Of Ayyappa And His Devotees: All About The Sabarimala Issue

by Aravind Subramanyam - Nov 5, 2018 06:12 PM +05:30 IST
Of Ayyappa And His Devotees: All About The Sabarimala IssueDevotees hold placards during a protest against the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala (Amal KS/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
  • All there is to know about Ayyappa and Sabarimala through the times and trials.

It’s over a month now. I have not known peace since 28 September; the day the struggle for dharma only got intensified, yet again.

The number of people who have been seeking to know what the Sabarimala issue is all about, only keeps mounting. So here is yet another attempt to tell the tale of Sabarimala to the best of my understanding and hope it puts a lot of tall tales to rest.

Who is Ayyappa?

The puranic episode of the Sabarimala temple that we get from Bhoothanathophakhyana of Brahmanda Purana states thus. Shastha was born to Mohini, an incarnation of Vishnu and Shiva. He is hence called ‘hari hara sutha’, as he was a confluence of Shiva and Vishnu’s energy. He then married goddesses Purana and Pushkala and reigned in his own world in Kailasa.

Of Ayyappa And His Devotees: All About The Sabarimala Issue

He took a human form to destroy demoness Mahishi. His incarnation was called ‘Manikanda’ as he was born with a navaratna (nine gem) necklace that was given to him by Shiva. (Depictions of him sporting a bell around his neck are based on the perception that the word mani stands for bell, when it really meant jewel).

King Rajashekhara Pandya raised Manikanda who after destroying Mahishi immersed himself in yoga and stayed forever in the Sabari hills. He sat there in penance and promised to open his eyes once a year on Makara Sankramana to grace his devotees. Agastya Maharishi, the guru of the Pandya dynasty is said to have prescribed the vrtha niyama or the rules to be observed in order to undertake a yatra to the Sabarigiri; this included penance with absolute celibacy for one mandala (41 days)

 Agastya and Parasurama Consecrating the Vigraha at Sabarimala   
Agastya and Parasurama Consecrating the Vigraha at Sabarimala   

Ayyappa In History

Centuries after the puranic episode – in the tenth century to be precise, the Pandya dynasty moved their base and split as Punjar and Pandalam. The Pandalam kingdom had its beginning around 904 AD when a scion of the declining Pandya kingdom of Madurai in Tamil Nadu took refuge in Kerala.

The Sastha shrine at Sabarimala had been there from time immemorial as the guardian deity of the people and rulers in and around the forest area. When the Pandalam dynasty was established the then king accepted Sastha as his family deity and ruled the newly formed principality as a devotee of Sastha.

There was greater movement of businessmen in the area as it was then on the border between the Malayalam and Tamil regions and this made it vulnerable to dacoits too. One such dacoit leader Udhyana was said to have set the temple on fire and destroyed it.

Prince Arya Kerala Varma
Prince Arya Kerala Varma

Later, Arya Kerala Varma, who was born in the family of Pandala Raja, rebuilt the temple and restored its glory. He is then said to have merged himself with the deity Dharmasastha. But this prince was also called ‘Ayyappan’, hence many a tales that confuse the two.

And it is during the times of this prince that the episode of the Muslim Vavar came into being.

Lost In Dramatisation

In the early 1940s, well-known dramatist Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai visited Alapuzha, and a devotee requested him to turn the story of Ayyappa into a play. Though initially reluctant, the dramatist who heard the story of the deity was moved so much that he not only staged the play “Swamy Ayyappan” but also trekked the holy hill of Sabarimala himself.

Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai 
Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai 

But then this play is where the two Ayyappans merged into one as the playwright ended up adding anecdotes from the lives of both Ayyappans (the diety and the king). This re-rendering of a history that was a result of a merging the mythological tales with the historical ones gave rise to a lot of false beliefs.

For instance, the part that portrayed the pirate leader Vavar at the seashore was so powerful that it stayed etched in the minds of the audiences. And this led to devotees visiting the Vavar mosque at Erumeli as practice.

Drama notice of Ayyappan - 1943 
Drama notice of Ayyappan - 1943 

Manjeri Narayanan, who travelled along with the dramatist, later known as Nambiar Guruswamy M N Nambiar, ancient gurus like Punalur Subramania Iyer, my grandfather C V Srinivasa Iyer, Thailiparampara Negelakanda Iyer, Thanulinga Nadar have all dismissed this practice of going to the mosque as a part of the Sabarimala yatra. But books that were published later carried the same story.

Another such tale was that of Malikapuram Devi. She is worshipped as a kannadi bimbam, or a stone image sculpted in the form of a traditional mirror. She believed by the Pandalam royal household to be their family diety, Meenakshi Devi. The tales about her waiting to marry Ayyappan are found nowhere in mythology. They were all events added to lend colour to the drama.

