Pathanamthitta: The Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple and its premises reverberated with holy chants by thousands of devotees on Wednesday evening as the auspicious Makaravilakku ritual was held at the hilltop shrine.
In accordance with tradition, marking the culmination of the over two-month-long pilgrimage season.
Draped in the customary black dress and carrying the 'irumudi kettu' (the traditional bundle a devotee brings to the shrine) on their heads, pilgrims, including elders and children, trekked the forest path.
Queuing for hours without food or water to offer prayers on the auspicious occasion did not dampen the spirit of devotees who thronged the forest temple to have a glimpse of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity.
The shrine had been decorated with flowers for the Makaravilakku festival.
The 'sannidhanam' (temple complex) atop the hillock and base camp on the banks of river Pampa reverberated with chants of "Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa."
The portals of the shrine were thrown open after the 'deeparadhana' (arti) in the evening, which was performed after the idol of Lord Ayyappa was donned with holy jewels, 'Thiruvabharanam'.
The jewels were brought shortly before the 'arati' in a ceremonial procession, which started its journey on January 13 from the Pandalam palace, where, according to legend, Lord Ayyappa was born and spent his childhood.
The 'Saranam Ayyappa' chants intensified when the 'makara jyothi', considered a divine light by devotees, flickered across the eastern horizon above Ponnambalamedu, a remote hilltop 8 km from the temple complex, soon after the arati.
The lighting of the flame by the Kerala government, with the support of the Travancore Devaswom Board and forest department, at Ponnamabalamedu is a continuation of the practice followed by tribal families who live near the hilltop.
In view of the heavy rush, the board, which manages the shrine, and state police and other agencies made elaborate arrangements for crowd management and to ensure the safety of devotees.
Besides police, personnel of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and Rapid Response Force had also been deployed in and around the shrine, authorities said.
The shrine, which draws devotees from various parts of the country, had witnessed unprecedented protests by right wing outfits and BJP workers last year after the CPM-led LDF government decided to implement the September 28, 2018 Supreme Court order lifting the traditional bar on women and girls in menstrual age from offering prayers.
However, this year against the backdrop of the top court's decision to refer a batch of review pleas against its earlier verdict to a larger bench, the state government had said those women desirous of visiting the hill temple should get a "court order" and it would not encourage activism.
During this season, some young women who came to Sabarimala were not allowed by authorities to trek to the Ayyappa temple.
There has been a sharp increase in the arrivals of pilgrims from various parts of the country, especially the southern states, and the revenue collections too rose during the season.
The shrine will close on January 21.
Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran, who also offered prayers at the shrine, said this year's pilgrimage was very peaceful compared to last year.
(With inputs from PTI)