The Petta-thullal at Erumeli (22)

24/12/2011 History of Lord Ayyappa

At Erumeli there are three sacred spots, which the pilgrims visit. They are the two shrines of Lord Dharma Sastha, the Kochambalam (small shrine) and the Valiambalam (bigger shrine) and the mosque of Vaavar. The pilgrims who go to Sabarimala via Erumeli reach this place in vehicles and after participating in a ritualistic dance called Petta-thullal and worship at the shrines either proceed to Pampa in vehicles or by foot through the forest path. (There is also a road leading direct to Pampa without touching Erumeli.)

Erumeli wears a festive look during the whole pilgrimage season. Especially, a week before Makara-samkrama pooja, the most important Pooja, takes place in Sabarimala temple, Erumeli becomes an unforgettable scene of thousands of devotees clad in blue or black clothes in devotional abandon.

Petta-thullal, a devotional dance, performed by the pilgrims in Erumeli, is an important ritualistic custom of the pilgrimage. In the last chapter we have seen that there are Puranic as well as historical views on the Ayyappa lore. The authors of the Puranas, as we have noted, linked mythological stories with historical incidents to convey messages and principles. According to the Puranic view, the Petta-thullal is a re-enaction of the joyful dance of the people on knowing that Ayyappa had slain the terrible Mahishi, the demoness having the form of a she-buffalo. It is believed that the place derived its name ‘Erumeli’ from the Malayalam word ‘Eruma-kolli’. (Eruma means she-buffalo, and kolli, the place of killing.) Of course, the slaying of the buffalo here has a deeper connotation, that of eliminating or transcending the lower mental propensities for the evolution of human consciousness. Mahishi, the she-buffalo, symbolises the underdeveloped stage of consciousness in animals, with its uncontrolled impulsive trends,which still hold a sway over human consciousness also.

According to the historical perspective, which is also given in the last chapter, Petta-thullal was a part of the spiritual discipline evolved by Ayyappa before embarking upon his war expedition against the despotic Udayanan to liberate Sabarimala temple from his hold. It was intended to erase the sense of all social and religious distinctions from the minds of the participants and to integrate them into a dynamic whole. All of them wore blue or black clothes and smeared their faces with charcoal and other colours. They danced in abandon in a state of forgetfulness of their individual distinctions while making a conscious effort to fix their attention on the divinity of Ayyappa, whom they considered as the manifestation of the Supreme Reality. While dancing, they uttered aloud “Ayyappan thinthakathom, Swami thinthakathom “, which is chanted even today by the dancing pilgrims. They were thus made to forget their lower nature and to fix their mind on the Supreme Reality. Thus both the mythological and historical points of view converge to the same message of evolution – of transcending the lower nature to evolve to Divine Consciousness.

The preparations for the Petta-thullal of a group, according to tradition, is to be arranged by the Randaam-kanni-swami-s (those who undertake the pilgrimage for the second time) as instructed by the Guruswami. One who is going for the first time is known a s a Kanni- Ayyappan. According to the tradition during the Petta-thullal the Kanni-Ayyappa holds a symbolic arrow. It is customarily stipulated that the Kanni-Ayyappa, the first-timer, should participate in the Petta-thullal. Others may or may not. However, for the thrill of devotional abandon and for the joy that is derived from thus transcending the egoistic trends and to directly experience at least a certain touch of Divine Consciousness of oneness with everything, many pilgrims enthusiastically take part in the ritualistic dance.

Before Petta-thullal begins the pilgrims go to the market (Petta means market and Thullal, dance) and buy small arrows for ritualistic purpose, provisions as cereals, vegetables etc. (The arrow is to be discarded as a ritualistic gesture under a banyan tree called Saramkuttiyaal, atop the mountain Neelimala, beyond Pampa. The symbolism involved in this act is given later.) All these items of a group are placed in a blanket and then tied up into a bundle. The bundle is carried suspended on long poles, the ends of which rest on the shoulders of a pair of pilgrims.

The pilgrims with the face and body smeared with charcoal and other colours go to the Kochambalam, the small shrine of Dharma Shaastha, from where the Petta-thullal begins. After worshipping at the shrine, the pilgrims start the dance to the accompaniment of instrumental music, like drumming and Naagawaram. Petta-thullal is performed with devotional fervour, many of the pilgrims holding green twigs and uttering aloud:

“Ayyappan thinthakathom, Swami thinthakathom”

From the Kochambalam, the dancing pilgrims move first to the mosque of Vaavar, and circumambulate it. They render their offerings and receive the sacred ash from a Muslim priest. It is a remarkable scene of a practical demonstration of the spirit of India’s all embracing spiritual heritage that sees the diverse religious pursuits as just different paths to the same spiritual goal. According to Ayyappa lore, Ayyappa himself set up a special place of prayer for his Muslim lieutenant Vaavar and his followers. There now stands the mosque of Vaavar. During the annual festival (Chirappu Mahothsavam) of the Dharma Sastha Temple at Erumeli, the Hindus make offerings by going in procession to the mosque of Vaavar. And during the Chandanakkudam festival of the mosque, the Muslims go to the Dharma Sastha temple and make the offerings. Irrespective of the religious differences, for the people of this locality, these are great occasions for religious co-operation.

After coming out of the mosque the dancing pilgrims move towards Valiambalam, the bigger temple of Dharma Sastha, about a kilometre away on a river bank. On reaching Valiambalam, the pilgrims throw the green twigs over the roof of the temple and after circumambulation and worship, conclude the Petta-thullal by lighting camphor in front of the temple. Then they take bath in the river.

Petta-thullal is a symbolic hunting dance. The beasts hunted are the Shadvairies, the six enemies of man which are the negative psychological trends that keep man in a state of stagnancy and arrest the evolutionary development of his consciousness. The group dance fills the mind with an inexplicable spiritual abandon that serves to reduce mental stress by releasing pent-up emotions and elevating the mind to experience joy, transcending the sense of egoistic self-importance and worldly distinctions.

Many pilgrims who go to Sabarimala reach Erumeli and after participating in the ritualistic dance and worshipping at the Kochambalam (small shrine), Vaver’s mosque and Valiambalam (big shrine) proceed in vehicles to Pampa, on the bank of the river by the same name, or make a trek by foot of about 50 kms. through dense forests and high mountains to reach Pampa. From there they climb the mountain Neelimala to reach the Presence of Lord Ayyappa.

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