It's an uphill struggle

Pilgrims walk for months across southern India to reach the magical town of Sabarimala in time for 14 January - the date when Hindus celebrate the God Lord Ayyappa's strange love affair with Mahishi, a buffalo-headed demoness. It's also a day that the herds of local elephants will never forget
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As we roared out of Thiruvanan-thapuram at six o'clock in the morning, a pink south Indian dawn was flushing the coconut palms. Vikram kept his finger on the horn and his sandal to the floorboards, his bearded face frowning in concentration as he swerved past fume-belching trishaws and lumbering bullock carts. Suresh, jolting in the seat beside him, checked his watch and turned to give me a grin. "I think we make good time," he said reassuringly, "Not much crowds until we get near to Sabarimala."

I sat forward on the back seat of the car, anxiously checking the road ahead for signs of a hold-up. Those who undertake the rough and winding 150-mile journey on 14 January from Thiruvananthapuram, capital city of India's south-westernmost state of Kerala, up to the hilltop temple of Sabarimala, do so in the knowledge that 150,000 pilgrims will be sharing the road on this most auspicious day in the Hindu religious calendar. But Vikram, a prince among drivers, seemed more than capable of passing his motorised camel at breakneck speed through needle's-eye gaps between throngs of pedestrians, jam-packed buses and overloaded carts. Soon I relaxed, sat back and began to enjoy the pot- holed, kaleidoscopic, chaotic trip.

The sprawling outskirts of the city gave way to scattered villages, the feathery fingers of coconut palms to plantations of spindly rubber trees where early morning workers were slicing the bark to release white runnels of liquid latex. The flat, bright green rice paddies of the coastal plains were interspersed with tapioca plantations - "poor man's potato," said Suresh, "very nourishing." The road roughened and steepened, vibrating into rough stones and holes, as we passed through tightly packed towns blue with bus fumes, and began to climb among the tea plantations and teak forests that cover the foothills of the Western Ghats.

A slow-moving lorry, its cab exuberantly painted with intricate designs in colours that would make a rainbow blush with shame, filled the road ahead. I had time to read the driver's proclamation lettered across the tailboard - "One Baby, Very Happy" - before Vikram's accelerator and imperious horn swept us past in a spurt of dust. A girl knelt by the roadside, washing her clothes in a ditch, her slim shape silhouetted against a drift of white mist in the valley beyond. Sounds, smells and sights, pouring through the open windows of the car, held me captive.

We passed a big, dusty elephant, padding with massive steadiness along the side of the road. "Subha laks-hanam" exclaimed Suresh, "a good omen. In Kerala we have a saying: see elephant in the morning, and the day will be good one." Just beyond, the first of the Sabarimala pilgrims came in sight, a group of dark men walking purposefully towards the hills, beards and hair matted with dust, dressed in black shirts and dhotis. They looked lean, travel-stained, their eyes focused somewhere beyond the road and the forests. "These are Tamils," commented Su-resh. "Some have been walking two to three months, maybe from Madras."

I was on my way to Sabarimala with all the luxury of car, driver and helpful guide, a casual spectator of this holy event. But the genuine devotees, skinny pilgrims shrunk by long fasting and months of walking, were each reaching the apex of a personal mountain of privation and spiritual preparation. Most were Tamil people, dwellers in urban or rural poverty. All had undergone a 41-day period of abstinence and minimal diet, of ritual and prayer; many had set out from their homes in November, walking hundreds of miles to bring their offerings to Lord Ayyappa, Son of Lord Vishnu the Preserver and Lord Shiva the Destroyer, in his temple in the forest above the sacred Pampa river. On the way, they had worshipped in mosques, churches and Hindu temples: the Sabarimala Pilgrimage, uniquely in India, is an ecumenical event.

On their heads the pilgrims carried irumudi kettu, cloth bundles containing two pockets. One held a sealed coconut filled with ghee, the other a sugar ball, rice and a stick of camphor. A few elderly women hobbled along among the men, and one or two young girls, but no women of child-bearing age: they are banned from taking part in the strictly celibate cult of Lord Ayyappa.

The story, as Suresh told it while we drove up the snaking mountain road, has Lord Ayyappa incarnated as a prince, for the purpose of freeing the people from the depredations of the buffalo-headed demoness Mahishi. This evil-doer, herself under a curse, is slain by Lord Ayyappo, whereupon she regains her former beauty and falls in love with the god.

Unwilling to take her as a wife, he throws his bow over seven hills to its landing place at Sabarimala and goes there to meditate, followed by Mahishi - now renamed Malikappurathama. When no more kanni ayyappa or first-time pilgrims shall be seen at Sabarimala, Lord Ayyappa tells Malik- appurathama, he will wed her. Since devotees have been coming in increasing numbers for uncountable centuries, that happy event looks like being postponed indefinitely.

