Kerala is a land of temples; perhaps the best known pilgrimage destination in Kerala is Sabarimala, high up in the Sahyadri Mountains (Western Ghats). Sabarimala Sri Dharmasastha Temple is the most famous and prominent among all the Sastha Temples. It is believed that “Parasurama Maharshi” who retrieved Kerala from the sea by throwing his axe, installed the idol of Ayyappa at Sabarimala to worship Lord Ayyappa.
There are many uniqueness to the temple at Sabarimala. It’s one of the most revered and highly visited pilgrimage place in south India.
The main deity, Lord Ayyappa is an embodiment of both Siva and Vishnu. Women between the age of 10 and 50 are not permitted beyond Pampa. It has some religious reasons ( Ayyappan being a brahmachari ). However people of all religion, not just Hindus , are welcomed to the temple. There is a small Darga dedicated to Vavar , a Muslim saint , according to the mythology was the lieutenant of Ayyappan.
Pilgrims take a 41 days Vrutham (Austerities) before heading for Sabarimala. All carry the Irumudi Kettu (twin sacked sacred pouch ) on their head to the temple. It contains coconuts to be broken near the 18 steps to the temple.
Unlike many temples , the Sabarimala Temple doesn’t open all round the year. The pilgrimage season is mid November- mid January . Other wise the temple opens for a few days around the 1 of each Malayalam month ( that’s around the middle of each English calender months). The climax of the pilgrimage season is marked by Makara Jyothi , the light that appears in the in the mountain range called Ponnambalamedu facing the temple. Millions assemble to witness this , as it is believed that seen this light brings good fortunes.
While Sabarimala itself is not a huge mountain, it is surrounded all around by imposing and heavily forested mountain ranges. It is located in the in the midst of one of the thickly wooded forests of the Western Ghats. Many millions of people visit Sabarimala temple each season. Once the season is over, the temple vicinity is practically devoid of any human activity except the odd staffs manning the outposts. The whole area again turn into sanctuary of wild animals contiguous to the forest around.
Sabarimala ( the Mountain of Sabari ) is located in the south Kerala district called Pathanamthitta. This is a hilly district, especially its eastern portion that fringes the Western Ghats. Sabarimala ( also called Sabarimalai or Shabarimala) is at the northeast of Pathanamthitta, in the midst of the forest that stretches all the way to the neighboring Tamilnadu.
Pampa is the nearest point to Sabarimala where one can reach by motor vehicle. The only way to reach Sabarimala is by walk ( rather trek ) from Pampa. The route about 6 kilometers through the semi paved and often uphill forest terrain. It can take anything from 2 to 3 hours for this trek. The great majority of the pilgrims to Sabarimala follows this path. Pampa has a bus station with connectivity to major towns in Kerala.
There are a few more trek paths pilgrims use. For Example the Uppupara – Sabarimala path ( 4 kilometers / 3 hours ) route and the Erumeli – Pampa – Sabarimala trek path ( about 50 kilometers ).
The Uppupara route is mostly used by pilgrims coming from the Vandiperiyar side. The Erumeli trek path is more tedious and is believed to be the same path Lord Ayyappa followed to reach Sabiramala. So that path has some special significance for the more devout followers.
For Sabarimala all the road routes in general head towards Pampa. That’s practically the final and closes point for Sabarimala the vehicle can carry you.
There are frequent bus services ( state owned KSRTC buses) from the nearby towns to Pampa during the pilgrimage season. Direct bus services to towns located far relatively less frequent , nevertheless there are long distance bus services to Pampa. So the best strategy is to look for ditect bus to Pampa from the town of your choice; if that is not feasible break your journey into logistical segments. There are many around the area which offers good connectivity to both Pampa and to other big towns. Include one of such towns in your itinerary. Ernakulam, Kottayam, Alapuzha, Kollam , Pathanamthitta, Thiruvalla , Chengannur , Punalur, Kottarakara, Erumeli etc are some of such towns that are located at different distances and with varying options of connectivity.
Trivandrum and Cochin are the two airports – both are about 250 kilometers from Pampa – nearest to Sabarimala. Cochin is located in the north and Trivandrum in the south of Sabarimala. From Cochin and Trivandrum cities one can travel towards Pampa by bus or a combination of Train and then bus. Of course one can chose for a private vehicle as well.
Kerala has a busy rail route runs along the length of the state. Chengannur, about 90 kilometers west of Pampa is the nearest railway station. About two dozen express trains pass through this route. Many of them are long distance trains. Look for a train that pass via Chengannur. The other nearby stations in the stretch are ( from south to north ) : Trivandrum , Quilon, Kayamkulam , Mavelikkara , Chengannur , Tiruvalla , Changanacherry ,Kottayam , Vaikom Road , Ernakulam Junction . Some trains pass via Alappuzha , bypassing Kottyam between Ernakulam and Kollam.
Your chances of rail connectivity is further enhanced , if you look for a train to Ernakulam, which is a large city some 200 kilometers north of Pampa.
A few national highways and state highways crisscross this region of Kerala. Your route map to Sabarimala probably include some long stretches of these National Highways and then the network of local roads leading to Pampa.
There are not many accommodation ( rooms) available at Sabarimala or Pampa. And what is available as guesthouses is minuscule compared to the number of pilgrims that visit Sabarimala. But there are giant open halls made for pilgrims to take rest. As a norm people carry bed sheets that can be used as a spread to sleep on. There are the toilet facilities setup both at Pampa and Sabarimala.
The Kollam – Shenkottai railway line is undergoing the gauge conversion work. So there are no trains
The quality of the roads varies, but generally they get maintained before the start of pilgrimage season, especially the roads heading to Pampa in the Ghat Section. People chose their route to Sabarimala considering various factors. For example , some go for the shortest distance road while other prefer a more comfortable or less traffic to drive road, even though it means a bit longer driving time.
It is typical that pilgrims plan the visit to Sabarimala with visiting of many temples on the way. This is especially true for pilgrims coming from far places. So plan your route accordingly. Some typical routes are listed with approximate distance for the stretch in kilometers. You may even make a different route by merging parts of different routes. Note that practicably all the routes has to negotiate the Ghat ( forest) section , especially as it reaches close to Pampa. Some of them are with series of steep uphills, hairpin bends and are narrow roads.