The Pathless Path

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite.Half naked and smeared in paint, Hindu pilgrims dance in front of the Vavar Mosque in the south Indian town of Erumeli at the start of their pilgrimage to Sabarimala, the mountain shrine of the god Ayyappa.By train or bus pilgrims converge first on the town of Erumeli, often after spending weeks visiting other sacred places throughout southern India. The final approach to Sabarimala lies through about sixty kilometers of forest in the Western Ghat mountains in the south Indian state of Kerala.Men sanctify the holy necklace they wear for the duration of the pilgriamge over a sacred flame held by their guruswami. Pilgrims going to Sabarimala follow a strict discipline of restrictions, including a forty-one day vow pledging vegetarianism, celibacy, discipline and humility.A guruswami, a spiritual preceptor and guide who has made the pilgrimage to Sabarimala many times, leads each group of pilgrims, who accord him great respect and devotion.Pilgrims outside the Vavar Mosque in Erumeli. Tradition requires all pilgrims to request permission from Vavar, a Muslim saint who is a protector and ally of the Hindu god Ayyappa, before commencing the ascent to Sabarimala.Inside the Vavar Mosque pilgrims pass by an inscription bearing the ninety-nine names of Allah.Men at the start of their pilgrimage to the mountaintop shrine of the god Ayyappa.Having received ritual authorization to commence their pilgrimage, pilgrims dance ecstatically in the streets outside the Vavar Mosque in Erumeli.Tradition forbids women of child-bearing age from undertaking the pilgrimage to Sabarimala; so some men bring their young daughters along on the the journey.Men dance to the sound of frantic drumming.Pilgrims to Sabarimala with paint smeared faces at the start of their pilgrimage.Every pilgrim brings with him a specially prepred bundle of offerings wrapped in cloth. They will be presented to the god Ayyappa on Sabarimala.Ritually bathed and cleansed of the paint that covered them at the start of their journey, pilgrims strap bundles of offerings to their heads and sanctify their holy neckalces before setting out for Sabarimala.The mala, or holy necklaces, that all pilgrims to Sabarimala wear.A man poses for a commemorative photo in a studio in Erumeli. Behind him the god Ayyappa is shown riding a tiger. Ayyappa remains a mysterious figure. The ancient Vedic texts do not mention him. Most likely, it seems that he was a local warrior prince who came to be deified. Today he is seen by some as an incarnation of Shiva and Vishnu in one form.To chants of "Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa": "I take refuge in Lord Ayyappa," pilgrims walk barefoot along a rocky path through the forests of the Western Ghat mountains to reach Sabarimala.Older women on the way to Sabarimala. Women of child-bearing age are forbidden from making the pilgrimage.Pilgrims pause for a rest in the forest.A man drinks young coconut water.A group of pilgrims bearing offerings strapped to their heads snakes its way through the forest along a sixty kilometer mountain path to Ayyappa's shrine.A child pilgrim in the company of her elders.Crossing a placid stream on the way to Sabarimala.Pilgrims sanctify themselves over a holy fire before entering Ayyapa's shrine.Moonrise over the Gaumukh Glacier, the source of the Ganges, India's holiest river. Far from Sabarimala in south India, at the other geographic extreme of the country, millions of people every year undertake pilgrimages to various holy places in the Himalaya.Rajasthani peasants, who may never have seen mountains or known cold weather, come to the Himalaya dressed in the same clothes that they wear in their desert state.The pilgrim trail to the Gaumukh Glacier, the source of the Ganges River.Pilgrims stop for a rest and to warm up in a tea shop.Pilgrims on the way to Kedarnath, an important Shiva temple located high in the Himalaya.A pilgrim rests in a tea shop on the way to Kedarnath.Porters carry elderly women in baskets. Those who cannot walk or do not wish to may pay to be carried in baskets or in rudimentary palanquins. Others pay to ride on a horse or a mule.Govind