During December and January, Kerala is packed with huge crowds of men wearing black dhotis; you’ll see them milling about train stations, driving in overcrowded and gaily decorated jeeps and cooking a quick meal on the roadside by their tour bus. They are pilgrims on their way to the Sri Ayappa forest temple (also known as Hariharaputra or Shasta) at Sabarimala, in the Western Ghats, around 200km from both Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. The Ayappa devotees can seem disconcertingly ebullient, chanting “Swamiyee Sharanam Ayappan” (“Give us protection, god Ayappa”) in a lusty call-and-response style reminiscent of English football fans.
Ayappa – the offspring of a union between Shiva and Mohini, Vishnu’s beautiful female form – is primarily a Keralan deity, but his appeal has spread phenomenally in the last thirty years across South India, to the extent that this is said to be the largest pilgrimage in the world, with as many as 40–50 million devotees each year. Pilgrims are required to remain celibate, abstain from intoxicants, and keep to a strict vegetarian diet for 41 days before setting out on the four-day walk through the forest from the village of Erumeli (61km, as the crow flies, northwest) to the shrine at Sabarimala. Less-keen devotees take the bus to the village of Pampa, and join the 5km queue. When they arrive at the modern temple complex, pilgrims who have performed the necessary penances may ascend the famous eighteen gold steps to the inner shrine. There they worship the deity, throwing donations down a chute that opens onto a subterranean conveyor belt, where the money is counted and bagged.
The pilgrimage reaches a climax during the festival of Makara Sankranti, when massive crowds congregate at Sabarimala. On January 14, 1999, 51 devotees were buried alive when part of a hill crumbled under the crush of a stampede. The pilgrims had gathered at dusk to catch a glimpse of the final sunset of makara jyoti (“celestial light”) on the distant hill of Ponnambalamedu.
Although males of any age and even of any religion can take part in the pilgrimage, females between the ages of 9 and 50 are barred.