One of the main doctrines of Hinduism is that God resides in each and every soul as Brahman and also pervades the whole universe. The ultimate goal of spirituality is to discover this inner reality and to perceive this God who is said to be beyond attributes of shape, name and form. This led to the Bhakti tradition and the concept of love to a personal God. Each of the Gods represents one aspect of Brahman and helps the devotees to channelize their energies, raise their consciousness and achieve Moksha or enlightenment which is the goal of human life. The state of Kerala is known for its beauty, rich flora and fauna and its ancient culture of temples. One of the most famous Gods of Kerala is Lord Ayyappa with the temple of Sabarimala being one of the most famous pilgrimage destinations in recent times. Devotees from all states of India and abroad have been experiencing the power and glory of the Divine Lord Ayyappa as a God who fulfils the ardent desires of his devotees. They brave great difficulties and perform rigorous austerities to make the pilgrimage and hence it is also referred to as the new ‘Mecca of Hinduism’.
In Kerala, the name ‘Appa’ refers to father and ‘Ayyan’ refers to a title of respect. Thus, the name implies a respected senior deity of the region. Lord Ayyappa or Ayyannar is also known as ‘Hariharasuta’ meaning the son (Suta) of Hari (Vishnu as Mohini)) and Hara (Shiva). Other names are Manikanta because when he was found in the forest he had a Mani (gem, jewel) around his Kanta (neck) and Dharmasastha (Dharma meaning righteousness and Sastha, a generic name for teacher).
There are various legends associated with this deity. Some state that Lord Ayyappa was the son of Lord Vishnu and Shiva when Vishnu took the form of Mohini to bewitch the asura Bhasmasura who had been granted a boon by Shiva to burn anything he could lay his hands on. When Bhasmasura tried to burn Shiva down, Shiva called to Vishnu for help who assumed the form of Mohini and tricked him into burning himself to ashes. After Shiva was saved, he is said to have united with Mohini to bring forth a son named Dharma Sastha who later incarnated as Lord Ayyappa. Another legend states that Mahishi who was the sister of Mahishasura was furious at the trick that led to her brother’s death. She began performing austerities to propitiate Brahma. She asked for the boon of immortality but Brahma said that he could not grant her the boon. She then asked for a boon where she could not be destroyed by any man except by the son of Shiva and Vishnu (which she felt would be impossible as both were male). Thinking she was now safe, she began wreaking vengeance on the Gods who pleaded with Shiva and Vishnu to save them. Vishnu decided to take the Mohini form which he had earlier taken in the Kurma Avatar to save the Amrit (nectar) from the demons. He felt that a child then formed from the union of Mohini and Shiva with all the powers of Durga as mentioned in the Brahmanda Purana could destroy Mahishi. According to the Skanda Purana, Goddess Durga took birth in the masculine form as Dharma Sastha. Thus, Lord Ayyapa is said to be the effulgent light (Tejas) born out of the merciful splendour of Narayana and the serene knowledge (Jnana) of Shiva.
Origin and early life
The most popular legend states that Ayyappa was found by Raja Rajasekhara Pandiyan who ruled the kingdom of Pandalam during one of his hunting expeditions on the banks of the River Pampa. The Pandalam Kings were said to be descendants of the Pandya Kings of Madurai. The baby was resplendent and had a Mani (jewel) around his neck. The King was overjoyed as he had no children. He immediately carried the child home as he felt that the Lord had answered his fervent prayers and named him Manikanda. He grew up to be a brave and wise boy, well versed in martial arts. Meanwhile, the Queen gave birth to a son. When the King wished to crown the elder son as the Crown Prince, the jealous minister began to instigate the innocent Queen that Manikanda was unsuitable and the Queen’s son should be crowned as the Crown Prince. Blinded by her devotion to her own son, she was convinced by the minister to get rid of Manikanda and bribed the royal physician.
