Hinduism Śabarimala Pilgrimage
Liz Wilson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0247


Śabarimala is the seat of worship for Ayyappa, a celibate god born from the erotic union of two male gods. The mountaintop temple is the focus of a seasonal pilgrimage celebrated annually between mid-November and mid-January. The majority of pilgrims are men, boys, pre-pubertal girls, and post-menopausal women who strive to worship Ayyappa on the first day of the Malayalam month of Makaram (mid-January). Prior to departure for the Western Ghats of Kerala near the Tamil Nadu border where Śabarimala is located, preparatory austerities are done for at least forty-one days. With pre-agricultural, pre-Hindu roots, textual grounding in medieval Hindu scripture as well as written and oral traditions in several Dravidian languages, the mixed religious culture of this pilgrimage is clear. Temples to Ayyappa are served by mix of Brahmin and non-Brahmin ritual specialists. Since the mid-20th century, there have been moves to demarcate Śabarimala as a communal space. In the 1950s, Dravidian revitalization movements and Tamil and Malayalam cinema actors’ promotion of the pilgrimage boosted what was previously a regional pilgrimage to prominence throughout South India. In the following decades, the trek to Śabarimala escalated in popularity. During this time, more pilgrims began to identify as orthodox Hindus. Śabarimala became a space where Hindu political organizations and secular organizations locked horns. The early 21st century brought the exclusion of women into sharp focus, with legal challenges mounted against a 1965 statute barring entrance to reproductive age women (ages ten to fifty). In 2018, the Supreme Court of India declared this exclusion illegal. The court’s decision occurred in the run-up to a national election and the question of temple-entry for reproductive age women set off political agitation. Right-wing Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organized protests, hoping to garner conservative Hindu votes in a state where the Hindu right has historically had little influence. Mobs attacked women who attempted to climb the sacred steps that lead to the Śabarimala temple. The Kerala state government supported the Supreme Court decision, offering police protection to women entering the temple and encouraging counterprotests. Women were divided on the issue. Supporters of the Supreme Court decision formed a “women’s wall” that linked an estimated 5 million protesters; other women created media campaigns to show adherence to the custom of reproductive age women postponing visits to Śabarimala until after menopause.

General Overviews

Sekar 1987 and Sekar 1992 draw on fieldwork done in the 1980s, offering details on texts, associated festivals and processions, preliminary austerities, and details of the trek. The author gives details on behaviors expected of pilgrims. Male pilgrims are considered temporary forms of Ayyappa and are called Ayyappas. Female pilgrims are considered temporary forms of the god’s female consort, Malikappuruthamma. Girls prior to puberty and women past menopause take the same initiation as men, wear simple clothing resembling what’s worn by men, and are called Malikappuruthammas (the suffix ammā is added to their names). Legends describe the female they embody as a woman whom Ayyappa liberated from a curse. As his reward for freeing the woman, she proposes marriage. Daniel 1984 suggests that it is Ayyappa’s karma to marry her, but that he has other promises to keep. Ayyappa’s crafty solution is to tell her that when first-time pilgrims stop coming to Śabarimala, he will marry her. Malikappuruttamma waits for a time when the flow of new pilgrims ceases. Each year, she is disappointed. Pilgrims trekking to the shrine for the first time purchase wooden arrows that they deposit as a sign of their presence. Thomas 1973 describes an annual procession in which Malikappuruttamma’s icon is removed from her shrine—which is only one hundred meters away from Ayyappa’s—and taken on procession to show her the wooden arrows deposited by new pilgrims. Guidebooks in multiple South Indian languages and sacred narratives in Sanskrit and other languages provide the core narrative in Vaidyanathan 1978. Thomas 1973 offers guidance on sacred narratives and ceremonies performed by pilgrims. Daniel 1984 includes a chapter notable both for humor and erudition in a book on Tamil Hindu village culture that weaves an account of being a participant observer of the pilgrimage in 1976 with larger theoretical concerns. Younger 2002 gives a concise, historically rich, and accessible overview of the pilgrimage in the context of South Indian festivals. Dalrymple 2010 offers the standard view of the ecumenical nature of the pilgrimage. Kjaerholm 1986 critiques the much-repeated narrative on the egalitarian nature of the pilgrimage, offering detailed observations from fieldwork conducted in the early 1980s. Wilson 2016 accounts for the growing popularity of the trek by drawing on masculinity studies, showing how myth and liturgies of the pilgrimage enhance traditional masculinity in the face of changing South Indian gender roles fed by transnational labor networks.

  • Dalrymple, William. “The Indian Festival That Brings Hindus and Muslims Together.” The Guardian, 26 March 2010: 9.

    An introductory essay by a historian of modern India that stresses the ecumenical nature of the pilgrimage. It features excerpts of an interview with the caretaker of the darghāh (saint’s tomb) in Erumeli, a key point in the pilgrimage trek where pilgrims show their respects to Ayyappa’s Muslim friend Vavar. Describes the athleticism and celebratory mood of pilgrims who rapidly circumambulate the shrine wearing face paint and tiger’s masks.