She is the mother of Ayyappan and not mentioned in any other sense in the puranas. Even the idol taken out in procession after Makara Vilaku is that of Ayyappan himself and not of the goddess as believed by many. The moustache on the idol is clearly visible to those that notice.

Sabarimala And The Kingdom Of Travancore

When Tipu Sultan invaded Kerala in the 1780’s the Pandalam kingdom was forced to mortgage its assets to the king of Travancore. But as they were unable to recover the mortgage, all their assets including the Sabarimala temple became the property of the Travancore kingdom. The only exception was the temple jewellery. In keeping with the tradition, the Travancore royals let the Pandala kings keep the tiruvabaranam (jewellery), which will be brought to the temple every Makara Jyothi.

Post Independence, Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma of Travancore asked the government to create a separate, autonomous body to run the temples in the erstwhile princely state, and in 1950, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) was set up. That's how the Sabarimala administration went under the management of Travancore Devasvom board. But the board agreed to follow the traditions of the temple and assured non-deviance from the original customs.

But with the formation of the Kerala state in 1957, the TDB came under the Kerala state government. Until early 1960s, a member of the royal family used to be on the TDB. But this practice was soon conveniently discontinued by the board.

Sabarimala Fire And The Vigraha

It is popularly believed that fire accidents are bound to take place at the shrine due to the yogic penance of Ayyappa, and the shrine has indeed witnessed many an accident over time. While in the 1800s, the idol was made of wood (Dhaaru Shila), it was replaced by a panchaloha (five metal) idol. But a fire broke out in 1902 and the entire temple was reduced to ashes. But the idol was rescued and reinstalled in 1904. The temple we see today is what was created at this time.

The entire temple was created at the base, dismantled and taken up the hill. There was no other path other than the traditional long route and all the construction materials had to reach the shrine through this route. The wooden pillars were brought from Pandalam Palace to Erumely. Workers who brought the trees until Azhutha lost their energy and were unable to carry the trees any further.

A devotee is said to have appeared all of a sudden and proclaimed, "Those who carry these pillars will not feel any burden until they reach the shrine." These words are said to have filled the workers with energy who carried the load up the hill feeling no burden. And the devotee who led them all was said to have then vanished. Thus was created the temple we see at Sabarimala today.

As Sabarimala's reputation increased day by day, attempts to destroy the temple's tradition started.

Damaged idol of Ayyappan
Damaged idol of Ayyappan

In 1950, a huge fire broke out in Sabarimala due to a conspiracy and the temple was destroyed. Ayyappa’s idol also was also vandalised. Originally, the conspirers wanted to destroy the temple forever. But Lord Ayyappan had a different plan. After this fire incident, Sabarimala temple, which was known to only few people, gained unimaginable glory and people from all around the world started thronging the temple.

The rescue team (police and the fire service) who rushed to Pamba, stood desperately there wondering how to climb the hill without undergoing the prescribed austerities. They feared earning the wrath of the deity. I have heard this from my great grandfather that he along with the other gurus who were present there gave vibhuti to the rescue team and blessed them asking them to proceed with their duty.

Pratishta Of Today's Ayyappa Idol

After this, a new vigraha was made for Pratishta at Sabarimala.

The present vigraham (idol) of Ayyappa
The present vigraham (idol) of Ayyappa

Three identical idols were made. One by Swami Vimochanananda who was a native of Kerala, second by P T Rajan of Tamil Nadu and Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai and the third by my great grandfather C V Srinivasa Iyer (Kalpathy, Palakkad). A deva prashnam (lord’s will) was conducted and the idol of Ayyappa (hat we see today) brought by P T Rajan and Rajamanickam Pillai was selected. The glorious pratishta was done by the Kandararu Sankararu.

In order to educate people about Ayyappa, there was another idol made and taken throughout South India under the leadership of Rajan. This idol was later installed at Haridwar.

The idol made by Swami Vimochananda was installed at Kashi with 18 steps. The idol which was done by my great grandfather Srinivasa Iyer is still at our native home at Palakkad. The broken old idol of Ayyappan was cast into a huge bell and is hung in front of the shrine. Symbolically, after this, the sound of Sabarimala spread all over the world.

Pilgrim Practices

Devotees from Kerala continued to worship Sabarimala Dharmasastha as their saviour but only men took the pilgrimage. Sabarimala pilgrimage was an ancient practice in the villages. They used to walk from their homes with the irumudi. Similar to how Manikandan had an irumudi, people used to carry the pure ghee prepared from cow’s milk to dedicate to the Lord who is in yogic state.