Now the roadside became one solid line of buses and flower-decked cars, past which floated a solid river of black-clad, chanting pilgrims. "Look!" ex-claimed Suresh suddenly, pointing ahead. "Sabarimala!" Across the valley a tree-covered hill rose between higher ridges, the sunlight striking a gleam from the temple roofs at the summit. We dipped downhill, slowing as the tide of devotees thickened around the car, and pulled up in a muddy compound on the banks of the Pampa river.

The whole valley was filled with people, a seething ant's nest of South India's poorest men. They splashed in the river, surged along its bank and packed the footbridge that led across to the ramshackle township of shrines and teahouses at the foot of the temple hill. Vikram elected to stay on guard beside his precious car; I followed Suresh into the crowd, and was carried willy-nilly across the bridge. Smoke from cooking fires, clanging of bells, shouts of the khaki-uniformed police; cow dung and river mud, chanting and a roar of excited chatter; black dhotis and dark- brown bare torsos; smiles of amazement on seeing the western stranger with his red complexion; vigorous handshakes, and shouts of "Swami! Where are you from? Welcome."

The midday sun was growing hot, the smells of travel-weary and elated humanity becoming stronger. Suresh and I were beckoned aside into a cool room and given cups of sweet tea, while the police unblocked the entrance to the steps that led up behind the township into the forest. Then we were off, climbing uphill away from the river, with a sensation of being one small drop in an upward-moving waterfall.

The pilgrims held their sacred bundles on top of their heads, rivulets of sweat running down their faces and chests. One man had a green plant in his belt; devotees returning from the temple were kneeling down to touch his dusty bare feet for a blessing. "He is a guruswami, and has made 18 pilgrimages," said Suresh. "I have made three: I am a periyaswami. And you, Mr Christopher are a kanni ayyappa!"

The steep path, broad enough for five or six climbers abreast, led up through the forest. Pilgrims gathered at springs to shower; some stood by, fanning the climbers with cloths. At one point, devotees were hurling ghee-filled coconuts against a rock to shatter them; elsewhere, miniature knives were being ritually inserted into a wall of bamboo.

The three-mile climb lasted three hours by my watch, but time seemed to have slipped its accustomed dimension today. The path flattened out at last, then sloped downhill; ahead, cradled in a hollow above the trees, lay the temple of Sabarimala, a sprawled jumble of stone and concrete buildings. The upward flow of pilgrims changed to a downwards cascade as they poured into the temple to join the thousands already there. It was a stunning sight, an overwhelming spectacle.

I left my boots and socks in a shed full of resting pilgrims, and walked barefoot into Sabarimala. Half cattle market, half holy sanctuary, the great temple complex hummed and buzzed with expectation. Devotees were entering the inner sanctum to pour coconut shells of ghee over the golden image of Lord Ayyappa; those who had performed the ritual were walking backwards down the Pathinettampadi, the Holy 18 Steps. An orange, a sweet, and a cup of tea were placed in my hand. "Swami, where are you from? What do you think about Sabarimala?"

High in the corner of a flat roof, Suresh and I found a niche, looking down on the crowds. People were crushing in, taking their seats crosslegged, all facing east, chanting and chattering. "They are waiting to see Makara Jyothi," Suresh told me. "This is holy light like a lamp that appears in evening time, east of the temple at Ponnambalamedu." He smiled deprecatingly. "Some people say it might be Kerala government that makes this light appear for the people."

I was wholly caught up in the elation, the devotional spirit of Sabarimala. What if the Makara Jyothi should turn out to be a sham, a crude flicker of electric light projected on the evening sky? I didn't want to witness the trick. Now seemed the right time to go, to join the downward movement of returning pilgrims towards the Pampa river and the patiently waiting Vikram.

We drove away as darkness began to fall, past lines of shabby vehicles and the lights of cooking fires. "A good day," I said. "I'm glad we saw that elephant this morning." Suresh looked out of the car window at the mounds of waste paper discarded by the pilgrims. "Elephant is fond of eating paper," he said. "After tomorrow, when devotees have gone, elephants will come from the bamboo forests and clean up. So this is lucky day for elephants, too."

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE

Kerala's main airport is at Thiruvanan-thapuram (also called Trivandrum). Trailfinders (0171 938 3366) has flights from London to Thiruvanan- thapuram in January for around pounds 400 return. The one-and-a-half hour drive from there to Sabarimala can be made by taxi for minimal cost and should be arranged on arrival in India.

TOURS

Pettitts India (01892 515966) organises tours as well as tailor-made trips to India. A 14-day package tour of southern India starts at pounds 1,610 and includes accommodation in four-star hotels.

FURTHER INFORMATION

British passport holders require a visa to visit India, these can be obtained by post in four to six weeks, or in person in one working day. Visa information line, 0891 744544. The High Commission of India (0171 836 8484) is at India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA.

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