  • Daniel, E. Valentine. Fluid Signs: Being a Person the Tamil Way. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520342149

    One chapter in this theoretically rich monograph draws on Daniel’s experience as a pilgrim to Śabarimala. Daniel shows how caste and class boundaries are de-emphasized. In an anecdote about communal bathing in the Pampa River, Daniel tells of a finicky Brahmin who claimed that he could tell a person’s jāti (subcaste) from that person’s odor. This man suspended his caste prejudices while immersed in water marinated with the bodily discharges of many pilgrims.

  • Kjaerholm, Lars. “Myth, Pilgrimage, and Fascination in the Aiyappa Cult: A View from Fieldwork in Tamilnadu.” In South Asian Religion and Society. Edited by Asko Parpola and Bent Smidt Hansen, 132–133. London: Curzon Press, 1986.

    Kjaerholm problematizes standard claims about the egalitarian and non-hierarchical nature of the pilgrimage. Tamil pilgrims, he asserts, rapidly returned to the hierarchical status quo on coming home from the pilgrimage. Kjaerholm also questions how absolute the suspension of caste prohibitions is, giving the example of a pilgrim group consisting of vegetarian castes that refused the request of a boy from a meat-eating caste to join their group.

  • Pati, George. “Nambūtiris and Ayyappan Devotees in Kerala.” In Contemporary Hinduism. Edited by P. Pratap Kumar, 204–216. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2013.

    Pati discusses devotional practices focused on Ayyappan in the context of a volume that stresses the practice of lived religion on the ground.

  • Sekar, Radhika. The Process of Pilgrimage: The Ayappa Cultus and Sabarimalai Yatra. MA diss., Carlton University, 1987.

    Presents fieldwork Sekar completed in South India in 1986–1987. Sekar joined a party of pilgrims who did part of the trek by motor coach, as is now typical for many pilgrims. The group consisted of four women and two hundred men of various caste and class identities. Sekar joined the group as a participant observer and, being of reproductive age at the time, chose not to ascend the steps or enter the temple.

  • Sekar, Radhika. The Shabarimalai Pilgrimage and Ayyappan Cultus. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1992.

    Sekar analyzes findings from fieldwork completed in 1986–1987, using (and ultimately rejecting) Turner’s concept of normative communitas. A Tamil-speaking Canadian citizen of Indian heritage, Sekar interviewed middle-class pilgrims from Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. Sekar includes helpful appendices with translations of Kodava language narratives about the genesis of Ayyappa popular among the Kodavas (anglicized as Coorgs) and other groups in the Karnataka region of South India.

  • Thomas, P. T. Sabarimalai and Its Sastha: An Essay on the Ayyappa Movement. Bangalore, India: The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society, 1973.

    Thomas covers textual accounts of the birth and career of Ayyappa, such as the Sanskrit Bhūtanāthopākhyānam, a 19th-century Puranic account that narrates how Vishnu took the form of Mohinī, the enchantress, made love with Shiva, and gave birth to Shiva’s son in order to vanquish a threatening buffalo demoness. Thomas also includes information on topography of the pilgrimage and ceremonies performed at Śabarimala.

  • Vaidyanathan, Kunissery Ramakrishnajer. Pilgrimage to Sabari. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1978.

    A devotee with decades of pilgrimage experience, Vaidyanathan offers a textually and topographically informed perspective. Grounding his coverage in personal experience as well as in pilgrimage guidebooks and a wide range of Sanskrit and non-Sanskrit texts, Vaidyanathan offers detailed descriptions of the places visited on the trek, ceremonies performed in each place, and ritual specialists (Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc.) offering services to pilgrims at each stage of the journey.

  • Younger, Paul. “Return to the Mountains: The Ayyappan Festival in Sabarimalai, Kerala.” In Playing Host to Deity: Festival Religion in the South Indian Tradition. By Paul Younger, 17–25. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    In a book on the social meanings of South Indian festivals, Younger posits an experiential core of male initiation through encountering hardship that provides continuity over centuries of change and different sectarian colorations. An accessible account that covers pre-agrarian origins, the involvement of Syrian Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, and modern streams of Dravidian cultural renewal that have nurtured this pilgrimage.

  • Wilson, Liz. “Outward Bound with Ayyappan: Work, Masculinity, and Self-Respect in a South Indian Pilgrimage Festival.” Religion and Gender 6.1 (2016): 118–136.

    DOI: 10.18352/rg.10136

    In a study that draws on interviews conducted with English-speaking pilgrims in Karnataka in 2012–2013, Wilson links the increased participation of women in the South Indian workforce and questions about the role of work and vocation in defining what it means to be a man with the allure of a pilgrimage that immerses men in a strenuous male-bonding experience that supports traditional models of masculinity.

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