Pathanamthitta (Kerala) | Tens of thousands of devotees, braving massive queues for several hours, on Monday offered prayers at the hilltop shrine of Lord Ayyappa here on the day of the auspicious 'Makaravilakku' ritual, which marks the culmination of the over two-month-long annual pilgrimage season.
Legions of devotees, clad in the customary black attire and carrying the 'irumudi kettu' (the traditional bundle a devotee brings to the shrine) on their heads, were waiting since morning in and around the temple complex for the 'deeparadhana' (aarati) in the evening, along with Devaswom officials, police personnel and priests.
At around 6.30 pm, the holy jewels -- 'thiruvabharanam' -- brought from the Pandalam Palace, where, according to legend, Lord Ayyappa was born and spent his childhood, were brought to the shrine.
The jewels were brought here, moments before the 'aarati', in a ceremonial procession that had begun two days ago from the Pandalam palace, nearly 85 kilometres away.
Close to 6.45 pm, the doors of the shrine were opened following the 'deeparadhana' (aarati) which was performed after the idol of Lord Ayyappa was adorned with the holy jewels.
The massive crowd outside the shrine could be seen jostling, as the devotees craned their necks to catch a glimpse of Lord Ayyappa bedecked with the holy jewels.
The chants of 'Saranam Ayyappa' and hymns intensified when the portals of the shrine were opened.
The 'Saranam Ayyappa' chants further intensified when the 'makara jyothi', considered a divine light by devotees, flickered a few minutes after the 'aarati', across the eastern horizon above Ponnambalamedu, a remote hilltop eight kilometres from the temple complex.
Tens of thousands of devotees were gathered at various places at Pullumedu, Panchalimedu, and Parunthumpara areas to witness the 'makara jyothi'.
The lighting of the flame by the Kerala government, with the support of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) and forest department at Ponnambalamedu, is a continuance of the practice followed by tribal families who live near the hilltop.
The state government and the TDB, the apex temple body which manages the shrine, had made elaborate arrangements for crowd management and to ensure the safety of devotees.