Nandini Valli Muthiah’s photo series, ‘The Devotee’ (2016), makes its debut at the CPB, 2019 and brings you face to face with a group of the Sabarimalai pilgrims. The ‘Devotee’, is a study, of cultural anthropological fashion and looks at the pilgrim of Sabarimalai as a mini community within society. The photo series looks at the devotee not just as an image of a relative, neighbour or a friend, but as a being who has by undertaking the penance required of him, become closer to his Ayappan (the god at Sabarimalai).
Sabarimalai is a temple in Kerala. It is also a temple whose devotees are mostly men (women over the age of 55 and under the age of 10 are permitted to enter the temple though). Any person wishing to visit the temple at Sabarimalai, should abstain from worldly pleasures and live an ascetic life, 40 days prior to the commencement of the journey to the temple. The reasons for this abstinence are many, one of them believes that Ayappan, who is a celibate God, requires his devotees to follow his path and become a personification of him during those days of penance. For some, it is a test of sorts to see if you have the will power to give up everything for God. Some would say it is to develop an endurance, for in the days before modern amenities and modes of transport became available, the devotee had to walk through the forests in Kerala to reach the shrine. Whatever the reason, the vow must be taken. A person who has taken the vow, will most often be called ‘swami’ or holy one by all those around them.
This photographs in this series, were taken just before a group of pilgrims in Chennai, left for the journey to Sabarimalai, under the direction of a ‘Guru Swami’. The families of each of the devotees travelling, had come that day to see off their family member. Once they are given the ‘Irumudi’ or the offering that they are to carry to God, they have to leave their families behind and cannot come back to them, come what may; until the rendezvous with the ‘One’ has been completed. The moment these were photographed, is the exact moment when they had been handed the Irumudi, and they were heading to the vehicle that will take them to Sabarimalai.