The annual Mandala-Makaravilakku pilgrimage to the hill temple of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala is now underway. Devotees set out on the trip after observing a fast that lasts several days. The trek to the shrine through the forest is arduous and the food the pilgrims have during the days before the reaching the temple has several peculiarities.
A devotee, while preparing for the journey, has to partake of only 'satwik bhojan' or pure food. This necessitates controlling food intake and making the body fit to enable an easy climb up the hill.
Rice consumption is restricted to once a day and it has to be pure. Meat, fish and addictive substances are completely avoided.
In olden times, the pilgrims cooked for themselves. Along with the 'irumudi' (a double-compartment bag carried as a ritual), utensils for preparing meals and rice were carried.
The most preferred item sought by all pilgrims to Sabarimala is a tin of 'Aravana payasam,' a very sweet delicacy made of rice and jaggery. It is prepared by boiling one portion of dried rice and four portions of jaggery and making the mixture a semi-solid mass.
According to historians, it was dried rice that pilgrims carried during their journey to the temple in the past. This rice might have been mixed with water from mountain streams to prepare the 'payasam.'
However, according to another belief, 'Aravana payasam' was cooked for the first time by a mendicant named Saravana, which gave the delicacy its name.
'Puzhukku' (a vegetable preparation) is another dish prepared during Mandala season. During the Malayalam months of Vrischikam and Dhanu, several tubers are dug up from the ground and cooked to make puzhukku. Tapioca and yam were among the vegetables commonly used in the past. However, these days either tapioca or jackfruit puzhukku are the most common variants.