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Sannidhanam -the Presence

With an overwhelming sense of fulfillment, the pilgrim b speeds up his pace and beholds from a distance the eighteen sacred Ii steps, the shrine and the golden flag-staff. A divine thrill overwhelms his very being. The temple is located on a hillock in the midst of a vast valley surrounded on all sides by to the mountain ranges covered with lush tropical forests.

The Pathinettaampadi - The 18 Sacred Steps

The pilgrim has to climb eighteen sacred steps, the Pathinettaampadi, to reach the Sannidhanam, the Presence of Lord Ayyappa.

Pathinettam PadiBefore climbing the Pathinettaampadi, the pilgrim breaks a coconut by hurling it on a stone placed by the side of the steps. It is symbolic of the shattering of the conditions that limit the consciousness while man engages in the practice of spiritual evolution for a greater cultural and spiritual existence and ultimate expansion to Unconditioned Freedom.

Only those who have observed forty one days of austerities and carry the lrumudikettu, the sacred package of offerings, on the head are supposed to climb these sacred steps. Those who do not carry the lrumudikettu are not allowed to climb them. They can use the flight of steps at the northern side to reach the temple precincts.

An unparalleled feature of these steps is that they are considered almost as sacred as the Presiding Deity Himself. This is very meaningful because it emphasises that the spiritual steps taken for man's evolutionary ascendence to Divinity is as important as the goal itself. For, if the steps are not taken the goal can never be achieved. The means for the transcendence of man's limited consciousness to attain the freedom of Unconditioned Consciousness is symbolised by the eighteen steps.

Another unique feature of these steps is that they are carved out of a single stone. This symbolises the complementary nature of the various stages of spiritual practice and their unifying influence in helping the ascendence to the Supreme Goal. Giving equal importance to the steps as the Deity Himself, the same rituals performed for the consecration of idols (Shadaadhaara-pooja) are prescribed for the consecration of these steps also. Padipooja, the worship of the sacred steps, is a major ritual in Sabarimala.

Padipooja is considered as a very auspicious offering (Vazhipaadu). Formerly this Pooja was performed once every twelve years, but now, because of constant demand from pilgrims, except during the Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrimage season, it is conducted on all days when the temple opens for monthly Pooja- s on the first of every Malayalam month, and during the holy days of Vishu and Thiruvonam. Each step has a breadth and height of nine inches. The length is five feet. Owing to the long passage of time the steps were worn out and the Travancore Devaswom Board decided to demolish the existing flight of steps and construct a new one. But the Devaprasna, a special astrological method to know the Divine Will, revealed that the Divine Will was against the demolition of the age- old steps vibrant with spiritual power. Then, it was decided to cover the steps with thick plates of Panchaloha (an alloy of the five metals, gold, copper, silver, iron and lead). Accordingly, the Divine Power in the eighteen steps was ritualistically withdrawn on October 1985 and was transferred to the idol of Lord Ayyappa. Then, after covering the steps with the plates, this Power in the idol was revoked and infused back into the steps on November 1985.

The eighteen steps symbolize the eighteen major obstacles that are to be transcended for man's spiritual evolution and Self Realization. These are some physical and mental factors that keep the consciousness in a condition of limitation and arrest its evolutionary expansion. There are eighteen such major factory, and transcending their limitations would result in the gradual unfoldment of man's higher levels of consciousness and freedom. These factors are the five sense experiences as sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; the eight Raaga-s, which are the binding passions such as Kaama (selfish and excessive desires), Krodha (anger), Lohha (avarice), Moha (illusory attachment), Mada (haughtiness), Maathsarya (rivalry), Dambhu (egotism),"andAsooyaUealousy); the three Guna- s, the primal binding qualities of Nature as Sathva (harmony), Rajas (turbulence) and Thamas (resistance or inertia); Avidya (nescience) and Vidya (knowledge).

The first five steps represent the sense experiences; the steps from six to thirteen, the eight Raaga-s, the fourteen to sixteen, the three Guna-s; the next step A vidya and the final step Vidya. It is on getting above the 18th step (the word' Pathinettaam' means the 18th) one experiences Supreme Consciousness. According to the Advaitha philosophy man can attain salvation, that is, expansion to unconditioned Supreme Consciousness, only by crossing these eighteen limiting hurdles with penance and self-control. It is to be specially noted here that Vidya (knowledge) is also regarded as a limitation, which also has to be transcended. Till the higher knowledge transforms itself through its practice into the experience of the unconditioned Supreme Reality, the knowledge itself remains to be the last limitation of the mind, which is represented by the 18th step. By transcending this final limitation, the spiritual seeker embraces Supreme Consciousness and this transformation is represented by the stepping beyond the 18th step and reaching the Presence of Dharma Shaastha, the Unconditioned Reality. It is very symbolic that when one steps over and crosses the 18th step, one views in front of the temple the inscription of the profound Vedic Truth, That Thvam Asi -You are That Supreme Truth -reminding one of the inbuilt potential of man for Total Freedom achievable through intelligent spiritual expansion. The forty one days of austerities give a training for transcending these limitations and that is why it is stipulated that only those who have observed them and carry the lrumudikettu on the head as a sign of this observance, should climb these steps.

