The temple is unique with several unique customs and traditions to followed. On one hand, the temple is highly liberal and secular, by allowing pilgrims without barriers of caste, creed, religion, colour etc, whereas on other hand few customs are restrictive, such as women pilgrims above age 10 and below age 50 cannot enter the complex.
The temple known for its strict ascetic procedures and all devotees conducting pilgrimage are required to adopt ascetic lifestyle before climbing the hill
Prior to taking decision to go for pilgrimage, devotees are required to take vows that he will refrain from committing any fraudulent activity, will engage in social service maximum he can and uphold the principles of Dharma.
Such vow can be taken after seeking permission to undertake pilgrimage from parents or key elders of the family, spouse and children. The pilgrim needs to ask and must get the permission expressed orally.
Before taking vow, the pilgrim needs to identify an elderly person, who have been to Sabarimala many times. Such person will be known as Guruswami, will act like a guide in preparing the person for pilgrimage. This includes learning the key mantras for preparing the vows.
Once a vow is taken, he must wear a string of beads as a symbol of his vow, which must worn till he descend the hill ranges of Sabarimala. Wearing the beads strings or Mala, has to be done in fulfilling rituals, at any temple in morning and pleading the conditions of penance before the deity.
Once Vow is taken, the person shall undergo for a penance period of 41 days, known as Mandala Vritham. The fasting period, is to prepare the person mentally and physically to go the pilgrimage.
Abstain from drinking, smoking, chewing considering all these are bad habits, for a period of 41 days, known as Mandala Vritham or Penance, before climbing the hill rock. Abstain from consuming any non-vegetarian food as well as any kind of food that contains roots of plants. Food must be consumed only after bathing and praying.
Refrain from sex, shaving beards, cutting hair, applying oil and using luxury pleasures such as perfumes, scents, silk clothes, shoes etc. Devotees are required to wear either black or saffron colour costumes, as a token of renouncing worldly materials.
Before proceeding to Sabarimala, he must visit maximum temples, churches and mosques possible, praying for removing his sins, followed by visiting nearby main temple, where he is required to prepare Irrumudi-Kettu.
Irrumudi Kettu is mandatory for all pilgrims visiting Sabarimala, which is a blue/black bag containing a coconut filled with ghee, 2 coconuts, betel leaves with coin, betel nuts, a slice of jaggery, dry ginger, turmeric tubers, beaten rice (Avial), puja materials, rice and banana which will be folded into two halves and carried on head.
Elder priests known as Guruswamis help in preparing such. Such facilities will be available in most of the temples in Kerala as well as popular temples in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh etc. Ayyappa Seva Sangam helps in preparing such in most of the landing ports like Railway stations, Airport etc.
The bag must be on head while walking and must not kept on ground. It can be kept in sacred place near lamp on a raised platform, but while trekking, it must be on-head all the times and cannot be opened until reaching Sannidhanam
During the entire pilgrimage, wearing any kind of foot-wear is prohibited as well as sleeping on bed as token of austerity.
Ghee filled coconut is the main offering to Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, India. Every devotee visiting the temple will carry a coconut filled with fresh ghee (ney) to be used for neyyabhishekam to Swamy Ayyappa. After having darshan of the deity the ghee taken in coconut is offered to the temple for Neyyabhishekam to Lord Ayyappa. The coconut is then thrown into the homakundam near Pathinettampadi (18 holy steps) in front of the temple.
Before filling ghee into the coconut, the devotee drains out water in the coconut symbolising the draining out of his worldly aspirations. Symbolically, the coconut carried by Ayyappa devotees represent the human body and the ghee filled in the coconut represents the soul. After the long trekking to Sabarimala Ayyappan Temple, and pouring of the ghee on the idol represents the joining of one's "Jivatma" (individual soul) with "Paramatma" (universal soul). Throwing the coconut in the Homakundam (Fire Well) represents the body is consumed by fire, joining (ones) soul with Lord Ayyappa. Neyyabhishekom is performed only till the ucha puja (special puja at noon). Abhishekoms are also perfomed with milk, tender coconut water, water, honey, vibhoothi (sacred ash), sandal paste, flower, etc.
The pilgrimage must commence visiting the nearest temple, where a coconut needed to be broken, appealing Lord Ganapati (Ganesh) to help to complete the pilgrimage fruitfully.
Visit maximum temples enroute the pilgrimage. While at the trek, its mandatory to visit the mosque of Vavar Swami- a muslim friend of Lord Ayyappa and its mandatory to all pilgrims to have Muslim kind Namaz inside the shrine.
On reaching the Sannidhanam, Irumudi Kettu needs to be opened and the Ghee filled coconut must be broken at the Giant fire pit, other items of Irrumudi-Kettu must be deposited inside main temple.