The first point that the devotees would reach is Erumely. Here, in the 1800s, a devotee named Kalarkaadu Appu Ayyar, who was the earliest Velichappad (oracle) of Sabarimala temple guarded the long route and allowed only those devotees who truly had undertaken the fasting practices to go ahead. Those who hadn’t would have to return. The path taken by Manikandan is called the periyapathai (long route) which is the traditional path. This is what is fondly called as the lord's poonkavanam (paradise). A 41-mile route starts from Erumely, passes through Karimalai and reaches the shrine. In ancient times, pilgrims would start the journey with prayers at Erumely, pass through the Periyapathai, climb the 18 steps, worship Sastha and walk back through Periyapathai or, climb the Periyapathai and return along the Pulmedu (grass trail path) through Vandiperiyar Kumili route. The Sabarimala pilgrimage usually lasted for seven to eight days through the Periyapathai alone. It would easily take almost 15-20 days for the devotees to get back home.

Prior to to Independence, the people of Tirunelveli, Kanyakumari and Coimbatore, Palakkad used to regularly undertake the Sabarimala pilgrimage. My great grandfather Krishna Iyer went on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala in the 1920s. For the rest of the Tamil people, Sabarimala pilgrimage, with its austerities was very new.

The Small Path – Pamba route

After these events, the temple gained popularity and the number of devotees visiting Sabarimala each year kept rising.

In the year 1960, V V Giri, who was the governor of Kerala, wanted to go to Sabarimala but he was not ready for the Periyapathai (the long route). A shorter motorable route was created via Chalakayam for the governor. From then on, the small route or the Pamba route became a regular one. The Pamba Ganapati Temple and the Ram temple that we see today were constructed much later.

Even today, traditional devotees know that the sacred spot where Ayyappa appeared as an infant is not the Pamba we see – but the river banks at Periyaanavattam which is a part of the long route.

There is also an additional urban legend that V V Giri was the reason behind the doli system in Sabarimala. As Giri was unable to trek even the short route of 5 kilometres, he requested that he be carried seated on a chair. It is said that as none initially agreed fearing it would be against the norms of Sabarimala, he promised a government job for those who volunteered to carry him. That is how the doli system is said to have come into being at Sabarimala.

These events are mentioned here to give a clear picture that even for men it was a great deal to go up Sabarimala and there was no question raised about women coming there.

Women's Position

Today, many people claim that women were allowed in Sabarimala till 1991 – quoting unverifiable examples. This is not true. The fact is, a clear law was passed regarding the entry in 1991. But few things need not be assured by passing a law.

The traditional belief is within the mindset of Indians. In India, a display board is not necessary to inform that no one enters the temple wearing chappals. Only when there is a lack of understanding or trespassing, the rules were explicitly made clear by way of an order.

British publication of 1820 
British publication of 1820 

Even during the British era, a Kerala government survey, a record of 1820 by Ward and Connor (Memoirs of the Survey of Travancore and Cochin States – Vol 2 – Page 137) clearly states that the entry to the Sabarimala hills and the shrine is prohibited for women who have attained puberty and have not crossed menstruating age.

Even the British rulers respected our traditions and our temple practices and never tried to interfere or change it. Until the 1950s, we don’t have any record or proof about women visiting Sabarimala.

Of Ayyappa And His Devotees: All About The Sabarimala Issue

During this time period the administration of the temple belonged to the Travancore Kingdom. It is to be noted that even when the temple was under their custody, the Queen of Travancore Parvathi Bhai came to Sabarimala in 1942 - only after she had her uterus removed.

After 1960s, after the expansion of Pamba with a Pamba Ganapati temple and the short route - women started visiting Sabarimala. Even then, young girls visiting Sabarimala was totally unheard of. None brought them along either.

An old lady from Andipatti is very popular for completing 40 Sabarimala pilgrimages after starting yatra at the age of 50. Celebrated bhajan singer Bangalore Ramaniammal also undertook her Sabarimala pilgrimage after completing 55 years of age and later took many people along with her. It is also interesting to know that the traditional families associated with Sabarimala and Ayyappa, such as the Thazhaman illam, Kambangudi family, Pandalam Royals, Ambalapuzha and Alangad Petta Sangam have adhered to the tradition and have not taken their women to Sabarimala.

In the late 1800s and early 1900's, the Sabarimala shrine was opened only once in a year for Makara Sankrama. But later it began to be opened for mandala puja and Makara Vilakku. Then they went on to keep it open for the entire mandala period of 40 days. Then for once in two months and by 1960 it was opened once in every month.

With the opening of a shorter route and increased conveniences, more women began going on the Sabarimala pilgrimage. After 1975-80s, devotees from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka started the custom of bringing their families along. They would leave the women at Pamba and go ahead trekking the short route. In due course, few of these women tried to climb the hills. It was almost empty for monthly pujas and the fascinated ladies tried to trespass. Some of the officials “conveniently” overlooked it.

