Tiruvabarana Goshayatra
by S.V. Badri on 01 Feb 2009 1 Comment

This is an age-old tradition that thankfully continues: the Pandalam Raja remains custodian of the Tiruvabaranam (jewels for Bhagawan Ayyappa and Maligapuram Amma). These celestial jewels are displayed at Pandalam Palace Mandir during the Mandalam/Makaram period (end December through January 11) every year. 

Three teakwood boxes, Tiruvabaranam Pettis, transport the sacred jewels from Pandalam Palace to Sabarimala. The boxes are over 120 years old. One developed a crack (bhinnam), necessitating the making of a new set of Tiruvabarana Pettis for the Bhagawan. While the government-controlled Travancore Devaswom Board is custodian of the Ayyappa Mandir and corners all the revenue, it asked the Pandalam Maharaja, the traditional custodian of the jewels, to make the new set of boxes. It is learnt that the Devaswom told the harried 'Maharaja' it would cost him a cool Rs.1.5 Crore. Two quotations, one each from Tamil Nadu and Kerala bodies, concurred with this astronomical figure (It finally cost a fraction of the sum).

Shri Chandramouli ji

Shri Chandramouli ji, an ardent Ayyappa bhakta, offered to undertake the divine task. The Raja of Pandalam set certain conditions - he should not advertise through any medium, nor collect funds through advertisements. He could however approach Ayyappa devotees known to him and his sources. The conditions were deeply respected and instantly accepted. Thus began the mammoth task of mobilizing funds, finding the right people, designing the boxes. He started his diksha the very day he got clearance from the Raja; he had only nine months to complete the task.

Funds came in a trickle, but gathered momentum with the blessings of Bhagawan Ayyappa. The required sandalwood trees were sanctioned by the forest department and procured at cost. Jewellers at Bangalore were identified to make the decorative pieces to adorn the boxes. The Tiruvabarana boxes were readied in time and displayed in select mandirs in Chennai, Andhra Pradesh and Bangalore for public darshan before being ceremonially handed over to the Pandalam Raja.

The Blessings and the Offer

I was very fortunate that as soon as the entire gold engravings were ready, they were brought to my house and shown to us. Then came the offer - would I be willing to join the team to trek 120-odd kms that constitutes the Tiruvabarana Goshayatra?

Each year, the Aabaranams leave Pandalam Palace on 12 January and reach Sabarimala on 14 January in time to adorn the Ayyappa Vigraha for the Makara Jyoti Tiruvabarana Darshan. I jumped at the offer, but had to wait more than a month for confirmation. Because of Mumbai 2008, getting security clearances for people to travel with the Tiruvabaranam became an ordeal in itself. As days passed by without news, I left it to Ayyappa. My name was cleared! Shri Chandramouli's group comprised twenty persons, and most of us met for the first time at Chennai Railway Station on 10 January.

Pandalam Palace

If Jaipur and Mysore are the benchmark, Pandalam Palace is a nondescript house struggling to pass off as a palace. The impressive Ayyappa Mandir was the most attractive segment of the palace. We were welcomed by people streaming the rows of barricades to touch the boxes, have a darshan of Ayyappa and the ornaments on display. Streams of Ayyappa devotees breezed into the town from dawn to dusk. Hundreds stayed back to trek along with the Aabarana Pettis and be part of the Tiruvabarana Goshayatra.

The official carriers


At 3 a.m. on 12 January, we assembled in the Mandir. The official carriers of the divine boxes with the Tiruvabaranam in it walked in small groups. There were 23 carriers, each representing one family; they have been performing this task for generations. They are all employed in different parts of Kerala and even outside the state, but have not given up their hereditary duty to the Pandalam Maharaja, as carriers of the celestial jewels for the Makara Jyoti-Aabaranam Alankara Darshan. They are so zealous in this divine task that they refused all offers of help in the arduous journey, saying politely that it is their Ayyappa-ordained duty and they would not trade it for anything in their lifetime.

At the Palace Mandir, they were adorned with the Diksha Mala. Special pujas were made to the boxes; the air was agog with expectation.

Garuda - bird king


Every year, like millions of devotees, I watched with awe on television, when Garuda, king of birds, made his unfailing appearance, circling high up in the skies, when the divine boxes danced to the "Sarana Gosham" reaching the celestial 18 Padis (Padinettam Padi) in Sabarimalai. The Garuda circles high as the protector of these Aabaranams. I was under the impression that Garuda made His presence only at this time and only at Sabarimala.

But Garuda circled high at Pandalam, when the boxes commenced the Tiruvabarana Goshayatra, and vanished into thin air. And at each of the more than dozen stops we made, Garuda would make His presence, circling high up in the skies, and as if on cue, the boxes would commence the onward trek, only after the Garuda was sighted. 

One can understand that the job of the carriers runs through families. But who has embedded this habit in the Garuda? 