The eighteen steps also represent the eighteen mountains of Sri Ayyappa's sacred grove Poonkaavanam), namely, Ponnambalamedu, Gowdenmala, Naagamala, Sundaramala, Chittambalamala, Khalgimala, Maathangamala, Mayilaadummedu, Sreepaadamala, Devaramala, Nilakkalmala, Thalapparamala, Neelimala, Karimala, Puthusserimala, Kaalakettimala, Inchipparamala and Sabarimala. During the Padipooja, the Deities of these mountains are off'1red Pooja-s on these steps.

In Hinduism the number eighteen is given a special importance. The Bhagavad-Gita has eighteen chapters, the major Puraana-s are eighteen, the great Kurukshetra war described in the Mahabharatha lasted for eighteen days and there are eighteen Vidya- s, the branches of knowledge.

Sannidhaanam, the Divine Presence

Climbing the Sacred steps, the pilgrim reaches the focussing point of his austerities, the very goal of his pilgrimage -the Presence. He stands immersed in Bliss in the glorious Presence of Lord Ayyappa vibrant with Divine Grace. The doors within open to Eremity and the reassuring Grace Divine, which makes him more free, harmonious and peaceful.

Now the pilgrim moves towards the shrine of Lord Ganesha, known as Kannimoola Ganapathi and the shrine of Lord Kaarthikeya, for worship. Then he proceeds southwards to worship the Divine Mother, Maalikappurath-amma, whose shrine is located a little away towards the left side of Lord Ayyappa's shrine. The main offering here is the rolling of the coconut around the shrine. Behind the shrine of Maalikappurath-amma, a little away towards the east is a structure called Manimandapam, where the representative of the king of Pandalam takes rest on his arrival in Sabarimala. Close to it are the seats of the Deities, Kochu Kadutha Swami and Karuppa Swami. There are also places of worship of the Di vine Serpents and the nine Planetary Deities. Towards the south-west comer is a compartment within which is a sculptured figure of a goat and an inscription 'Shiva- thejomayam '. There is a representation of a stream and a leopard on the other side of its bank. A serpent is depicted as coiling on the Jeopard's neck and it raises its hood. In the stream there is a lotus and in the middle of the lotus, a trident. There is the representation of an opened' eye at the point where the three branches of the trident join. A rudhraksha rosary is placed over these three branches. On the top of the trident there is a mystic design of the Sudarshana- chakram. The whole theme which symbolizes the different phases of human striving for spiritual advancement and its culmination is explained in an inscription behind this theme.

The shrine of Valia Kadutha - swamy is on the left side near the base of the 18 steps and the shrine of Vavar Swami is a little away facing the 18 steps. Here a Muslim priest gives Prasad to the pilgrims.

After the worship, the pilgrim prepares for a symbolic pouring of his love and his very being into the Supreme Source of all existence, represented by the splendorous idol of Lord Ayyappa, by the libation of it with the ghee contained in the Nei-thenga that he has brought. This is called Nei-abhishekam. As we have discussed in detail in connection with the Kettunira ceremony (page-53) the Nei-thengq involves profound inner significance.

The pilgrim settles at a convenient place in the sacred precincts and opens the lrumudikettu. The coconut filled with ghee is taken out from it. He breaks the coconut and drains out the ghee into a vessel. Carrying this vessel, he joins a separate queue meant for Neyyabhishekam. (He has to take a special coupon for this purpose from the counter). He hands over the vessel to a priest. After the Abhishekam. the priest gives him back the offered ghee as the Prasaadam.

The spiritual disciplines during the austerities, the journey through mountain terrains breathing fresh air and the mind absorbed in thoughts on the Lord, reinforces the whole being of the pilgrim. The experience gives him a deeper vision about life. And if he intensifies this awakening through further spiritual expansion, it will bring about profound evolutionary transformation of life. Every pilgrim will certainly gain a cultural and spiritual refinement, which may of course, vary with different individuals according to the range of receptivity.

It is the personal experience that an earnest pilgrim greatly cherishes. For many, the pilgrimage is a lessening of mental stress, a healing touch, a rejuvenation and an inner transformation. The feeling of lestasy and spiritual elevation makes the pilgrim, despite the hardships, to look forward for the next occasion for austerities and pilgrimage, which is, in fact, a voyage into the realm or beauty and bliss of the Reality within, symbolised by the spiritually splendrous form of Lord Ayyappa.