My plans to leave Chennai started to look uncertain the very next day. My husband called me from London and told me to postpone my arrival by a few weeks as certain renovation works were being carried out in our London flat.
I had no choice but to cancel my booking for April 15th. However, I was happy in a way, because, I could undertake one more pilgrimage. It had been my intention for quite sometime to visit Sabarimala, the holy abode of Lord Ayyappan, in Kerala.
How this trip to Sabarimala came about is another interesting story that had its origin many months ago.
During November 2007, even as I was engaged in several tasks like setting up the house, undertaking pilgrimages, and doing another painting for Bala, a very special relationship started to develop with a total stranger residing in the U.S. who had come across my website and wished to start corresponding with me through e mail.
This person ( a.k.a U.S.1 hereafter), had come on to the spiritual path after a few extraordinary incidents that had brought Sai Baba into her life. While she related in great detail some of the amazing experiences she had, I realized that her establishing contact with me was also no ordinary coincidence. In fact, there is no difference between Sai Baba, Bala or Babaji.
Over the next few months, I wrote to US1 about the events leading up to the wedding, the paintings of Bala, the glory of Sri Bala Peetam and Sri Ezhilmani’s family.
One day in January, just as I had returned from a pilgrimage to the Nava Narasimhar temples at Ahobilam, I received a call from US1, late at night. It was clear to me that US1 had undergone yet another supernatural occurrence. She started off the conversation by saying she had a message for me from Sai Baba and then went on to narrate a dream/vision she had experienced.
In this dream US1 was walking across a bridge spanning a deep gorge. The bridge was swaying from side to side , buffeted by a wind that seemed to be progressively gaining strength. All of a sudden a huge gust topples the bridge and US1 was sure that she was going to die. It was this moment, which resembled a near- death experience, that she heard Sai Baba’s voice. It was a soothing and calm voice that seemed to protect her as she “floated” up in the sky. US1 felt that she was floating up to the summit of a hill that she soon recognized as Sabarimala. When she reached the top she looked around but did not see Lord Ayyappan. She wondered out loud “if indeed these were the hallowed hills of Sabarimala “ Where was Lord Ayyappan”?
It was Sai Baba who replied “ The Lord is inside you just as I am inside you”.
And then, came the message “ You must pass on this instruction to your friend Uma. She will find me at the top of Sabarimala if she has constant and unswerving faith in her Ishta Devatha” ( favourite deity).
I couldn’t go back to sleep that night. I pondered over this message and (erroneously) concluded that perhaps I was to draw a portrait of Lord Ayyappan. Hari Hara Puthran , the blessed child of both Lord Shiva and Vishnu stands for ultimate knowledge and wisdom. I had portrayed all the favorite Hindu deities with the sole exception of Lord Ayyappa. I thought if I prayed to Lord Ayyappa and drew his portrait, I would progress further in my spiritual path.
That very evening, I bought some drawing paper and decided to visit a few Ayyappa temples in Chennai .
However, the weeks sped by and instead of sketching Lord Ayyappa, I used the paper I bought to do the portrait of Bala, instead!
Little did I realize, at that time, that devotion and faith in Bala alone is sufficient to attain ultimate liberation that most vedantins talk about!
After the extraordinary events of April 13th, I decided to undertake a trip to Sabarimala, especially since my return back to London had been suddenly put on hold.
The reaction from close friends and relatives was not positive. I was told that one cannot undertake a pilgrimage to Sabarimala without following a long list of austerities. At the very minimum, one should go on a vratham ( fast) for 40 days, eating simple, home-cooked food once a day, performing a puja every evening for Lord Ayyappa. Then, there is a garland or “mala” that has to be given to you by a priest who has been initiated into the worship of Ayyappa. An “ Iru mudi” , literally meaning, “two bundles”, have to be carried on the head during the long trek up the hills of Sabarimala.
The trip to Sabarimala and the carrying of the Irumudi are both steeped in significance. The trip symbolizes the merging of the human soul ( Jivatma), with the Universal spirit, “Paramatma”.
The Iru Mudi is basically a bag with two compartments that is carried on the head by pilgrims. It is generally filled with essential items that devotees require during the trek like food as well as puja articles. Of great significance is the coconut that is carried in one of the compartments of the Irumudi. This coconut is filled with ghee and placed on top of a mound of rice. The ghee inside the coconut signifies the soul residing inside the human body that is represented by the shell of the coconut.
After the arduous trek up the Sabarimala hills, the ghee is poured over the idol of Lord Ayyappa, signifying the merging of the human soul with the deity, while the coconut shell is tossed into the fire signifying the unimportance of the physical frame.
The entry up to the main sanctum involves a climb up the sacred “eighteen steps”. These steps represent the various sense pleasures, emotions, bad habits and ignorance that the devotee has to get rid off before he can get closer to self- realization.
Therefore, the pilgrimage up to Shabarimala is considered extremely sacred and unique and I was cautioned against embarking on such a trip in a casual manner.
A week went by as I procrastinated about embarking on this mission. One evening, as I sat in meditation, I received a lightening message asking me to visit the Lord Ayyappan temple in Chennai. Without a single moment’s hesitation, I set off . Although I had visited two important Ayyappan temples in the suburbs of Chennai, there is yet another temple built in recent times in the heart of Chennai , that I had not been to. This holy place has been built by wealthy Chettiars and modeled almost exactly along the same lines as the sacred temple for Lord Ayappan at Shabarimala.
As I neared the temple, I could see that the road leading right up to the entrance had been closed for vehicular traffic. There were a lot of people walking towards the main gates.
Upon enquiry, I was informed that it was an auspicious day as the “Maha Kumbabhishekam” of the temple was in progress. Today was the penultimate day of the rituals that are supposed to renew and enhance the power of the main deity in the Sanctum.
I realized that Bala had sent me here deliberately so, I could obtain the grace of Lord Ayyappa. The main sanctum remained closed that day as the homams were being concluded. I was informed by the priest that if I returned the following morning, on the final and culminating day of the Kumbabhishekam, I would be truly fortunate te receive the grace of this mighty Lord.
The following morning, I returned to the Ayyappan temple around 8.30 a.m. Contrary to my fear about the massive crowds, the temple didn’t seem too busy and I was able to get a superb darshan of the Lord in the main sanctum. As I was about o leave, I overheard a priest mentioning that a special Abhishekam was to follow at 9 a.m.
I could hardly believe my luck. I staked out a comfortable viewing spot right in front of the main sanctum and stood there, waiting for over an hour for the function to commence.
Although the temple was quite empty at 8.30 a.m, the crowds began to gain strength closer to the time of the Abhishekam. People milled about me and tried to nudge me from my chosen place. However, I stood rooted to the spot , right in front of the Lord, clinging on to the iron railings in front of me to prevent myself from being shoved aside forcibly.
Then, the Abhishekam began and it was an uplifting experience to witness the sacred ritual, on this, the last and most important day of the Kumbabhishekam.
I returned home that day, with my mind made up. It seemed to me that Lord Ayyappan had especially summoned me to get his blessings. With a sincere prayer of thanks to Bala, I set about planning this pilgrimage.
I decided to visit the holy abode of Ayyappa and combine it with a trip to various other temples in both TamilNadu and Kerala.
My sister in law made arrangements for a priest to give me the sacred “mala” and “irumudi” , as well as accompany me on the ascent up the hills, on May 15th, the day I chose to climb up the Sabarimala hills.