A Trip to Sabarimala – Managing Things at Scale

Sabarimala Trip

During the Christmas break, I went on a trip to Sabarimala in Kerala, India. I have been to Sabarimala a few times as a kid. It is refreshing to relive your childhood and visit that place again where you have been as a kid. And it happened last year, everything worked out great and I was really glad and thankful that I was able to make the trip.

If you want to mount the pathinettu padikal (18 steps) and enter the temple on Sabarimala, he must abide by several regulations. The 18 holy steps have got great significance:

The first five steps symbolize the five human senses. The following eight steps symbolize emotions like Love, Anger, Extreme Greed, Lust, Pride, Unhealthy Competition, Jealousy, and Boastfulness. The next three steps stand for our nature-born qualities- Discernment, Passion, and Inactivity. And the last two steps stand for knowledge and ignorance.

The 41-day fast serves as a reminder of the importance of self-control. Prior to your trip to Sabarimala, the devotees wear a beaded mala or garland, typically made of rudraksha, as a preparation for the real trip to emphasize his renunciation of worldly pleasures. And, devotees have to walk barefoot, not shave (it shows up), and you should not eat any meat for 41 days. 

It is a tradition and I also decided to follow it. During this time, you discover new things and you also get to see a new you (even how you look). White hair does show up and you get used to it. You also start walking barefoot and do not care a lot about what people think. This is something that hundreds of thousands of devotees do. It also inculcates some discipline in you as a person.

Online Ticket Booking: Before heading on a trip to Sabarimala, you need to book your Darshan online on their website. The reason they do this is to control the crowd. 

Day of the trip: On the day of the trip, I was not too sure what to expect. I was also out of my comfort zone – had to be in a crowd with a hundred thousand people or so. On my trip, before heading to Sabarimala, I performed the holy ritual called Kettunira, which means filling the Irumudi kettu.

According to tradition, this ritual is the preparation and packing of Irumudi kettu for Sabarimala pilgrimage. It is made with the help of a guru swamy. Only those who wear the Irumudi kettu on their heads are permitted to ascend the 18 holy stairs that lead to the temple because they are thought to have observed the austerities and are therefore qualified to do so.

Following the opening prayers, the sacred sacrifice of ghee is placed inside a coconut. A symbolic gesture is performed when the water within the coconut is drained via a little hole on the top and filled with ghee. It represents the removal of earthly ties from the mind and the inflow of spiritual aspirations.

Erumeli Vavar Palli- Confluence of Faith: On the way to Sabarimala, I stopped at a place called Erumeli and visited Vavar Mosque (around 40 km away in the Periyar Tiger Reserve). Vavar (Muslim) and Iyappan (Hindu) were friends. Vavar plays a crucial role in the Sabarimala tale. According to legend of Sabarimala, he assisted Ayyappa in killing Mahishi, the demon princess, in Erumely. Vavar was instructed to remain in Erumely when Ayyappa traveled for Sabarimala following his triumph. Then he instructed his followers to proceed to Vavar before traveling to Sabarimala to see him. 

Nilakkal: Post the visit, I went to Nilakkal and slept the night there (on the vehicle we traveled). From Nilakkal, Kerala, we had to go to Pampa. The public transport was great. It was a 45-minute ride from Nilakkal to Pamba and there were government buses arranged every few minutes. The trip was seamless.

Pamba: On the trip to Sabarimala, it is a tradition to take a holy dip in the Pampa River. I was not too sure, and this was also a scary part for me when I was thinking about it. This was for two reasons (1. The cold water and 2. The cleanliness of the river). However, once I got into the river, it felt really great. I did not find the chillness and took six good dips and also the river was clean. A Big Kudos to the State Authorities. 

The importance of Pampa in the Sabarimala pilgrimage stems from the notion that this is where King Rajasekhara of Pandalam is said to have discovered the newborn Ayyappa. Worshipers say that the water removes one from curse and evil and is as sacred as the Ganges.

Restrooms, Medical Aid & Water: From Pamba we started climbing the mountain to head to Sabarimala. The crowd was controlled very well by the State authorities. One question I always had in mind was the restrooms, – how clean they would be and if there would be any. However, this was a highlight. The state had put a lot of thought into this and they have restrooms at frequent intervals. There was sufficient water available, and it did make things better. There were also medical stations at frequent intervals (in case of emergency). There were also drinking water stations available at frequent intervals and it was free. The water tasted great. 

Sabarimala: We were able to reach Sabarimala in about 2 and a half hours (Maybe the timing, we got very lucky). We had to wait in line for another hour or so and had a great darshan with thousands of people. There were also good restrooms available on the mountain. There were also food stations available, free food, and more. Another great thing during the trip was you had to book your Dharshan on the Sabarimala website to enter. It was also a free booking. During my entire trip, it never looked like the authorities were trying to get money or anything. You could pretty much go for free. Post the visit, we had to walk down to Pamba, then take the Government bus to Nilakkal, and from there on we were on our own. Yet another great thing I enjoyed about this trip was the group I traveled with were from modest backgrounds and non-tech. This gives a different perspective on things, and you can also learn about the insignificance of an individual. 

Managing Things at Scale 

The online booking for Darshan and phased-out entry to Sabarimala help a lot with crowd management. We talk a lot about scale in Tech. However, managing scale with people in real-time is much harder, and Kudos to the entire team behind this effort. There is so much we can learn from seeing things happen on the ground. During this trip, I also learned how much India has progressed in the last couple of decades and the best is yet to come. I can only imagine how things would be another 20 years from now. The best decades for the country are ahead.

Thank you, Kerala. I enjoyed my visit to God’s Own Country. A Big Thank you for making our trip to Sabarimala memorable. 

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Further reading

Karthik Chidambaram