The Pilgrimage Begins (19)

22/12/2011 History of Lord Ayyappa

The Kettunira Ceremony

On the day fixed by the Guruswami, the pilgrims prepare themselves for the sacred journey. The most important rite just before starting the pilgrimage is the Kettunira, also known as Kettumurukku. It is the filling in of the sacred package, (Kettu means package and Nira, filling in), which the pilgrim reverentially carries on his head. For this purpose a blue or black bag with two compartments, which is known as Irumudi, is used. This ritual is performed by the Guruswami on the day for the pilgrimage fixed by him. This filled package is known as Irumudikettu. (This Malayalam word signifies, a cloth package having two compartments to be borne on one’s head). Only those who carry the Irumudikettu on the head would be allowed to climb the 18 sacred steps to the temple, as they are the ones considered to have observed the austerities and thus eligible to climb the holy steps. Other devotees have to resort to a different passage to reach in front of the sanctum sanctorum for worship.

The Kettunira Ritual and the Significance of Irumudikettu

During the Kettunira, after the initial prayers, the sacred offering of ghee (clarified cow’s butter) is filled inside a coconut, the fibrous covering of which is removed. The draining of the water within the coconut through a small hole on the top and filling it with ghee is a symbolic act. It signifies the draining out of worldly attachments from the mind and filling it with spiritual aspirations. Coconut is called Thenga in Malayalam and now the ghee-filled coconut, an offering for Lord Ayyappa, is known as the Nei-thenga. First, the first compartment of the bag will be filled-in with the Nei-thenga and other sacred offerings to Lord Ayyappa and the accompanying Deities. The front compartment is now closed by tying it with a string. The filled in front compartment is believed to be vibrant with spiritual power. Then the other compartment is filled with a few coconuts to be broken at various holy spots enroute, and also with the provisions necessary for the preparation of food for the pilgrim. In olden days, when the facilities were very limited, the pilgrims used to take the provisions along with them. Even today some of the pilgrims coming from distant places and taking to the traditional forest route on foot, prefer to prepare their own food, relaxing at different places.

Symbolism of Irumudikettu

The Irumudikkettu has great symbolic significance. It is placed on the head in such a way that the compartment containing the offerings to the Lord comes in front and the part containing the provisions to maintain the body, at the back. The Irumudikettu signifies man’s two-fold dimensions – spiritual and physical – and that his evolution, expansion and freedom depend on a balanced approach to both these aspects.

The placing of the compartment with offerings to the Lord towards the front part of the head signifies that the spiritual urge is the prime and natural evolutionary trend in man, and placing the provisions in the back compartment stresses the need to well maintain the physical body as it has the major supporting role in this evolutionary unfoldment.

Incidentally, the Irumudikettu reminds us the position of human fore brain, the cerebral cortex, the seat of all the higher faculties of man towards the front part of the brain, and the position of the cerebellum, the brain area that maintains and controls the physical structure, towards the back.

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