Walking can be a meditative experience. It helps an individual focus on the mind and the body. It gets him into a state of heightened awareness. This awareness aids introspection. It helps one be in the now. With every step an individual takes, there is a lesson to be learned and meditated upon.
Walking not only aids introspection and mindfulness but also pushes the individual to go beyond physical limitations. Perhaps, this is why several faiths across the world have long stressed the importance of padayatra (pilgrimage on foot). In this feature, Soulveda travels from Jammu in the north of India to Kerala in the south to the islands of Sri Lanka and Japan, exploring what padayatra does for pilgrims.
Every year, thousands of devotees clad in black and orange clothes walk to Lord Ayyappa’s abode in Sabarimala in Kerala. They trek through the forest barefoot, on a path full of thorns and stones, chanting Swami Saranam Ayyappa in praise of the god. Their reverberating voices fill the air with devotion for the deity.
In order to reach the temple, a devotee has to take a vow to wake up at 4 am every day, take a cold shower, and worship the lord for 41 consecutive days. On the 41st day, the devotee carries irumudi (a small bundle of holy objects and a travel kit) on his head and climbs 18 steps to seek the blessings of the lord.
Eighteen is a significant number for Ayyappa devotees. Lord Ayyappa is the lord of 18 hills and lord of 18 steps. Every devotee climbs 18 steps to reach the temple on the hill. It is said that the first five steps represent panchendriya (the five senses). The next eight stand for ashtaraga (basal emotions)—kama (, krodha, moha, lobha, madha, matsarya, asooya and dhumba. The next three steps represent the qualities of nature (gunas—sattva, rajas and tamas). The last two steps stand for vidya (knowledge) and avidya (ignorance). It is believed that on climbing these 18 steps, a devotee symbolically detaches himself from the materialistic world, and becomes receptive to be one with the ultimate creator.