BERHAMPUR: Winter chill and an impending third wave of COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be a deterrent for the Ayyappa devotees in Ganjam district. Clad in black, they are seen moving around Berhampur town barefoot with sandal paste and ash on their forehead, addressing one another as 'Swamy' and greeting others saying 'Swamy Saranam'.
These devotees take vow of a 41-day penance or 'dikshya' and eat only vegetarian food while embarking on a religious journey to Sabarimala in Kerala on or before Makar Sankranti which falls on January 14. Over 1,200 devotees have already left for Kerala from the district.
On Sunday, more groups boarded the train from the city railway station to Ernakulam from where they will take a bus to Papma to reach their destination. "Earlier, there were only a couple of Ayyappa groups consisting of hundreds of devotees across the State. With increase in numbers and keeping the pandemic in mind, we have divided them into several small groups to offer prayers while adhering to COVID norms," said Guru Someshwar Swamy, who led a group of 36 devotees that left for Sabarimala on the day.
The devotees are slated to offer prayers at the temple on January 11 and 12 and participate in Jyoti Darshan before making their way back home.
Sources said that while more and more people are taking 'dikshya' to do away with their bad habits, many attributed the rise in number of devotees in the district to the influence of South Indian states like Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala.
"Another reason could be the fact that people irrespective of religion, language and caste can take up penance which mandates strict physical abstinence to appease Swamy Ayyappa," said Someshwar. A person who takes 'dikshya' 18 consecutive times and has a glimpse of Ayyappa is referred to as Guruswamy and he initiates another Swamy into the religious journey.