Sabarimala is the most famous pilgrim town located within a forest reserve, famous for the Sabarimala Sree Ayyappa Dharma Sastha Temple, that attracts more than 30 Million pilgrims annually, making it the largest in India and second largest in the world, after Haji Pilgrimage of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The temple, located on a hilltop, surrounded by 18 mountains, needs a hard trek through dense forest. In strict terms, the place is a small settlement within a dense forest, catering the needs of pilgrims visiting. Since the temple opens only 2 months in a year, the pilgrimage is highly seasonal and entry in other times of the year is not allowed.
Sabarimala is part of reserved biosphere of Western ghats. The shrine is located at a hilltop at an altitude 468 M above sea level. The area is known as Sannidhanam or Holy Abode. The entire forests, mountains, streams etc on the trek path are known as Pookavanam or Holy Garden of Lord. Thus the place and its geographic terrains has lot of importance to the concept of pilgrimage to Sabarimala.
Myths recall that Lord Ayyappa is born as son of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, to destroy Demoness Mahashi who gained a boon that she could be killed only in hands a son born to two male gods. Mahashi was sister demoness of Demon King Mahisasura, who was killed by Goddess Durga. Empowered with the boon, she tortured mortals and even waged a war against Gods. Lord Shiva, who was determined to destroy the ruthless Mahashi decided to call support of Lord Vishnu, who appeared before Shiva in a female form known as Mohini (enchantress) and a son was born to them, after their divine union. The baby was left in the forests of Pathanamthitta, only to be adopted by a native ruler- the King of Pandalam (a nearby principality). The young prince in his late teens soon happened to meet the demoness during a hunting and after a duel, killed her, thus accomplishing his mission. Prince Ayyappa decided to renounce world pleasures and live as a hectic in deep yogic meditation in the forests. On his father's demand, he allowed his subjects to meet him only for 41 days in a year, blessing anyone who treks the dense forest and meet him after take severe ascetic lifestyle.
Its believed, the shrine was constructed by Lord Parasurama (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu), based on desire of Lord Vishnu. The layout of the temple is very unique, as it comprises of just a sanctum sanctorum on a large platform, connected to the base with a fleet of 18 steps, considered as most holy.
The shrine thus effectively mingle into the pristiness of the jungle.
The shrine traditionally opens only for 41 days during the Malayalam Month of Vrishickam (November-December) and one week for Makara Sankranti celebrations (January). Due to sharp increase of devotees, the temple administration has opened the temple, for first 3 days of every Malayalam Month as well as for major Kerala festivals like Vishu and Onam.
The key feature of pilgrimage to Sabarimala is the long trekking done through mountainous terrain upto Sannidhanam. There are three major trek routes
Out of these, the Erumeli route is the traditional and covers multiple small and big shrines, each has its own significance, as it was the route followed by Lord Ayyapan during his campaign against Demoness Mahisi. Many pilgrims still use the traditional trekking route, all by foot.
The Chalakayam route is recently developed, where a basecamp has been set-up by government and devaswom. Vehicles can drive upto here and from here, one need to trek to Sannidhanam.
Malayalam is the main language spoken by locals. The town's proximity to Tamil Nadu, has brought several Tamil laborers and migrants here, due to which Tamil is widely spoken and understood here. Due to presence of Sabarimala which attracts large crowds from all over India, many locals are trained to understand and speak elementary Kannada, Telugu and Hindi. Most of the signages in the town are written in all 4 languages of South India, apart from English and Hindi for the same purpose.
The town is located in laps of Western ghats range, thereby receives one of the heaviest rainfall in Kerala. It rains almost 9 months in a year. Summers are comparatively mild.and nights are colder. Fogs are common in early mornings during months of December and January.
The pilgrim season known as Sabarimala Mandala Pilgrimage starts from November 16th onwards, which lasts till mid of January, creating a massive influx of pilgrims all over India and from other parts of world. Special arrangements such as additional buses, trains and tourist centers are opened by various agencies to cater the pilgrimage tourists. Its better to check with Kerala Tourism Office or District Tourist Office to plan your trip.
Kerala Police maintains special tourist offices, during Mandalam Pilgrimage season. The Police Tourist Office maintains a dedicated website and mobile support assistance.
Cochin International Airport  104 km, or Thiruvananthapuram International airport at 113 km. Direct flights there from the Middle East, Singapore, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Cochin Airport operates Ayyappa Special Service Counter in Domestic Arrivals and Central Block, during the Mandala Pilgrimage season, to facilitate services to Ayyappa devotees. Equally passengers can reach at Chennai or Bangalore or Coimbatore and Madurai and reach via train or road. Most of these airports provide special facilitating services to Ayyappa devotees.
From Kochi Airport, during Mandala Pilgrimage, special shuttles operates directly to Sabarimala.
Cochin Airport has started scheduled copter services from the Airport Helipad to Nilakkal Helipad.
