Sannidhanam – the Presence (34)

30/12/2011 History of Lord Ayyappa

With an overwhelming sense of fulfilment, the pilgrim speeds up his pace and beholds from a distance the eighteen sacred steps, the shrine and the golden flag-staff. A divine thrill overwhelms his very being. The temple is located on a hillock in the midst of a vast valley surrounded on all sides by to the mountain ranges covered with lush tropical forests.

The Pathinettaampadi

The 18 Sacred Steps

The pilgrim has to climb eighteen sacred steps, the Pathinettaampadi, to reach the Sannidhanam, the Presence of Lord Ayyappa.

Before climbing the Pathinettaampadi, the pilgrim breaks a coconut by hurling it on a stone placed by the side of the steps. It is symbolic of the shattering of the conditions that limit the consciousness while man engages in the practice of spiritual evolution for a greater cultural and spiritual existence and ultimate expansion to Unconditioned Freedom.

Only those who have observed forty one days of austerities and carry the Irumudikettu, the sacred package of offerings, on the head are supposed to climb these sacred steps. Those who do not carry the Irumudikettu are not allowed to climb them. They can use the flight of steps at the northern side to reach the temple precincts.

An unparalleled feature of these steps is that they are considered almost as sacred as the Presiding Deity Himself. This is very meaningful because it emphasises that the spiritual steps taken for man’s evolutionary ascendence to Divinity is as important as the goal itself. For, if the steps are not taken the goal can never be achieved. The means for the transcendence of man’s limited consciousness to attain the freedom of Unconditioned Consciousness is symbolised by the eighteen steps.

Another unique feature of these steps is that they are carved out of a single stone. This symbolises the complementary nature of the various stages of spiritual practice and their unifying influence in helping the ascendence to the Supreme Goal. Giving equal importance to the steps as the Deity Himself, the same rituals performed for the consecration of idols (Shadaadhaara-pooja) are prescribed for the consecration of these steps also. Padipooja, the worship of the sacred steps, is a major ritual in Sabarimala.

Padipooja is considered as a very auspicious offering (Vazhipaadu). Formerly this Pooja was performed once every twelve years, but now, because of constant demand from pilgrims, except during the Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrimage season, it is conducted on all days when the temple opens for monthly Pooja-s on the first of every Malayalam month, and during the holy days of Vishu and Thiruvonam.

Each step has a breadth and height of nine inches. The length is five feet. Owing to the long passage of time the steps were worn out and the Travancore Devaswom Board decided to demolish the existing flight of steps and construct a new one. But the Devaprasna, a special astrological method to know the Divine Will, revealed that the Divine Will was against the demolition of the age-old steps vibrant with spiritual power. Then, it was decided to cover the steps with thick plates of Panchaloha (an alloy of the five metals, gold, copper, silver, iron and lead). Accordingly, the Divine Power in the eighteen steps was ritualistically withdrawn on October 1985 and was transferred to the idol of Lord Ayyappa. Then, after covering the steps with the plates, this Power in the idol was revoked and infused back into the steps on November 1985.

The eighteen steps symbolise the eighteen major obstacles that are to be transcended for man’s spiritual evolution and Self Realisation. These are some physical and mental factors that keep the consciousness in a condition of limitation and arrest its evolutionary expansion. There are eighteen such major factors, and transcending their limitations would result in the gradual unfoldment of man’s higher levels of consciousness and freedom. These factors are the five sense experiences as sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; the eight Raaga-s, which are the binding passions such as Kaama (selfish and excessive desires), Krodha (anger), Lobha (avarice), Moha (illusory attachment), Mada (haughtiness), Maathsarya (rivalry), Dambhu (egotism), and Asooya (jealousy); the three Guna-s, the primal binding qualities of Nature as Sathva (harmony), Rajas (turbulence) and Thamas (resistance or inertia); Avidya (nescience) and Vidya (knowledge).

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