Hundreds of devotees started trekking the holy Sabari Hills in Kerala as the two-month long annual pilgrimage season got under way on Sunday with the temple opening on the eve of the auspicious month of 'Vrishchikam' of the Malayalam calendar.
Despite steady drizzle, Lord Ayyappa devotees, mostly from southern states, have begun to pour into foothills Pampa, from where the five-km trek to the uphill shrine starts.
The first leg of the pilgrimage, 41-day "mandala" season, got under way with traditional high priest Kantararu Maheswaru opening the temple portals. This was followed by ceremonous anointment of new chief priests (melsanthis) for the main shrine and adjoining Malikappuram Devi temples.
The "Mandala pooja" would be held on December 26. The temple will be closed for four days, after which the "Makaravilakku" season will start, culminating with the 'makara jyoti' (celestial light) darshan on January 14.
A major pilgrim centre of the country, an average three crore pilgrims visit the shrine during the pilgrimage season every year making it a tough task for the state government, temple board and police.
State Devaswom Minister Ramachandran Kadannapally, Health Minister P K Sreemathy and Water Resources Minister N K Premachandran were in Pampa to review the arrangments.
Additional Chief Secretary K Jayakakumar, who is the Special Commissioner for Sabarimala, said all arrangements were in place and a hassle-free pilgrimage season was expected.
Hundreds of police personnel, including Rapid Action Force, had been deployed in and around the temple complex for security, crowd management and traffic control.