Pathanamthitta do not have any railway station inside the town. The nearest railway stations are Thiruvalla railway station is 30 km away and Chengannur railway station is 26 km away. During Sabarimala pilgrimage season, special trains ply connecting Chengannur and Thiruvalla from other parts of India. Special trains will carry images of Lord Ayyappa and marked as Sabarimala Special (SS). A major Sabari-Rail line project is under construction, planned to create a Sabarimala temple railway station. Chengannur and Thiruvalla Rail stations are well connected by Sabarimala special buses, right from the arrival gate at every 2 minutes by KSRTC.
Equally many pilgrims, especially from other states prefer to align at Ernakulam South or at Thiruvananthapuram Central or Kottayam Station, to start pilgrimage from the station.
Both the state run KSRTC and private luxury bus operators connect Sabarimala Basecamp from other cities. There are daily direct bus services from Mumbai, Chennai & Bangalore. Frequent buses are available from cities like Kottayam, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Coimbatore, Mangalore & Madurai. KSRTC operates chain services during Mandala pilgrimage time and on every 1st and 2nd day of Malayalam Months to cater pilgrim crowds to Sabarimala. Karnataka STC and Tamil Nadu SETC also operates special services during pilgrimage season. But expect heavy congestion during pilgrimage season. Luxury buses also operate, though its not as common other non-A/c services.
To reach Pathanamthitta by road:
Sabarimala is well connected to other cities Mumbai, Goa, Mangalore through Kochi (NH-66), Bangalore, Chennai and Coimbatore through Thrissur (NH-544).
From the basecamp to Sannidhanam there is no other option, other than on foot. There is no other automobile inside the forest path. For aged people, special palanquin service known as Dolly operates. Tickets for dolly costs Rs 1000 apart from a tip of Rs 50 to 100 for the workers who carries the palanquin, can be brought from the Publicity office in basecamp. Often one can find farm donkeys or horses which can be hired to be taken to Sannidhanam, though rarely pilgrims resort, as its mandatory by ritual to trek on foot as a self penance.
The government has developed the trekking path, with paved footpath, canopied area with rest areas inbetween.
All vehicles can be parked only at designated parking slots. Heavy and medium vehicles needs to parked at Nilakkal Terminus. Light vehicles can be parked in Pampa at Chakkupalam-1 , Chakkupalam-2, Triveni, Hilltop lower and Hilltop upper. Under no circumstances, parking shall be allowed on the road side between Chalakkayam and Pampa.
All parking areas are protected by Kerala Police Traffic department and free tickets bearing the name of owner and vehicles details will be issued after registering in system.
KSRTC operates free shuttle services (Chain service) between parking lots to Pampa.
The sole reason for a person to visit Sabarimala, is to have a darshan of Sree Ayyappa. The trek is considered to be the most important ritual and on the way one can enjoy the nature, in all its wildness.
The temple is situated on a hilltop at an altitude of 468 m above mean sea level, and is surrounded by mountains and dense forests. Temples exist in each of the hills surrounding Sabarimala. While functional and intact temples exist at many places in the surrounding areas like Nilackal, Kalaketi, and Karimala, remnants of old temples survive to this day on remaining hills. Devotees must climb the mountains range to reach the temple.
The main temple is better known as Sannidhanam (Sacred Abode), constructed on top of a raised platform. 18 golden steps lead to temple shrine known as Patinettampadi, each step considered sacred with reference to each Hindu Veda and other scriptures. The 18 steps are too steep and volunteers are posted on either side, to assist pilgrims to climb the steps.
2 temples are located at ground floor, one dedicated to Lord Ganesh and another for Goddess Malikapurathamma. A giant fire pit, known as Homakunda is situated on left side 18 golden steps, where devotees need to burn their coconuts as a token burning their sins. Two shrines are located on side of the Holy Steps, which too need to worship.
Main pujas and offerings
The main pujas are on opening and closing days of Mandalam Pilgrimage as well as on Makara Sankrathi day, which attended by maximum number of pilgrims. The 10 day annual festival also coincide with Mandalam pilgrimage. Apart from special day pujas, 4 pujas are considered highly sacred which is conducted on daily basis. The Usha Puja (Morning Puja), Ucha Puja (Afternoon Puja), Abishekam (pouring libations) and Padi Puja (special pujas conducted on 18 holy steps at closure of temple in night). The temple is also famous for lighting maximum camphors as a token of devotion.
The main offering sacred to lord is Abishekams. Neyyu-Abishekams (Ghee Pouring) is highly sacred and ghee brought by all devotees in their Irumudi Kettus will be used to do. Likewise in evenings Pushabishekam (Flower pourings) as well as Bhasma Absihekam (ash pourings) will be conducted, which all be distributed among devotees. Another common offerings are Appam (a sweet dumplings) as well as Aravana (a thick sweet black dessert made of jaggery) which most of devotees buy.
Free food is distributed among devotees during all pilgrimage seasons, by various organizations and governmental agency.