The queen pretended to have severe pain in her stomach for which the royal physician prescribed as the only cure, the milk of a tigress. There was no one in the kingdom who was brave enough to venture into the forest on this suicidal mission but the valiant Manikanda informed the anxious King that he would secure the milk. Inspite of the King’s protests, Manikanda proceeded to the dense forests. Some legends state that he carried on his head, coconut and some food tied in a bundle which is the origin of the concept of the travel kit or Irumudi which the devotees carry to this day. He then returned to the palace riding a tigress accompanied by a pack of cubs. Those who had plotted against him realised that he was no ordinary being. They bowed to his divinity and begged him for mercy. The King too embraced him and asked forgiveness for treating him as a mere son and not recognising his divinity. He then asked him for divine counsel and the path to salvation. Manikanda then enlightened him and his teachings are recorded in the Bhuthanathageetha. When the King then wished to construct a temple for him, Lord Ayyappa suggested the holy site at Sabarimala on the banks of the Pampa River. He also explained the procedure to be undertaken by devotees on the Sabarimala pilgrimage. He then blessed the King and the members assembled there and vanished. The King then constructed the temple at Sabarimala as advised by the Lord.
It is said that at that time, the kingdom of Pandalam which had villages dotted near the forests was being looted and plundered by a robber named Udayanan and his followers. Ayyappa is said to have restored law and order and later reunited with the Supreme in the Sabarimala temple.
The holy Sabarimala pilgrimage
Sabarimala is situated in the Patanamthitta district of Kerala amidst 18 hills of the Western Ghats (Sahyadri ranges) which represent the 18 steps leading to the main temple. It is said to have been named after the great Tapaswini Shabari who was blessed by Lord Rama and finally attained salvation. More than 100 million devotees are said to visit this temple every year. The holy pilgrimage consists of a 41 day Vrath that usually begins on the first day of the Malayalam month of Vrischikam (Karthik) in mid Nov. It is an arduous and rigorous Vrath requiring abstinence with several rules and regulations. The devotee first takes permission from his family and Guru. An auspicious day for commencement of the Vrath is then fixed and on the eve of the day he offers worship to the family deity. He takes a yellow cloth and makes a holy knot placing in it 1.25 currency and offers it to the deity to gain approval to begin the Vrath. He wears a Tulsi Rudraksha mala signifying his renunciation of material desires for the period which he receives from a person who has been to Sabarimala a number of times (Guruswami) at a holy place or a temple. The devotee then begins to lead the austere life of an ascetic, shunning all social activities and immersed in the worship and contemplation of Lord Ayyappa. Consuming Satvic food, avoiding meat, alcohol and practising celibacy, the devotee makes an effort to control his thoughts, words and deeds and raise his consciousness to a higher level. Before the actual trek begins, poojas are performed where the devotee offers rice flakes and coconut pieces into the fire signifying the annihilation of his lower passions. The travel kit or ‘Irumudi Kettu’ which is a special kit carried for the pilgrimage is then prepared. The bag has twin pockets with the front portion (Munmudi) carrying the offerings to Lord Ayyappa and the pooja articles and the rear pouch (Pinmudi) carrying the pilgrim’s personal belongings. The inner significance of the bag is that the front portion represents his spiritual life while the rear portion represents his worldly life. The Irumudi kit thus represents the tie that the devotee has with the Lord. The Guruswami prepares this kit and places it on the devotee’s forehead. The devotees wear black, do not shave, walk barefoot and apply ash on their body. They generally travel in groups to ensure safety and protection.
