Kerala witnesses one of the biggest pilgrimages of the country in the winter months of November and December. Thousands undertake their annual pilgrimage to the hill shrine of Sabarimala. Only men and children undertake the pilgrimage. No woman belonging to the childbearing age treks to the hill shrine, in which the presiding deity Lord Ayappa is believed to be celibate. This has been an age-old tradition and custom associated with the pilgrimage. Pilgrims observe 41 days of intense penance before trekking to Sabarimala. Pilgrims, predominantly from southern Indian states descend on Kerala during the pilgrimage season, which begins in late November through the month of December. Pilgrims chanting prayers and hymns to, and of Lord Ayyappa crisscross Kerala to reach Sabarimala. Chants by black-clad and bearded pilgrims carrying offerings to their favorite deity on their heads have become part and parcel of Kerala’s milieu.
Recently, the pilgrimage, which has traditionally been taking place like a well-oiled machine, very peacefully was mired in controversy and was almost thrown out of gear after the Kerala Government acted on the verdict passed by the Supreme Court in September 2018 allowing women, irrespective of age to worship at Sabarimala. All hell broke loose in the state over the government’s controversial decision which transcended age-old tradition, faith and belief. Even the women took to the streets to protest against the decision. The entire state, irrespective of faith prayed for return of normalcy to the once peaceful pilgrimage to Lord Ayappa.
Christmas, which also falls in December, is celebrated with gaiety and fervor in Kerala by every citizen, apart from her considerable Christian population. Early November and late December therefore has two important events belonging to two entirely different faiths being observed simultaneously, much in keeping with the communal amity and togetherness that pervades ‘God’s own Country’. The paths of Pilgrims clothed in black and chanting Ayappa hymns and paeans cross that of groups accompanied by Santa Clause from churches and Residential areas, singing Christmas carols. The sight of chanting Ayappa devotees amidst the stars and cribs that dot Kerala at Christmas is indeed a unique sight to behold, and one which Malayalees have grown up on, and cherish dearly. This has always exemplified and represented the secularist fervor that Kerala is known for. Every citizen of the tiny state in the southern tip of India hopes that this representative of communal amity, which they’re proud about lasts forever. This is no Utopian wish, as I had been witness to this unique and peaceful conglomeration of two entirely diverse faiths and concomitant observance of their respective practices for the past 54 years, ever since I was born. Folklore has it that it has been so since many years, well into the past too.