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It is one of the largest annual pilgrimage in the world with an estimated 50–60 million devotees walking barefoot through forests abounding in wildlife – a spiritual journey that underscores universal brotherhood, regardless of caste and creed.

Though the pilgrims comprise mostly the Hindus, Christians and Muslims undertake the journey in increasingly larger numbers, and climb up the Sabarimala range of hills to pay obeisance to Lord Ayyappa. Before this arduous journey, however, they seek the permission and blessings for a safe journey at the Vavar mosque at Erumeli.

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The pilgrims undertaking the pilgrimage are a distinct species. Come December, and you see shaggy men dressed in black or dark blue, walking barefoot in the evening visiting temples, and you know the Sabarimala pilgrimage is close.

Forty days prior to the start of the pilgrimage, they wear a mala or a garland made of Tulasi or Rudraksha with a pendant of Ayyappa. The pilgrim receives this garland from a temple priest or from a Guru called Guru-swami. Guru-swami is one who has successfully completed the Sabarimala pilgrimage at least 18 times, and can lead his disciples in the best traditions of the pilgrimage.

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Along with receiving the mala, the pilgrims undertake certain 'vrata' or vows. These austerities are meant to purify the body and liberate the mind from the endless worldly desires and attachment, and train it to develop an attitude of total surrender to the Lord.

And what are these vows?

First and foremost, vow of celibacy during the time of wearing the mala. The mala is removed ceremoniously only after the completion of the pilgrimage. Secondly, no smoking, and no intoxicants or drinks. Only one full-fledged meal during the day supplemented with very light food for the night dinner. Regular worship and visits at the local temple. No lies, no stealth....

The intention of the austerities is to identify onself as the embodiment of the omnipresent and universal consciousness called God. In fact, the avowed pilgrim is addressed by everyone as 'Ayyappa' and greeted with 'Swamiye Saranam', which means '(Let us) surrender to god'. This is also the mass chant or group slogan when they walk barefoot the 45-kilometer through the forests and chant "the pebbles and thorns are cushions to our feet'. The chorus is rhythmic and energizing.

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Only those who carry the Irumudi are permitted to ascend the 18 steps which lead to the sanctorum, and those who do not carry an Irumudi can only enter the temple precincts through the side entrance.

The concept of Ayyappa as the son of Shiva and Mohini, the female form of Vishnu is highly symbolic. When the mind is drawn inwards, there is awareness of the thoughts. Mohini represents the powerful form of the intellect, the inquiring nature. Inquiring nature leads to discrimination of the real from the un-real and helps in transcending to the awareness state. This awareness then witnesses everything and finally transcends to the bliss of pure Consciousness. Intellect is other form of Consciousness and so the union of the Consciousness and awareness state is Ayyappa.

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