Pilgrimage route and inner significance
Thousands of devotees still follow the traditional path across dense forests, arduous treks and hazardous mountains. There are three routes to reach the sanctum, the longest, tough but most sacred being the one via Erumeli as it was said to be the route travelled by Lord Ayyappa himself. The easiest route upto which vehicles ply these days is via Chalakayam near the Pampa River. From Pampa, the mountain Neelamala is to be crossed. The 3 km ascent up the mountain is said to be the steepest and most difficult part of the pilgrimage. Since the King of Pandalam raised the Lord as his own son, the Sabarimala temple is looked upon as part of the King’s domain. Hence, all pilgrims are expected to obtain his permission before proceeding to the temple. At the base of the mountain, a person in lieu of one of the King’s representatives is said to sit on a raised platform with the royal insignia. The devotee receives a packet of Vibhuti in return for a token sum. These days, the route is well developed with medical aid and emergency centres provided to pilgrims. There are men who lift the elderly pilgrims on bamboo chairs till the top for a payment. En route, the pilgrims visit the Dharma Sastha temple to hold Petta Thullal (a ritual dance to celebrate the victory of good over evil performed by devotees as part of the pilgrimage) and pay homage at Vavar’s mosque. The devotee consumes the contents of the rear portion of the travel kit symbolising his worldly desires and past karma. The remaining item coconut (the body) is thrown into the fire pit after abhishekam and the ghee (the soul) is poured on the idol implying merger with the Divine. Thus, it symbolises the struggle of the individual soul (pilgrimage) after performing rigorous penances and austerities to finally attain self-realisation (gain darshan of the Lord at Sabarimala temple). With chants of ‘ Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa’ (We seek refuge in thee, O Lord Ayyappa) devotees make the pilgrimage with faith and reverence.
The temple is open for worship only during the first five days of each Malayalam month and during the days of Mandala Pooja. According to legends, Lord Ayyappa himself laid out instructions about the temple. The temple is situated on a plateau which is over 40 feet high and comprises two mandapas, a sanctum sanctorum, a copper plated roof with four golden finials, the altar and the Kodimaram or flag staff. The temple offers beautiful views of the picturesque surroundings of mountains and valleys. To the left of the main temple (Sannidhanam) is Devi Mallikapurathamma and the Ayyappa idol in the sanctum sanctorum which was said to be originally carved out of stone. The current idol is about 1.5 feet tall and is made of Panchaloha which is an amalgam of five metals. It is said that the idol was consecrated by Lord Parashuram himself (who was the Avatar of Lord Vishnu) as per references from the Ramayana. The Prasad at the temple is Appam and Payasam made of rice, sugar, ghee, jaggery and other ingredients.
To the south-west of the main temple is the Ganapati temple, the idol referred to as Kanimula Ganapati. In front of the Sannidhanam, in earlier times a Homa Kunda or sacrificial pit burnt constantly with the offerings from the devotees being made there. But due to the large numbers congregating these days, this pit has been moved to a spot beneath the temple. Between the shrine of Devi Mallikapurathamma and the main shrine is a Bhasmakullam or ash tank where devotees take a dip after their arduous trek. There are shrines of Nagaraj and Nagayakshi (who are the God and Goddess of the snakes) where special pujas are offered. At the bottom of the 18 steps are the guardians (Dwarpalakas) of the main temple. Adjacent to the 18 steps is the shrine of Vavar, the Muslim warrior devotee of Lord Ayyappa. It is said that the Lord himself requested the King to build a mosque for his devotee.
The spirit of communal harmony that existed in Kerala and the devotion of other castes to Lord Ayyappa to this day can be witnessed in the shrine dedicated to Vavar (or Vavarswami) in Sabarimala as well as the mosque next to the Ayyappa temple at Erumely. There are many legends as to the origin of this saint who was a great devotee of Lord Ayyappa. Some legends state that he arrived on the shores of Kerala in a ship with the sole purpose of looting but contact with Lord Ayyappa’s valour and his subsequent defeat and surrender allowed him to become an associate and helper in the battles fought by Ayyappa in the forests and valleys. Other legends state that he was a Muslim saint who arrived from Arabia to spread Islam in India. The Vavar shrine has an old sword on the wall symbolising him to be a great warrior. There is no idol as per Islamic teachings but only a carved stone to represent him. One of the three walls has a green coloured cloth hung and the main offering to him is black pepper. Rituals are performed by a Muslim priest and all devotees on the way to Sabarimala bow in reverence at the shrine of Vavar.
