Pathinettampadi also known as 18 divine steps for sanctum sanctorum is divine in every respect. Every Ayyappa devotee, before seeing the Sanctum Sanctorum, must walk on eighteen sacred steps. Initially, the 18 steps were granite. Later, it was covered with Panchaloha (a special composition of gold, silver, copper, iron and tin) in 1985 to prevent it from deteriorating. Pilgrims begin their ascent through the Padi Pathinettam by placing their right foot in the first leg. According to tradition, only those who perform a penance for 41 days and those who wear the irumudi to the head are allowed to use the steps.
The first five steps symbolize the five human senses (Panchendriyas), namely visual (vision), auditory (hearing), olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste) and tactile (touch). It means the `mortal’ nature of our body. The following eight steps symbolize the eight Ashtaragas, namely Kama, Krodha, Lobha, Moha, Madha, Maltsarya, Asooya, Dhumb (Love, Anger, Greed, Lust, Pride, Jealousy and Disgust) Gunas or Thrigunas (qualities from nature ), that is to say, Satva (perspicuity, discernment), Rajas (activity, enjoyment) and Thamas (inactivity, stupor). The last two steps represent Vidya (Knowledge) and Avidya (Ignorance).
It is assumed that after having climbed these eighteen steps with respect, one is symbolically separated from all the worldly ties that bind them physically and mentally to the world. Only then will a person be in a receptive condition to be “one” in accordance with the concept of ‘The Ultimate Creator’.
The above is the most accepted version of the importance of the 18 Holy steps. The other versions are as follows: Ayyappa was a master 18 weapons and the steps that indicate it. Ayyappa before merging into the idol of Sanctum Sanctorum, handed over his 18 weapons, one at each stage of Pathinettam Padi.
The steps represent the 18 hills that exist in and around the Sabarimala region. Ponnambalamedu, Gowdenmala, Nagamala, Sundaramala, Chittambalamala, Khalgimala, Mathangamala, Myladummala, Sreepadamala, Devarmala, Nilakkalmala, Thalapparamala, Neelimala, Karimala, Puthuserrymala, Kalakettimala, Inchipparamala and Sabarimala.
Eighteen is considered the code number to penetrate the soul of nature. The meaning of 18 goes back to the Vedic era. The first Veda, which was supposed to be protected by Lord Brahma himself, had 18 chapters. Later, Veda Vyasa divided it to create the four Vedas: Rigveda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharava Veda. Each of these Vedas had 18 chapters. Veda Vyasa also wrote 18 puranas and 18 upa-puranas. The Bhagavad Gita has 18 chapters and the Kurukshetra war lasted 18 days.
There are many mythological stories associated with holy Pathinettampadi. Some people think that the 18 steps are 18 puranas. Some think that the first three stages represent “Bhoomi, Agni, Vayoo and Akash”, 6 to 9 steps for Karmendriya, 10 to 15 for Njanandriya, 16 for mind 17th Intelligence and 18 Jeevathma Bhava. It is believed that those who cross all these stages reach the “Punyadarshan”.
The steep steps are so important and sacred that no one can climb them without fasting for 41 days and have the holy irumudi loaded into the heads. Before going up or down the stairs, the pilgrims break the coconut as an offering to the steps. You have to have the sacred Irumudi in your head to go up or down the 18 steps. As the steps go down, the faithful go down looking towards Sanctorum Sanctuary.
One who climbs the Pathinettampadi for 18 times shall plant coconut sapling in Sabarimala. Built on a plateau about 40 feet high, the Ayyappan temple commands a lofty view of the mountains and valleys all around.