The layout of the Ayyappa temple is believed to have originated from the specific instructions of the Lord himself, who wanted Malikappurathamma, on his left a few yards from Sannidhanam, and his trusted lieutenants Vavur and Kadutha to be positioned as his guards at the foot of the holy 18 steps. The pilgrims worship in this place also. This exemplifies the unique feature of the temple. The temple is open to all faiths. The divine qualities like equality, fraternity, tolerance, humanity etc.. are shining well in the pilgrims.
Ayyappa cult gives much importance for the secularism and communal harmony and has turned out to be a model for the whole world. Another significant aspect of the pilgrimage is that all the pilgrims whether rich or poor, learned or illiterate holding position or not master or servant are all equal before LORD AYYAPPA and all address each other as AYYAPPA.
The pilgrims on their sojourn to Sabarimala worship at Erumeli Sree Dharma Sastha Temple and conduct "Petta Thullal". They also worship in the mosque at Erumeli as a part of their pilgrimage.
According to legend, the temple of Sabarimala and the deity of Ayyappa have always been regarded as the Pandalam Raja's very own. So permission from the King has to be attained before proceeding to the temple. To make it easy for pilgrims to obtain the necessary permission, a representative of the king sits with all the royal insignia, on a raised platform at the base of the Neelimala Hill. The pilgrims offer a token amount (not necessary) to the royal representative, and receive vibhuti from him.
This marks the beginning of the steepest climb of the pilgrimage, the 3 km trek up the majestic Neelimala Hill, atop which sits Lord Ayyappa in all his glory. The pilgrims wind their way up the difficult trail in an unending stream, the hill reverberating with the constant chanting of thousands.
At the first sight of the Patinettampadi, the holy eighteen steps, a full throated cry goes up from the devotees, "Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa!" It is the realisation of a mission.
The shrine of Lord Ganapati: To the south-west of the main temple is the shrine of Lord Ganapati, known as Kannimula Ganapati. The special offering to this deity is Ganapati homan.
Homakunda: There used to be a large homakunda in front of the shrine, which burned constantly, fed by the coconut shells thrown by the devotees, after offering the ghee. As the coconut shells gets consumed by the fire, the sins of the devotees are believed to be cleansed. Due to the growing crowds in the temple, the homakunda has now been shifted to a location below the temple.
Bhasma Kulam: About a 100 metres away is the shrine of Malikappurathamma. En route to the shrine is the temple tank, Bhasma Kulam, in which hundreds of devotees take a holy bath in memory of the tapaswini Sabari who entered a fire to end her mortal life. It is after her that the peak is named Sabarimala.On account of the number of people who bathe in the tank, the water is frequently drained out and refilled with fresh water.
Malikappurathamma: Situated on a small hillock, the Malikappurathamma temple houses the shrines of the Devi and Kaduthaswamy. Devotees also worship a trident and lamp here, and offer coconuts. The coconuts are not broken, however, but are just rolled on the ground .
To the left of this temple are the shrines of the snake god and goddess, Nagaraja and Nagayakshi. Here, tribals beat on drums, play stringed instruments and sing sarppa pattu to protect devotees and their progeny from the harmful effects of snakebites.
Shrines of Kaduthaswamy and Karuppaswamy: At the foot of the Patinettampadi are the two shrines of Kaduthaswamy and Karuppaswamy, who stand like dwarapalakas or guardians of the holy steps, to ensure that they are not polluted by those who tread on them without fulfilling the rigid austerities required of them. They are also believed to protect the devotees from the evil spirits of the forests.
According to legend, Kadutha was a great warrior who helped the Pandalam king defeat the armies of Udayanan and other enemies. When the king came to Sabarimalai to reconstruct the temple, Kadutha came with him to protect him. Ultimately, he became so attached to Ayyappa that he decided to spend the rest of his days with his Lord.
Also near the Patinettampadi is the shrine of the Muslim Vavurswami. While there are several accounts of identity of Vavur, it is generally believed that he was a warrior who was defeated and subdued by Ayyappa, and later became a close associate. It is believed that Lord Ayyappa himself instructed the Pandalam king to build a mosque for Vavur at Erumeli and a shrine at Sabarimalai.
Golden 18 Steps:
Built on a plateau about 40 feet high, the Ayyappan temple commands a lofty view of the mountains and valleys all around. The ancient temple has been rebuilt after a fire in 1950, consisting of a sanctum sanctorum with a copper-plated roof and four golden finials at the top, two mandapams, the belikalpura which houses the altar,and the flag-staff. Replacing the earlier stone image of the deity is a beautiful idol of Ayyappa in panchaloha, an alloy of five metals, about one and a half feet.
The original granite steps were badly damaged due to continuous breaking of coconuts on the steps by pilgrims climbing the steps. The Devasom Board with the approval of Lord Ayyappan through a devaprasanam, covered the steps with panchaloka. The work was completed by 15th November 1985. Later on these steps were covered with gold.
Several myths persist regarding the significance of the Pathinettu thripadikal or the 18 holy steps, but almost all of them stress the importance of the number, 18. According to a popular belief, the first 5 steps signify the five indriyas or the senses (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin), the following 8 the ragas (tatwa, kama, krodha, moha, lobha, madha, matsraya, and ahamkara), the next 3 the gunas (satwa, rajas and thamas) followed by vidya and avidya. Climbing these would take the devotee closer to self-realisation. The act of crossing the 18 steps is so sacred that nobody can mount them without undertaking the rigorous 41 day fast and carrying the irumudi. It is also widely assumed that the pathinettu padikal symbolize the 18 puranas; others believe that they connote the 18 weapons with which Lord Ayyappan obliterated evil. An Ayyappa devotee crosses the Pathinettaam padi only twice during his sojourn on Sabarimala - for entering the temple and to go downhill. Before ascending or descending the steps, pilgrims break coconut as an offering to the steps. One needs to have the sacred Irumudi on head while going up or down the 18 steps and while descending the steps the devotees climb down backwards facing the sanctum sanctorum.