The Goshayatra

Having sighted the Garuda, the Tiruvabarana Goshayatra began at Pandalam on 12 January. People lined both sides of the entire route vying to get a little finger on one of the boxes. The police and volunteers had a tough time keeping them at bay. Over a thousand Ayyappa bhaktas followed the Aabaranam from Pandalam. Women on either side of the road stood holding aratis. Men showered petals, coins and currency. These were dutifully collected in hundis by volunteers from Pandalam Palace. At regular intervals volunteers offered typical Kerala coloured herbal water, butter milk, narangi vellam (lime juice), kattan chai (black tea), sukku vellam, sukku coffee, and other delicacies. 

The route taken by the yatra remains unchanged over generations. It is the route taken by Bhagawan Ayyappa when He set out to bring the tiger's milk. The first halt was at Kaipuzha Krishna Mandir. The boxes were delicately placed on a specially erected stage. People were allowed to walk through barricades to have darshan. We halted next at Kulanada Devi Mandir. 

RSS Annadana

I was pleasantly surprised to see RSS having an Annadana shanty. Swayamsevaks distributed buttermilk and offered annadana to hundreds of pilgrims at Devi Mandir. Seva Bharati did similar work at Krishna Mandir. In other, common people delightfully to put up temporary structures and offered refreshments. The Satya Sai Seva group gave idli packets at Nilackal. There was a VHP stall at Sabarimala.

We halted at Ullanur Bhagavati Mandir and Kurianipally Devi Mandir before reaching the famous Aranmula Parthasarathy Mandir in the evening. It boggled the mind to see people waiting on both sides of the road, mostly from wee hours of the morning. The atmosphere was electric with bhajans, pujas and religious discourses. 

A traditional welcome was accorded at Aranmula and we trekked along, stopping at Ponnunthitan Devi Mandir, Pambadimannan Ayyappa Mandir, Chengolpuzha Subramania Swamy Mandir and reached Ayinur Pudiya Bhagawati Mandir where we halted for the night. Every square inch of the vast mandir compound brimmed with Ayyappa bhaktas. The Aabarana Boxes were dutifully taken inside the Mandir and locked up after a few hours of public darshan.

Having walked more than 42 kms that day, each of us blissfully went to sleep at 11.30 p.m., only to get up at 01.30 a.m. to start the next day's yatra.

13 January

Even at this hour, there were people lined up on either side of the road, offering us black coffee, black tea and Sukku Coffee. Passing through Edappalur Bhagawati Mandir, Azhikkal Ayyappa Para, Edakkulam Devi Mandir, we reached Vadaserikkara, where we got a well deserved rest. 

Overwhelmed by people's reception, our legs knew no pain as we trekked to our afternoon stop – Perunada Sastha Mandir. Ayyappa Seva Mandal's para-medical volunteers gave each of us a soothing message with herbal oils that came as a relief to our calf muscles.

Call from Ayyappa

As we were stretching our tired legs at the hospital compound of Perunada, something strange happened. Satish, Diwakar, Harish and I decided to go to the Sastha Mandir where the boxes were housed and try to take some pictures. As we reached the Mandir, the main door was shut. Just then, a policeman stopped and asked us politely if we would like to see the boxes from closer proximity! He showed us the side entrance to the Mandir and we entered the Artha Mandapam where the boxes were placed and policemen were resting. One of them looked at me directly and said, "Swami if you want to take pictures, go ahead". Ayyappa heard my prayers!

Harish recorded the event on his videocam, while I met the Pandalam Raja and got myself introduced to him. The Raja was visibly happy that each one of us took time off to volunteer service to this divine cause. 

We rested two hours and commenced the trek, having sighted the faithful Garuda hovering high in the skies.

Curiously there were two houses where the boxes were halted and received by the home-owners with great reverence, on the way to Perunada. Upon enquiry I learnt that these were the two stops Ayyappa made on his way to Sabarimala. The houses had come up meanwhile, fortunately owned by devout Ayyappa Bhaktas, who deem it their honour to respect the age-old route.

Estate workers of Laha

The forest guest house of Laha was to be our venue of the night halt. On either side of the route to Laha from Perunada, were vast tracts of rubber estates. While people in hundreds lined up the road to offer pujas to the Aabaranams, it was heart-warming to see groups of estate workers trekking through inhospitable terrain to reach the main road for a glimpse of the boxes. It was a very emotional moment to watch these simple workers carry flowers, arati plate, camphor etc. to offer their traditional pujas to the Aabaranams.

There was a grand procession of men, women and children, carrying traditional and very colourful umbrellas. The elephant decked in typical Kerala ornaments led the way to receive the Tiruvabaranam. Hundreds occupied the limited space on the lawns of the guest house and we found refuge for the night on the platform of a closed shop. We knew we would have just a couple of hours to rest and by this time our minds and bodies were tuned to this basic comfort the yatra offered us.

Satish and Harish prayed they could walk the entire last lap in close proximity of the Tiruvabaranam. Though each one had a security pass, none of us was confident we would be able to trek the final stretch with the speed of the professional carriers. We placed our faith in Ayyappa to lead us into the inner circle and give us a comfortable journey. 

