Ayyapan, the Celibate God!
Ayyapan, the Celibate God of Kerala, is host to every religious trend and practice the Hindu faith ever manifested in its entire history. His temple is unique in India, in that there is no distinction of caste or religion in determining who can enter it.
Non-Hindus are equally welcome. It might be more instructive to talk about the Legend and History of Ayyappan, as the mythic story always has a deeper resonance as well as more significant spiritual truth in India.
The Legend and History of Ayyappan
The legend and history are intermingled in the genesis of Ayyappan. It is believed that Ayyappan was born as progeny of the union of Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu appeared as Mohini, the beautiful enchantress – the alluring damsel appearing at the time of the churning of the Ocean Of Milk to entice the asuras and divide the nectar (Arnrith) among the Devas themselves. Shiva succumbed to the beauty of Mohini and Ayyappan was born out of this union. Hence the name Hari Hara Putra – Hari (Vishnu), Hara (Shiva), Putra (son). Ayyappan is regarded as the third son of Shiva, the other two being Ganesha and Muruga.
According to another legend, the asura Bhasmasura obtained a boon from Lord Shiva. Accordingly, whoever Bhasmasura touched on the head with his hand would be turned into ashes. To test the efficacy of this boon, Bhasmasura tried to touch the head of Shiva himself. The frightened Shiva sought help from Vishnu. In order to distract Bhasmasura, Vishnu appeared as the seductress Mohini in front of Bhasmasura. Bhasmasura lost control of his senses and asked Mohini to be his consort. Mohini agreed to his request on condition that he should promise her by touching his forehead that he would not take another wife. Bhasmasura readily agreed to this condition and promised her by touching on his forehead. Immediately, the boon given to him by Shiva became effective and Bhasmasura was reduced to a heap of ashes. In the meanwhile, Shiva was himself enticed by the charm and beauty of Mohini and as a result of their union, Ayyappan was born on the auspicious day of Makara Sankranthi, when the star Uttrarn was on the ascendence.
The child was abandoned on the banks of the Pampa River. Meanwhile, King Rajasekhara of Panthalarn in Kerala, who belonged to the Pandya dynasty of South India, was hunting in the forest. He heard the cry of the child and afterwards found him lying on the banks of the river, with a radiant face and a golden bell tied around his neck. The King, who had no child of his own, took him to the palace and brought him up as his own son. He was named Manikanda because of the gold bell found around his neck.
Soon after this incident, the Queen conceived and gave birth to a son. Both sons grew up in the palace as brothers. When the time came to decide on the heirapparent, the Queen favoured her own son and the King nominated Manikanda as the Prince (Yuvaraja). The Queen conspired with the Chief Minister and thought out a plan to get rid of Manikanda.
She feigned sickness and prevailed upon the palace physician to prescribe a medicine which included the milk of a tigress. Manikanda was assigned to the task of fetching the tigress milk and was sent out to the forest. The intention was to get him killed by wild animals in the process.
The King advised Manikanda to take along a coconut of tri-netrom (three eyed coconut) to represent Shiva in order to protect him and some food items to sustain him till his return, in a cloth bundle known as irumudi which was to be carried upon his head.
During his wanderings in the forest of Sabari, the battle between Mahishi and Ayyappan took place at the bank of Azhutha. Ayyappan killed Mahishi and threw the dead body into a nearby place called Kallidurnkunnu. Mahishi’s soul emerged and was redeemed from a curse sustained from her previous life when she was known as Leela. She requested Ayyappan to marry her and take her as his consort. As Manikandan was to be a Brahmachari (celibate ascetic), he refused her request, but he agreed to give her a place as his Shakti on Sabari Hill. This place is now known as Malikapurathamma shrine.
Manikanda returned to the palace, using Devendra the king of Devas, to take the form of a ferocious tigress and riding on it accompanied by a fleet of tigresses. The King and the Queen were amazed and they realized that Manikanda was an avatar, a human incarnation of Shiva, and prayed for his mercy.
