Austerities for the Ayyappan Vratam and Significance of the pilgrimage:
The great pilgrimage to Sabarimala is symbolic of the individual soul’s journey to and merging with, the Supreme soul on its attainment of immortality. The Austerities are symbolic and clearly expressive of “Sarva dharmam parityajyaa” that is, “abandon all lower dharma’s (mundane duties) and take up the one only dharma (searching for the ultimate Truth)”. This means that man needs to only follow the one Dharma (duty) leading to God realization. The austerities tunes and prepares the mind to pick up the subtle divine energies and transforms the individual into a receptacle for the Lord’s divine grace
All observances start with the most important aspect of the festival which is the austerities that needs to be followed in order to mentally prepare the devotee for the process of evolvement. These austerities are severe and strict in the case of the Ayyappan Vratam or upavaasaa, which means resting near God.
Firstly the devotee takes the vow to fast at a special poojaa performed called Maalaadharan Poojaa and wears the MAALAI (chain around the neck) or MUDRAA, which is a garland of Thulasi or Rudraaksha beads, and it represents the aspirant’s sincere vow to devotedly follow the demands of the fast strictly and sincerely, which lasts for a period of at least 41 days (called Mandalam) prior to the pilgrimage or Yaattra to Sabarimala.
The austerities include eating one freshly cooked meal of strictly vegetarian food daily, sleeping on the floor, walking barefoot, keeping company with the good and pious by visiting places of worship, lives a pious life, not shaving or cutting one’s nails or hair, not attending any social functions of a celebratory nature , maintaining celibacy in word, thought and deed, wearing blue or black clothing, seeing all devotees as equals in every respect, maintaining tranquility of the mind, gentleness, silence, self control, purity of thought, speaking sweetly, pleasantly and truthfully and ensuring that speech is always beneficial to others, promises not to cheat, lie or steal, abstaining from any intoxicating drink or drug, does not smoke, listens to discourses on the greatness of the Lord Ayyappaa, attends other spiritual discourses, sings bhajans, adorns his forehead with kum kum(vermillion) and santhenam(sandal wood paste) giving himself an ascetic appearance.
The devotees or “Saami s” OR Ayyappaa’s as they are called, greet each other using the chant “Swaamiyeh Saranam” which means ‘the lord is our only refuge”.
also during this period the devotees wears blue or black colour clothing, which represents the devotees ignorance of his true self or true nature and that the devotee habours the eighth negative qualities of lust, greed, anger, hatred, jealousy, arrogance, conceit stupidity to a lesser or greater degree. The colour black also symbolises the devotee’s death to the material, physical world.
The main purpose of the austerities is to lose “body consciousness” which we all are so preoccupied with.
In essence the devotee totally surrenders himself to Swaami Ayyappan realizing that his will is inevitable and his grace is supreme.
After 41 days of fasting the devotee carries an Irumudi on the head, which is a bundle of holy offerings to the Lord Ayyappan, walks 13, 5 kms from Laudium to this divine Shree Ayyappaa Kshetram. .
The sum total of all these is to surrender one’s body, mind, intellect and ego to the realization of the divinity of the self within. Here the unique stress is on healthy asceticism, religious fervor, the spirit of equality, and openness and welcome that is extended to all followers irrespective of religion, class, caste and creed. The idea behind the austerities is to leave worldly attachments behind and to proceed to realize the self within and to attain God.
Saranaagathi means total surrender to God. Surrender to God is the highest prayer.
Do not worry; do not be scared, agitated or nervous. Trust in God and be happy.