14 January

We decided to leave four hours in advance and wait at Neelimalai Top to rejoin the Tiruvabaranam group. We started at 2.30 a.m. and through Plapally Kotta Thevar Mandir, Neelakkal, reached Attathode from where only those with passes trekked with the Tiruvabaranam. Others were diverted to Nilackal and Pamba from where they would take the normal route of Pamba Ganapathi to Neelimalai and beyond. 

Attathode and beyond

From Attathode, it is one steep climb down to the stretch of Pamba. From here begins the most fascinating and most tedious journey. Having crossed Pamba, the other side was just a rocky terrain with the gentle flowing Pamba to our right. Giant boulders protrude from nowhere and a false step could spell disaster. This stretch made us wonder how it is humanly possible to carry the Tiruvabaranam boxes, balance deftly on the head while stepping on each giant rock. Even the Raja's palanquin bearers carried it so deftly through the maze of the most dangerous rocky terrain one could possibly trek. On this stretch Kodur Ravi and Diwakar lent me a great hand and stood by me as I gasped for breath every tenth step.

Miles of such perilous walk brought us to a stench of human excreta that announced the arrival of Periyanavattam. It is a shame that while at the main Pamba there are toilets for pilgrims, at Periyanavattam the facilities are inadequate, forcing pilgrims to defecate in the forests. The Devaswom and police must ensure that people to not defile the traditional route of the Tiruvabaranam.

We walked through the Swamy's Poongavanam. The stretch from Periyanavattam to Neelimalai top was a knee-breaking and ankle-twisting ordeal. This is not the traditional route taken by Ayyappa Bhaktas from Triveni Pamba, Pamba Ganapathi to Neelimalai. We needed to halt every five steps. Just 200 steps from Neelimala Top, a tea stall owner asked us to rest on typical Kerala mats.

The Tiruvabaranam came hours later. We were rested and recuperated and fresh for the final lap of our lifetime. For four hours before our arrival, people were stopped from trekking right from Pamba Ganapathi. Those who had trekked earlier were asked to clear the route and stand beyond the iron barricade on each side, leaving the entire trekking area from Neelimalai to Sannidhanam free for our uninterrupted mobility. Policemen lined up on either side to ensure the route was free from incidents.

Diwakar and I got into the inner circle of the Aabarana procession, immediately after Garuda was sighted at Neelimala. Satish and Harish followed suit. Ravi joined us instantly and we formed a chain around the Pettis as we started. The Tiruvabaranams stopped at Sabaripeetam. Special pujas were conducted and after 20 minutes of these rituals, we proceeded to Saranguthi. The procession halted for traditional pujas to the Aabaranam. We decided to go to the front and lead the procession, as our goal was to reach the hilltop and rush to Maligapuram from where we would have darshan of the Jyoti. Each inch on either side of the barricades was occupied by a frenzied Ayyappa bhakta. If he was not able to land a touch on the box, he would dutifully touch one of us volunteers and feel gratified. We were embarrassed but not surprised by their devotion and piety.

The Tiruvabaranams were traditionally escorted by volunteers of All India Ayyappa Bhakta Seva Samajam. Close to Padinettampadi the Devaswom officials, the Tantri and others, received the Aabaranams traditionally. 

On this last stretch, Bhaskara Kuruppu or Omana Kuttan receives the main box. Others have said that somehow, the box seems to mysteriously go out of control while nearing Padinettam Padi and only Omana Kuttan could keep it balanced on his head, so they leave the last stretch to him!

From the Padinettam Padi, we rush straight to Maligapuram, with a policeman escorting us. Here we are just a handful to witness the Makara Jyoti. We were escorted to the Mandir and let in for darshan of Bhagawan decked in his resplendent Tiruvabaranam that we escorted from Pandalam. Tears welled in my eyes at His sight and only the second darshan allowed to me that night enabled me to have his darshan clearly.

I learnt subsequently that the Devaswom declared a head count of 2 million bhaktas on 14 January.

Security presence

This was a grim reminder of the times we live in. The presence of sandbag bunkers at Maligapuram, around Sabarimala Sannidanam, watch towers with commandos in fighting gear, a bomb squad van that preceded the Tiruvabaram procession, followed by a police van with gun-toting police, a police jeep joining the convoy at every important venue, the Devaswom Tiruvabaranam Scorpio that flashed its presence at important venues and the ambulance that dutifully followed.

Close to a dozen policemen walked barefoot throughout the journey. Their behaviour was admirable. While they firmly dealt with over-zealous people trying to break the cordon, they were polite unlike the inhuman jostle at Tirupati Balaji. Two million people visit Sabari unfailingly around 14 January and each has a darshan to his satisfaction. This crucial element is missing at Tirupati.


But Sabari could learn from Tirupati how to keep the place clean. The entire area around the Mandir, especially close to the dozen eateries, resembles a municipal garbage dump. There are not enough bins for pilgrims to dump the waste, which makes them strew it carelessly all over. No one cleans the mess. Plastic waste (especially covers used for bringing Abhishekam material) adds to the mess. Very soon, the fragile environment of this sacred place will be endangered.

For photos, view: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24479441@N04/sets/72157612911467241

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