Makara Vilakku Puja, a seven days festival, is conducted annually in the famous Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala. The festival begins on the auspicious day of Makara Sankranthi. On this day, the sun is in summer solstice [vernal equinox]. Also, this is the first day of the Malayalese month of Makaram. Makara Vilakku Puja commemorates when idol of Lord Ayyappa [Dharma Sastha] was enshrined in the temple. This is the most important event conducted at Sabarimala. Thousands of devotees gather and participate in the celebration of Makara Vilakku every year. The Mandala Puja festival lasts for 41 days before Makara Sankranthi.
Importance of Sabarimala Temple:
Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala is in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. This is the most sacred pilgrimage centre for the people of Kerala. The presiding deity of Sabarimala shrine is Lord Ayyappa known as Dharma Sastha. This symbolises the unity of both Vaishnavites and Saivites . The reason is that Ayappan was born from the union of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. At the time, Lord Vishnu was in the form of Avatar Mohini, the seductress. Lord Shiva succumbed to the Mohini’s charms and thus Ayappa was born from this union. Ayappa is known as ‘Hari Hara Putra’. ‘Hari’ refers to Lord Vishnu and ‘Hara’ refers to Lord Shiva while ‘Putra’ means son. Every year, Sabarimala attracts lakhs of devotees from all over the country, especially from southern states.
The shrine is very interesting because of this rugged terrain on which it is located. The spirit of thousands of devotees must be saluted since they walk on foot. No other transport is available in these rough stretches of Western Ghats where Sabarimala is located. Pilgrims have to journey through dense forests full of wild animals. Even those who enjoy adventure have to walk 5 km from Pamba to the shrine. Pilgrimage to Sabarimala requires lots of prior preparations. Pilgrimage is open only from November to January. However, it is not advisable on all times.
Ceremonies and Celebrations during Makar Vilaku:
A very important ceremony of Makara Villaku is bringing deity’s jewellery, Thirivabharanam from the Pandalam Palace. Three days before Makara Sankranthi, the sacred jewellery in a box is brought in royal procession. Thousands of devotees stand on either side of the route to get a glimpse of box. This box is carried by a priest, or oracle on his head. He moves hysterically oblivious of the presence of thousands of people. The oracle dances keeping the box glued on his head.
The procession stops at few temples on the route. It reaches Sabaripettam in the evening of Makara Sankranthi. Then, it moves towards Sannidhanam amidst music, dazzling lights and lot of revelry. At this time, a strange phenomenon occurs. Suddenly, a kite appears and hovers around the box. This incident is well received by the devotees who are filled with joy.
Inside the box, jewelleries include a diamond crown, gold bracelets and necklaces studded with precious gems. Also, there are Lord’s swords, silver arrows and gold images of elephant, horse and leopard. Thousands of devotees gather for a glimpse of the deity fully adorned in dazzling ornaments.
Another spectacular event is the appearance of ‘Makarajyothi’ in the north-east horizon on Ponnambala Medu. The devotees turn ecstatic on the strange occurrence and they chant ‘Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa’ that reverberates.
Makara Vilakku Pujas and ceremonies are performed on the ‘Manimandapa’ [sacred platform] near the Devi shrine. At this place there is a picture of Sastha riding on a leopard’s back. When the puja is over, Malikappurath Amma is mounted on an elephant’s back. She is carried away in a procession comprising of torch-bearers, drummers, buglers to Pathinettampadi. The procession stops for some time. It shouts a call for Vettavili [hunting] and returns after circumambulation to the main temple.
Festivities continue for seven days and culminate with ‘Guruthi’ offerings made to the Lord. The temple is vacated after Guruthi and traditionally everyone leaves.
On the last day of Makara Vilakku celebrations, Makaram 5th morning, ‘Ganapati Homam’ is conducted. The Thiruvabharanams are removed and more rituals are performed. After this, a procession is formed along with the Thiruvabharanam for the return journey begins.