As a prelude to the actual pilgrimage, the aspirant wears a beaded mala/garland usually of tulsi or rudraksham to highlight his renunciation of material temptations. Majority of the devotees begin wearing the mala from the first day of Vrishchikam. Wearing the garland on a Saturday or on the day of asterism of Uthram, just prior to the first day of Vrishchikam is considered auspicious, for it is held that Dharma Shastha or Lord Ayyappan was born on first Vrishchikam on a Saturday, the asterism being Uthram. The occurrence of these three features on the same day is a rare phenomenon. Hence any one among the trio is chosen. As a rule the devotee receives his mala from a Guruswami, one who has been to Sabarimala repeatedly several times. The ritual is ordinarily conducted in the precincts of a temple or any other holy place.
As he wears the holy mala around his neck, the pilgrim swears total allegiance to Lord Ayyappan with whom he identifies himself completely. He surrenders his thoughts, words and deeds to the powerful deity and begins to lead the austere life of an ascetic.
On the first day of the fast, the pilgrim awakes early, bathes and offers poojas to the family god, navagrahas (the nine planets) and the holy mala. He then proceeds to the temple with his Guru from whom he receives the mala amidst the chanting of saranams.
Like Lord Ayyappan, the renunciant, the devotee is expected to shun all social activities and immerse himself in prayers, poojas, bajans, visits to the temples, cleaning temples, feeding the poor, attending to the poor/sick and listening to spiritual lectures. Strictly celibate, he consumes only satvic food and is forbidden from having meat, intoxicants like alcoholic beverages, drugs and betel leaves, and smoking.
Taking bath in the pre-dawn hours, regular application of vibhooti, sandalwood paste followed by meditation and singing songs about Lord Ayyappan become his part of his daily routine for 41 days. No shaving is allowed and the devotee prays to Dharma Shastha by chanting his name at least 108 times. He refrains from hurting anybody either physically or verbally and identifies other Ayyappa devotees with the Lord himself. When somebody undertakes the 41-day fast, he must go about it quietly without much ado so as not to cause any inconvenience to his family.
The Ayyappa swami does not oil his hair or body and always carries with him a tulsi leaf to ward off evil and temptations. He sleeps not on the bed and uses no footwear to protect his feet.