The king wished to have an abode made in his memory. Accordingly, a sanctum was built to install an idol made of panchaloha (an alloy of five metals), climbing 18 steps to reach the sanctum. These 18 steps to represent 5 indriyas, 8 ragas, 3 gunas, vidya and avidya.
Ayyappan also advised the king of the nature of the austerities to be observed before the pilgrimage to this temple. On the day of consecration and installation of the idol, amidst the sound of saranam chanting and conches, pipes and drums, Ayyappan was transformed into a stroke of lightning and got absorbed in the idol of Dharma Sasta. This was his birthday, the auspicious day of Makara Sankrathi.
The birth and mission of Ayyappa or Dharma Sastha are mentioned in the Vedas and Puranas. But the details of His life and works are found only in legends orally handed down from generation to generation. These legends vary considerably in their descriptive parts. The variations are in accordance with the tastes, preferences and beliefs of the people of a particular locality or state. So, in order to have a concrete idea of the Incarnation and mission of Dharma Sastha, the Vedas, Puranas and legends have to be carefully studied and assimilated.
Lord Ayyappa teaches us the scared principle of brotherhood to remain happy and peaceful. We go in herds to His sacred shrine and He is pleased. Truth, fidelity, devotion and hard work are His ways to kill evil. With these virtues He subdued Mahishi, the incarnation of all sin and evil. His teachings transcend time and help to solve the riddles of human misery.
The Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala in the Pathanamthitta District of Kerala state is a famous pilgrim centre. For many centuries, Sabarimala has been an important pilgrim centre attracting lakhs of devotees from all over India, especially from the southern States.
The presiding deity is Lord Ayyappa known as Dharma Sastha. This well-known pilgrim centre is in the rugged terrains of the Western Ghats, Sahyadri and it is inaccessible except by foot. Pilgrims have to negotiate long stretches of the thick forests and tall mountains infested with all sorts of wild animals. Pilgrims to Sabarimala cannot be undertaken at all seasons because it requires long preparations and fixed timings. The 5 km stretch from Pamba to the shrine can only be reached by trekking. The main pilgrimage season is November to January.
The annual Makara Vilakku Pooja is being conducted in the month of January between 12th and 14th; the last day of the celebration being MAKARA SANKRANTHI (vernal equinox) Day. Mandala Pooja extends to 41 days prior to Makara Sankranthi Day.
January 14, every year, synchronizing with the day of Sankramom (crossing of the sun from Dhakshinayana to the Uttarayana) is the most important festival day of the temple. On this day, lakhs of pilgrims flock to the shrine for worship. Here they see the Makara Vilakku, the appearance of a spontaneous phenomenon of strange light in the distance indicating the presence of God, and return ennobled and strengthened in spirit.
Situated not far from the Sabarimala temple , there is a shrine in the name of Vavar, a Muslim of great valour. Vavar was said to be a close associate of Sri Ayyappa. It is a rare feature of the pilgrimage to Sabarimala that the Hindu pilgrims offer worship at this shrine of Vavar also during their trip, indicating the communal harmony that prevailed in Kerala for ages. During the entire pilgrimage, all distinction of caste and class are forgotten.
A devotee who wishes to perform the pilgrimage should undergo forty-one day´s penance consisting of strict celibacy, morning and evening ablutions, growing of beard and daily prayers. Saranamvili or the call of dedication and refuge in Lord Ayyappa is an essential part of the daily worship.The 3 austerities prescribed for devotees are Austerity of body (Purity, uprightness, continence and non violence), Austerity of mind (Tranquility, gentleness, silence, self control and purity of thought), and Austerity of speech (speech that causes no annoyance to others, truthful, pleasant and beneficial and recitation of scriptures).
Vegetarianism has been prescribed during the 41 days vritharn to help achieve the above austerities. Brahmacharya (continence) will help convert the physical energy to spiritual energy. Self surrender leads to self realization. The self that surrenders is the ego and the self that realizes is God. The carrying of irrurnudi on the head and chanting of saranammantrain is a total surrender to God.