The 18 holy steps and its significance
The steps were originally made of granite but were said to have been damaged by pilgrims over a period of time due to constant wear and tear and breaking of coconuts. It is now said to be covered with Panchaloha or five metals (gold, silver, copper, iron and tin). According to tradition, only those pilgrims who have undertaken the 41 day fast and carried the Irumudi on their heads are permitted to climb the steps. The number 18 is said to be a holy number as 1+8 equals 9 which symbolises the power of the spirit in most of the other religions and represents faithfulness, goodness, joy, universal love and spiritual enlightenment in Hinduism. The first five steps are said to symbolise the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch). The next eight steps signify the eight passions (Lust, anger, avarice, attraction, pride, jealousy, unhealthy competition, boastfulness). The next three steps signify the three Gunas namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas and the last two steps signify Vidya and Avidya (Knowledge and Ignorance. The 18 steps also symbolise the 18 weapons that Lord Ayyappa surrendered before merging into the idol at the sanctum sanctorum. The number eighteen can also be traced back to the Vedic age. Lord Brahma was said to be the instrument for the first Veda which has 18 chapters. It was later divided by Veda Vyasa to create the four Vedas, Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. Each of these Vedas has 18 chapters. Ved Vyasa was also the writer of 18 Puranas and 18 Upa Puranas. The Mahabharata war at Kurukshetra was for 18 days and the Bhagavadgeeta has 18 chapters.
Pilgrims visit Sabarimala from Nov 14th till the festival of Makara Sankranti. The Makkara Vilakku (holy lamp) is the most important festival at the Ayyappa temple. The idol of the Lord was said to have been installed on this day. Three days prior to Sankranti, the jewellery to adorn the idol is brought from the Pandalam palace in a ceremonial procession. The sacred jewel boxes borne by a holy priest is led to the main temple accompanied by music and lights. It is said that a kite appears in the sky hovering over the boxes as if to safeguard it. Adjacent to the Devi’s shrine, there is a sacred platform or Manimandapam where the poojas and rituals are performed. The podium has a picture of Lord Ayyappa on the back of a tiger. The Goddess Mallikapurathamma who is worshipped as the Upapratishta (subsidiary deity) at the temple is taken in a procession on an elephant’s back to the eighteen holy steps (Pathinettampadi). The call for hunting (Vetavili) is given and the procession returns to a halt with the circumambulation of the main temple. Offerings are then made to the deities of the wilderness with the ritual Guruthi after which everyone leaves the temple and its precincts. The appearance of Makara Jyoti (Sacred light) is the highlight of the festival.
The other festivals celebrated are Onam, Vishnu Vilakku (Vishu) and Mandala Pooja.
Lord Ayyappa is said to be associated with Shani (Saturn) so worship to him reduces the effects of the evil influences of Shani. Neerajanam is generally offered on Saturdays in all Ayyappa temples to remove hardships and confer bliss. Ayyappa bhajans and Kirtans in praise of the Lord are sung with great devotion and fervour.
Other Ayyappa temples
There are many famous temples of Lord Ayyappa in the southern states of Kerala, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and in other parts of India with the Sabarimala pilgrimage being undertaken by thousands of devout pilgrims.
Ayyappa temples outside India
There are a number of Ayyappa temples outside India in Australia, France, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, UK and USA.
Ayyappa Gayatri Mantra
Om Bhoothanaathaya Vidmahe
Bhava Puthraaya Dhimahi
Tanno Sastha Prachodayaath
One of the most important sayings in Hinduism is ‘Ekam Sat, Vipra Bahuda Vadhanti’ meaning ‘Truth is one, the wise call it by various names’. God is said to be Formless (Niraakar) but can be experienced in many ways (Sakaar). Just like gold is one but ornaments are many, visualising the attributes of various Gods helps the devotee to focus his mind, transcend his lower passions, develop love and devotion and finally attain God realisation. Lord Ayyappa is glorified as ‘Kaliyuga Avathara’ who came down to earth to redeem it from sufferings and for the well-being of all devotees. His power and majesty have drawn millions of devotees whose penances and austerities have infused spiritual vibrations in all his temples especially the temple at Sabarimala. The temple pilgrimage has captivated devotees from ancient times who have been attracted to the divine magnetism and power generated there. God cannot be seen but can only be realised in the crucible of experience and this has been recorded in the lives of great saints and seers inspiring mankind for generations to come.