Giri, a sadhu, in a mountain meadow above Kedarnath. Some holy men seek out isolated places in the mountains for meditation and prayer, or just to escape from the crowds of pilgrims.Some pilgrims, especially holy men, dwell for weeks or months at important pilgrimage places in the Himalaya. This Sadhu, staying the summer at Kedarnath, has made a vow of silence to minimize distractions and to focus himself on self-knowledge.Sadhus in the Himalaya warm themselves near a fire.Images of the god Shiva receive devotional offerings at his mountain shrine in Kedarnath.Pilgrims high in the mountains on their way to the sacred Amarnath Cave in the Kashmir Himalaya.A holy man takes a short cut.Discarded footwear.Thousands of pilgrims snake through a valley in the Kashmir Hamalaya on their way to the Amarnath Cave, a journey that takes three days.A tent camp in the Kashmir Himalaya on the way to the Amarnath Cave.A Rajasthani pilgrim pauses for a rest in a tea shop.A tent camp in the Kashmir Himalaya on the way to the Amarnath Cave.A pilgrim in the Himalayas.Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make the trek to the Amarnath Cave during the short two months when the weather high in the Himalaya is relatively warm and stable.Porters carry a pilgrim on a rudimentary palanquin.A vast tent camp, the last before reaching the Amarnath Cave, accomodates tens of thousands of pilgrims at a time.A pilgrim in the Himalaya.Men bathe in an icy mountain stream outside the Amarnath Cave in order ritually to purify themselves.Pilgrims in the Himalayas.After walking for three days, pilgrims arrive at the the Amarnath Cave, a vast womblike opening in a cliff, high in the Kashmir Himalaya. Inside the cave stands a giant ice stalagmite, said to be a manifestation of the god Shiva as ice.Moonrise above the Arunachaleswar Temple in Tiruvannamalai. While in the Himalaya pilgrims travel to witness the god Shiva manifesting himself as ice, far to the south, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, pilgrims come to experience Shiva's elemental manifestation as fire.Pilgrims inside the Arunachaleswar Teple in Tiruvannamalai.Pilgrms entering the vast Aranuchaleswar Temple, one of the largest in India and dedicated to the god shiva in his incarnation as fire. Votive candles in front of a small image of Shiva.Pilgrims at the base of Arunachala Mountain.The pilgrimage, which brings hundreds of thousands of people to Tiruvannamalai, is also the occasion of a large cattle fair.A variety of entertainers also flock to Tiruvannamalai at the time of the pilgrimage to take advantage of the earning opportunities that accompany the large crowds of people.Pilgrims pause in front of a small shrine at the base of Arunachala Mountain. The mountain is an extremely ancient extinct volcano. For one week every year a large fire is ignited on the mountain's summit, and it is believed that the god Shiva manifests himself in this fire.A pilgrim in Tiruvannamalai.On the eve of the full moon in the Tamil month of Karthigai, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive to circumambulate the sacred Arunachala Mountain.Pilgrims ascending Arunachala Mountain. The massive Arunchaleswar Temple, one of the largest in India, sits at the foot of the mountain.Most pilgrims climb barefoot to the summit, but for some the rocky path proves too much for their feet to endure..Pilgrims on the summit of Arunchala Mountain, above the city of Tiruvannamalai. At dusk on the full moon night of the Tamil month of Karthigai, a large cauldron of clarified butter is ignited on Arunachala's summit, and the god shiva is believed to manifest himself as those flames.A pilgrim on Arunachala Mountain.Shiva worshipped as fire on the peak of Arunachala Mountain. A full moon shines in the background.A happy pilgrim at Arunachala.Pilgrims purify themselves near a sacred fire.A pilgrim on Arunachala Mountain.Pilgrims pray at a shrine near Arunachala.A pilgrim on Arunachala Mountain.Under a blood-red moon, pilgrims regard a flaming cauldron of clarfied butter which constitutes Shiva's manifestation as fire.On the full moon night in the month of Karthigai a sacred fire blazes on top of Arunachala Mountain.