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HINDUS, MUSLIMS SHED DIFFERENCES AT PILGRIMAGE SHRINE

Updated: February 14, 1993 05:00 PM GMT
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While the rest of India experienced recurring Hindu-Muslim riots, a Hindu pilgrimage center in southern India witnessed a unique festival of communal unity.

During a strenuous trek up hills and through forests, Hindu pilgrims pay respects to a Muslim holy man. And Muslim reciprocate.

Former prime minister Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who visited Kerala during the festival, said Sabarimala offers a message of unity and equality for the country writhing under communal clashes.

At least 25 million Hindu devotees came to Sabarimala in Kerala to pray to Ayyappa, a bachelor god, during a two-month long festival that ended Jan 14.

On their way up to the Ayyappa temple on Sabrimala mountain the pilgrims visit Erumeli mosque situated at the foot of a mountain dedicated to a holy Muslim man, Vavaru.

"The relevance of this festival is that it promotes communal harmony and human dignity," says Thazhaman Mohanaruthanthri, a priest in Sabarimala. "This unique custom is based on a tradition that Vavaru and Ayyappa were close friends," Mohanaruthanthri explained to UCA News.

Muslim priests welcome the devotees and treat them respectfully and Muslims take a procession to an Ayyappa temple at Erumeli to pay respect to Ayyappa.

"This not only promotes Hindu-Muslim friendship, but also asserts that Hindus and Muslims are equal before God," says C.N. Bhaskaran Nair, a journalist.

The festival is also a social leveler as the rich and poor, the high caste and low caste, the Brahmin and the untouchable mingle together.

Sabarimala, a hill station in the western forest ranges, lies in the middle of 18 hills, some 200 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala state capital. Pilgrims can be seen walking, usually barefoot, clad in black and sporting new beards.

They observe a 41-day strict penance before they undertake an arduous trek to the Ayyappa temple situated deep inside the forest. The temple committee said pilgrims also had to brave bad weather this year.

"During this period, we forget all our differences and try to see every human being as a manifestation of God," Shridharan Nair, an Ayyappa devotee told UCA News. "We have to give up all our bad habits, including smoking and drinking and fill the heart with only divine thoughts," he explained.

The fasting and the pilgrimage make a notable change in the lives of the devotees. "We are proud of the cultural heritage we posses in Erumeli", Ahamad Hajji, a Muslim businessman told UCA News in mid-January.

A devotee is called "Swammy" (a manifestation of Ayyappa) whatever be his religion or caste, he added.

"Sabarimala has become a festival of communal harmony," said K. Narayanan Kutty, who visited Sabarimala regularly for the past 18 years.

"A true Ayyappa devotee cannot fight with another religion; for him, every human being is an ´avatar´ (incarnation) of Lord Ayyappa," he told UCA News.

Srinivasa Rao, a priest, explained that the pilgrims respect the traditional Indian spirituality that God and man are one and the same.

"To attain this eternal bliss one has to sacrifice his ego and surrender himself totally to God," he told UCA News.

"It is this feeling of oneness that attracts 10s of millions of people to this holy shrine," said Mohandas Naik, a devotee from Mangalore in neighboring state of Karnataka.

END

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