First time visitors must dance in traditional tunes. All devotees must chant "Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa" as token of devotion. This tradition is known as Pettathuthal. Such first timers, need to insert a piece of Arrow, on a Banyan tree at a place in the trek route, known as Saramkutti.
Every other person when met other Sabarimala, is referred as Ayyappa and must not be called in his or her name. This is because of traditional concept of temple Aham Brahmaswamu- Iam the God, where each individual is believed to have godly presence
As the temple is located within a dense forest, maximum care must be given to protect local flora and fauna. No one is allowed to pluck even a leaf inside the forest, which is believed to be the Garden of Ayyappa and against the rituals. Likewise wild elephants are common in the forests. Its illegal to harm them or their dwelling style with any kind of fire-arms.
Check with local tourism office or Ayyappa Seva offices to know about rituals, pooja timings etc
The main pujas are on opening and closing days of Mandalam Pilgrimage as well as on Makara Sankrathi day, which attended by maximum number of pilgrims. The 10 day annual festival also coincide with Mandalam pilgrimage. Apart from special day pujas, 4 pujas are considered highly sacred which is conducted on daily basis. The Usha Puja (Morning Puja), Ucha Puja (Afternoon Puja), Abishekam (pouring libations) and Padi Puja (special pujas conducted on 18 holy steps at closure of temple in night). The temple is also famous for lighting maximum camphors as a token of devotion.
The main offering sacred to lord is Abishekams. Neyyu-Abishekams (Ghee Pouring) is highly sacred and ghee brought by all devotees in their Irumudi Kettus will be used to do. Likewise in evenings Pushabishekam (Flower pourings) as well as Bhasma Absihekam (ash pourings) will be conducted, which all be distributed among devotees. Another common offerings are Appam (a sweet dumplings) as well as Aravana (a thick sweet black dessert made of jaggery) which most of devotees buy.
Free food is distributed among devotees during all pilgrimage seasons, by various organizations and governmental agency.
The pushpabhishekom is performed only after deeparadana. And Done with Flowers which are brought by the devotees.
Ganjai, (a rare variety of plantain used only for rituals), malaru (broiled paddy) and jagri are offered to Kochu Kadutha Swamy, believed to one of the trusted lieutenants of Lord Ayyappa during his war against dacoit king Udayan.
Pepper, incense sticks and rose water are offered to Vavru Swamy, the Muslim confidante of the Lord.The Paanans (members of the caste by the same name who sing in temples to please snake gods) are made to sing before the Nagaraja and Nagayakshi idols to ward off evil spirits.
Sachets of turmeric powder, normally carried along with other puja materials,are emptied around the temple of Malikappuram, adjacent to the hill shrine. Other than this saffron, silk and betel leaves are also offered to the goddess.Another unique offering is the nalikeram uruttu. The devotee can purchase a coconut from the temple counter and he rolls it around the temple and later breaks it in front of the shrine.
Devotees burst Kathina (crude cracker made by packing gun powder in a very thick iron tube) in front of the Pathiettampady. This offering is made to please all gods. It is also believed that the explosion will scare away all evil spirits haunting one's family.
Other pujas offered to the lord are udayasthamana puja and a day's puja. The puja is now performed only during the first week of Malayalam months other than the mandala and Makara vilakku seasons as it affects the routine at the hillshrine during the annual congregation.
The three main pujas during the mandalam season are the usha puja, ucha puja and athazha puja performed at morning, noon and night, respectively.The usha puja is performed at 7.30 am. However, there is stipulated timing for other pujas as it will depend on the crowd and number of neyyabhishekoms.While the usha puja and athazha puja are perfromed by the chief priest, the ucha puja is performed by the tantri. Another feature of the ucha puja is the offering made on 25 kalasams (metallic pots).At the morning puja, ushapayasam is the nivedyam (offering to the Lord). vellanivedyam and aravana (special payasam made during the mandala and makara vilakku seasons) are offered at noon and vellanivedyam and appam are offered for athazha puja.
A devotee performs the Shayanapradakshinam (perambulating the sanctum sanctorum in a prostrate position) as an offering to the Lord for curing ailments and solving domestic, professional and other problems. It is also done to ward off evil spririts.The devotee after a dip in the temple pond prostrates before the Lord's idol and rolls along the pradakshina vazhi (pathway around the sanctum sanctorum for perambulating).
This is an elaborate puja made at the pathinettampadi, the 18 steps leading to the hill shrine. Though this puja was performed throughout the season, of late it is offered only when the temple opens during the first week of Malayalam months in view of the heavy crowd during mandalam and Mahara vilaku seasons.