dangerous because of the stones, thorns and lack of light. We managed to reach Mukkuzhi and found a resting place. Rajesh had gone ahead and found a place. The place was really crowded. I had never seen Mukkuzhi so crowded in my previous visits.

Day 10 – Jan 4

We got up at 4 AM and prepared for our journey. All of us were anticipating that this would be the day we would reach Sabarimala and have darshan of Lord Ayappa. But we had to cross Karimala and Neelimala before that. We started walking and in 2 hours, we reached the base of Karimala. After calling out Swami’s name loudly, we started climbing. The ascent was steep, but was broken into 7 or 8 zones with landings between that allowed people to take a slight breather. My mom found it difficult and we all kept up with her. My feet were holding well and I managed to climb without much difficulty. We reached the top and rested for half an hour. We also had some food. This was the first solid food that I had eaten after leaving Erumeli the previous morning. I was till then surviving on a diet of salted lemon soda.

We moved on towards Pampa. The descent was difficult as only Karimala descent can be. At one place, people had to sit down and move forward slowly on their knees. Thankfully, the authorities have installed railings in one such treacherous descent. We reached Pampa around 1 PM and moved towards the Ayappa Seva Sangham building where my uncle would meet us. He met us there and we moved on to the temporary camp at the water authority guest house. All of us took bath and prepared ourselves for the last climb – Neelimala.

Rajesh had used his contacts to arrange for a smooth darshan at sannidhanam. He went to the police camp to collect a letter that would allow our group to use the chandranandan road towards Sannidhanam and avoid the crowd and the queue at Saramkutthi.

We started off around 5 PM. We reached Pampa Ganapathy temple and prayed. It was then that we ran into the crowd. There was a huge queue waiting to climb Neelimala. There was an announcement saying that there was a huge crowd at Sannidhanam and hence there would be regulation for climbing. We were stuck. The letter did not help us get through and we tried all the exit routes. Finally we elbowed through a side route and managed to free ourselves from the queue. We started the trek and in a short while we reached Marakootam. Police had started crowd control measures right from Sabaripeedam. At Marakootam, we showed the letter and managed to get to the Chandranandan road.

I could see the temple from there. My heart beat faster. Here was what I had walked so far for. We progressed fast in eager anticipation and reached the holy eighteen steps. We broke the customary coconut and started climbing the steps. This was bliss. This is what I had been waiting for. Once we reached on the top, we quickly moved on to the flyover to take us to the front of the deity.

Finally, I had darshan of the Lord. There he was – majestic, smiling at his subjects who had traversed miles and miles and showering his blessings on people who see the lord himself in all fellow beings. The true meaning of the Ayappa cult is not only in darshan of the idol, but lies in the entire process. Everything, right from maladharanam on the first day of the Vrishchikam month, right up to the end when you return home, is a ritual. It is the best lesson in humanity. There were tears in my mind.

Footnote – the group visited the malikkapuram, vavar swami and other smaller deities and did the ghee abhishkem the next day morning. We then returned to Pampa and returned home in a mini-van. We reached home by 9 PM in the evening. The distance that we had covered by foot in 10 days, about 370 Kms, covered in 10 hours in a vehicle.


8 Responses to “Paadayatra – My experience”

  1. 1 Ayyappa Devotee February 18, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Great experience you had.. Inspiration to read.. Ayyappa is everywhere..

  2. 2 sanyal October 9, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    swamiye sharanam ayyappa!!!!

  3. 3 Albertha July 13, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Hi there to every one, for the reason that I am actually keen of
    reading this weblog’s post to be updated on a regular basis. It carries nice material.

  4. 4 Bharath October 9, 2013 at 11:52 pm

    You did a wrong thing by wearing footwear. It is a rule that, you should wear footwear during deeksha.

  5. 6 Balaji November 22, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Please tell me the conditions in ayyappa mala.

  6. 7 Sarath October 21, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Swamiye Saranamayyappa……Dear Ayyappa… was really a touching soul searching experience to go through your lines in this blog……each line contained the most sincere emotion and more so your closeness to Bhagvan…..I honestly bow before you on account of your sincerity and purity of purpose ….Our Ayyappa Darshanam…..your picturesque elucidation actually took me to our dear Ayyappa Swami at Sannidhanam……Thank you once again and my pranams………Swami Saranam

  7. 8 Rahul M K March 15, 2017 at 5:12 pm

    swamiye saranam ayyappa…

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