Significance of 18 Steps at Sabarimala
Ayyappa Swamy devotees crosses the Pathinettaam padi the 18 steps twice during his sojourn on Sabarimala for entering into the temple and to go downhill. While climbing and getting down from the steps the pilgrims break coconut as an offering to the steps. One needs to have the sacred Irumudi on head while going up or down the 18 steps and while getting down the steps the devotees climb down backwards facing the sanctum sanctorum. So before one views the Sanctum Sanctorum, the devotees has to climb over these 18 sacred steps.
There are several myths related to the significance of 18 steps in the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. It is believed that these 18 steps represent 18 mountains surrounding the temple. The deity of the corresponding mountain has been installed on each step. And while during the padipuja, deities of these 18 mountinas are propitiated.
So it is believed that when the Ayyappa Swamy devotee climbs these 18 steps to reach the sanctum sanctorum, he attains the punya of visiting all 18 hill gods. A darshan of Lord Ayyappa at the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple is only complete when it is made after climbing the 18 holy steps.
After climbing up these 18 steps it is considered as, one symbolically detaches oneself from all the worldly ties that bind one physically and mentally to the world. It is only then that a person will be in a receptive condition to be `one’ in consonance with the concept of ‘The Ultimate Creator.
As Ayyappa Swamy was a master of 18 weapons and the 18 steps signify these weapons while Ayyappa before merging into the idol at the Sanctum Sanctorum, surrendered his 18 weapons, one at each step of Pathinettam Padi.
The original 18 steps at Sabarimala were made of granite blocks of about 6 feet wide. Later these steps are covered with `Panchaloham’ (a special composition of gold, silver, copper, iron and tin. Pilgrims initiate their ascent up the Pathinettam Padi by placing their right foot on the first step.
The first five steps symbolizes the Panchendriyas (five human senses) as vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch (eye, ear, nose, tongue and skin). These signify the mortal nature of one’s body.
The next eight steps symbolize the eight Ashtaragas as Kama, Krodha, Lobha, Moha, Madha, Maltsarya, Asooya, Dhumb (Love, Anger, Avarice, Lust, Pride, Unhealthy Competition, Jealousy and Boastfulness).
The next three steps stand for three Gunas or Thrigunas the nature born qualities of human as Satva, ( perspicuity, discernment) , Rajas (activity, enjoyment) and Thamas (inactivity, stupor).
The last two steps represent Vidya the Knowledge and Avidya the Ignorance.
Atop the 18 steps is the shrine of Lord Ayyappa and below the 18 steps is the Aazhi or the huge bonfire lit using coconut. There is a popular belief that the 18 steps symbolically represent the 18 Puranas. Another significance of the 18 steps is based on Yoga – as Lord Ayyappa is sitting in a yoga posture at the temple.