The pilgrimage season in Sabarimala commences from November 14 and extends to January 19 till Makara Vilakku. During this period, millions of Ayyappa aspirants converge on the tiny temple complex from all over India. Also the temple is open for brief spells during certain Malayali festivals like Onam and Vishu. All through the year, monthly poojas are offered at Sabarimala, usually during the first of week of every Malayalam month (which actually falls in the middle of each English month); the shrine is open for the first five days of every month.
Girls who have not yet attained puberty and elderly women who have reached menopause are allowed entry into the temple. Men are expected to walk barefoot, sleep on the floor with their hair and nails uncut and refrain from self-indulgence during their 41-day vritham and journey to Sabarimala.
The most important festival at the Ayyapppa temple on Sabarimala is Makara Vilakku. It is a seven-day festival, beginning on the day of Makara Sankranthi, the day when the sun is in summer solstice. According to legend, the idol of Dharma Shastha was enshrined in the temple on this day. The annual festivities of Makara Vilakku commemorate this sacred event.
The jewellery to adorn the idol during the celebrations is brought from Pandalam Palace in a ceremonial procession that starts from Valiya Koyikkal Sastha Temple at Pandalam, three days prior to Makara Sankranthi. The boxes containing the sacred jewels are borne by an oracle; the procession reaches Sabaripeettam in the evening on Makara Sankranthi and is led to the Sannidhanam to the accompaniment of lights and music. Incidentally, a kite appears in the sky at this very moment and hovers around the boxes, as if to safeguard the precious cache comprising a diamond diadem, gold bracelets and necklaces embedded with precious gems, Lord’s swords, silver arrows and images of elephant, horse and leopard fashioned out of gold.
Another highlight of this festival is the appearance of Makarajyothi that leaves an indelible impression on the millions who view it. The poojas and rituals associated with Makara Vilakku are performed on the Manimandapam (sacred platform) adjacent to the Devi’s shrine. A picture depicting Lord Ayyappan on the back of a tiger is placed on the podium.
Afterwards, Malikappurathamma is mounted on an elephant’s back and taken in a procession of torch bearers, drummers and buglers to Pathinettampadi (18 holy steps). The procession stops abruptly as the Vettavili (call for hunting) is given out and returns, circumambulating the main temple. Makara Vilakku ends with the ritual called ‘Guruthi’, offering made to appease the god and goddesses of the wilderness. None remains within the temple and its precincts after the ‘Guruthi’.
Other important festivals celebrated at the temple include Onam, Mandalapooja and Vishu Vilakku.