This misuse of power or behaviour peaked in 1986 when a movie was shot at Sabarimala Sannidhanam, which involved well-known personalities like M N Nambiar. The crew brought young actress like Jayashree and Sudha Chandran to Sabarimala. Only after this, did the devotees understand the seriousness of the issue and the problem grew in magnitude.

A case was filed when the movie was released, and in 1991 the Kerala High Court upheld the age old tradition of restricting the entry of women of a certain age. The court ruled that only women above 50 years or girls below 10 years would be allowed in Sabarimala.

It was no surprise that the temple officials let the women and the film crew into the temple. For they had been involved in many more such acts. In 2017, when the old kodimaram (flag post) was removed to install the new one, devotees were shell shocked to find a concrete flag-post beneath the brass-coated sheets, in place of a one made of a single log of wood as is the tradition. And it had stayed hidden since the 1960’s.

 Ananda Vikatan -1972   
Ananda Vikatan -1972   

In 1972s, Bharanidharan wrote a series Kerala Vijayam - in the Tamil Weekly Ananda Vikatan. He talks about an incident, wherein an elderly devotee engages in an argument with the temple officials by pointing out a display board at Sabarimala Sannidhanam, that spoke of annaprasanam (first feeding) for kids. "How can a baby come without a mother? Why do you encourage young girls here indirectly?” the devotee is said to have asked the officials.

In 1994, Vatsala Kumari, an Indian Administrative Services officer approached the court for permission to go to Sabarimala at the age of 42 as part of her official duty. It is noteworthy, that although the court gave her the permission to go to Sabarimala, it did not permit her to climb the 18 steps or to go anywhere near the shrine. Vatsala Kumari waited until she turned 50 to visit the shrine.

Thus, the devotees realised that it was against the temple tradition and hence followed the rules. They vehemently opposed whenever the rule was violated.

The State Of Sabarimala Today

Today’s Sabarimala is totally different. Many devotees are not willing to follow the age old austere practices. Mandala vratham has gone down from 41 days to instant vratham. Questions are raised : why it is wrong for women to visit the shrine?

It is important to understand that just because a few people are not ready to follow the rule - age old practices cannot be bent to our convenience or bypassing it doesn't get justified. Those who believe in Ayyappa tatwam will never violate the system and convention. So, it is evident that those who think of violating these - do not fully trust Ayyappa.

Even today, there are people who follow the prescribed practices with pristine purity. There are devotees who continue their pilgrimage with the same guru for more than 40 years.

India being a secular nation, has never questioned beliefs which have been followed by other religions. However, it is disheartening to see the recent developments of changing the traditional belief system. The verdict of the honorable Supreme Court is only showing the slow deterioration of the Santana Dharma.

The temple on the hilllock is a unique place of worship. Bhagavan Sastha appeared as human in this earth and sat in Naishteeka Brahmacharya yoga in this Maha Yogapeetam. Manikandan is still living there in his yogic penance. That's the reason, no other temple has these strict rules for 41 days Vratham. No other temple has these 18 steps and its puja practices. No other temple has the concept of irumudi and offering one’s own soul to the deity as ghee abhisheka.

Of Ayyappa And His Devotees: All About The Sabarimala Issue

Once the temple and the 18 steps were consecrated, Ayyappa himself sat and immersed in yoga. The restrictions for Ayyappa are only for the one at Sabarimala and not for any other Ayyapan temples around India. The yogic energy field here is so powerful that, a normal human being cannot withstand his prowess. The yogic power is also attached with the holy 18 steps. That is the reason, a special tantric ritual is done to the holy 18 steps daily. To withstand this yogic synergy emanating at the premises, a person is advised to follow sincere austerities.

One such practice is being broken with the court order. But devotees view this as a testing phase. Like how Ayyappa turned the fire conspiracy into a reason to spread his fame around the universe, he will turn this difficult period too into victory soon. Lakhs and lakhs of devotees are assembling all around the country – voicing their displeasure against breaking the tradition of their “dear Ayyappan”.

‘Save Sabarimala’ protests
‘Save Sabarimala’ protests

The month of Thulam (17-22 October) has passed but despite the Supreme Court order, not a single young woman could reach the temple. The devotees chanting the Sharana Gosham are standing like a human wall to protect their tradition.

With folded hands they pray to Ayyappa. They are making sure that it does not happen. Until such true devotees exist, the temple’s tradition and practices will be preserved.

Aravind Subramanyam, popularly known as Sastha Aravind, has written around 10 books about Lord Sastha, noteworthy among them is the magnum opus Shri Maha Sastha Vijayam. He has done extensive research on Sastha worship over the past 22 years and has published many research articles and books in the fields of education, religion, Indian heritage, puranas and devi worship.

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