The Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala is one of the few Hindu temples in India that is open to all faiths. Here, the emphasis is on secularism and communal harmony. Sabarimala upholds the values of equality, fraternity and also the oneness of the human soul; all men, irrespective of class, creed or race are equal before Lord Ayyappan and seemingly, to drive home this fact, the pilgrims thronging the temple complex address one another as 'Ayyappa Swami.'
Legend has it that the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala is laid out in accordance with the instructions of the Lord himself. Consequently, Malikappurathamma is on the left of the Sannidhanam, and the Lord's aides, Vavar and Kadutha stand vigil at the foot of the 'pathinettu thrippadi' the most significant 18 steps in Hinduism, leading to the 'sanctum sanctorum.'
As Lord Ayyappan was raised by the King of Pandalam as his son, the temple at Sabarimala is looked upon as part of the Raja's domain. And pilgrims are expected to obtain his permission before proceeding to Sabarimala. One of the King's representatives sits on a raised platform with the royal insignia at the base of Neelimala. The Ayyappa devotees offer him a token sum and receive vibhuthi in return. The 3km ascent up the Neelimala is the steepest and the most difficult in the whole pilgrimage.
En route to Sabarimala, the pilgrims visit Erumeli Sree Dharma Shastha Temple to hold 'Petta Thullal' as well as Vavur's mosque, also at Erumeli. To enter the temple complex at Sabarimala, the devotees have to climb the 18 steps or the 'pathinettu padikal'; when compared to other prominent temples in Kerala like Guruvayoor, the shrine atop Sabarimala is relatively small.
The temple stands on a plateau, over 40 feet high and offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and the valleys below. Steeped in antiquity, it was rebuilt after a massive fire in 1950. Now, the complex on Sabarimala comprises a sanctum sanctorum bearing a copper-plated roof with four golden finials at the top, two mandapams, the belikalpura housing the altar, and the 'kodimaram' or the flag staff.
The Ayyappa idol within the Sannidhanam and worshipped by millions, was originally carved out of stone, however the current image of the deity is a beautiful idol of Ayyappan in panchaloha, an amalgam five metals and about one and a half feet tall.
Lord Ganapathi sits south-west of the main temple; the Ganapathi idol at Sabarimala is commonly referred to as Kannimula Ganapathi. And one of the special offerings to this deity is 'Ganapathi homam.'
In the bygone days, a large homakundam or a sacred pit burned constantly in front of the Sannidhanam. The flames were fed by the coconuts/neithenga thrown in by pilgrims, after offering the ghee within them to Lord Ayyappan. It is held that as the coconuts burn in the sacrificial fire, the pilgrims undergo a ritualistic cleansing, both of the spirit and the body. Owing to the deluge of devotees each year, the Homakundam has been moved to a spot beneath the temple.
The shrine of Malikappurathama is about 100 metres away from the Sannidhanam. Bhasmakkulam/ Ash tank is situated between these two holy spots. Pilgrims braving the arduous trip to Sabarimala take a tip in the sacred waters of this tank for spiritual purification and also in memory of Tapaswini Sabari who entered a pyre to end her mortal life. Sabarimala is named after her. Bhasmakkulam is repeatedly drained and filled with fresh water, on account of the millions who bathe in it.