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Sabarimala is one of the most visited piligrim centres in the world with an estimated 4.5 – 5 crores devotees coming every year. The world’s second largest annual pilgrimage (after Hajj in Mecca) is reported to be to Sabarimala. The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is a singular example of one where pilgrims, without consideration of caste, creed, position or social status, go with one mind and one mantra dreaming constantly of the darshan of the presiding deity at the Holy Sannidhanam.
The asura princess Mahishi was burning up with anger at the trick the gods had pulled on her brother, the asura king Mahishasura. As Mahishasura was blessed with invulnerability to all men, the gods had sent goddess Durga, to fight and kill him. Thus, Mahishi began performing a fearsome set of austerities, and pleased the creator god Brahma. He granted her the boon of ruling the universe and being invulnerable except to a being that had the combined strength of both Shiva and Vishnu. Since such a person did not exist, she thought she was safe and began conquering and plundering the world.
The gods implored Shiva and Vishnu to save them from this catastrophe. Vishnu found a possible solution to the problem. When Vishnu had taken on the Kurma Avatar, he also had to manifest himself as Mohini, the enchantress, to save the nectar of immortality from the demons who were not willing to share it with the gods. If he became Mohini again, then the female Mohini and the male Shiva could have the divine child who would combine their powers and beat Mahishi.
Some versions give a sightly more detailed version of the union of Shiva with Vishnu. One version tells that the asura Basmasura had so pleased lord Shiva with his austerities that Shiva gave him a boon of anything he wished. So Basmasura asked for the ability to burn to ashes anything which he placed his hand over. No sooner had Shiva granted this, than Basmasura ran after the god, threatening to turn him to ashes.
Shiva called to lord Vishnu for help. He hid himself in a certain tree as Basmasura ran here and there searching for the god. Vishnu became aware of the events, and decided that he would take the female form Mohini, “the Enchanting”, and try to trump the asura’s powers. When Basmasura saw Vishnu in this form, he was bewitched by her beauty. He earnestly tried to court her. So Vishnu instructed Basmasura to hold his hand over his head, and vow fidelity. With this act, Basmasura was reduced to ashes.
Vishnu found Shiva and explained the whole affair to him. Shiva asked if he too could see Vishnu in this female form. When Vishnu appeared thus, Shiva was overcome with passion, and united with “her” (Shiva’s seed caught in Mohini’s hands, per one version of the story). The two gods thus became “HariHara Murthy”, that is a composite form of Shiva and Vishnu as one god.
From this union lord Ayyappan was born. He combines in himself the powers of Vishnu and Shiva, and is a visible embodiment of their essential identity. Lord Vishnu gifted the new-born deity with a little bejeweled bell necklace, so this god is called Manikanthan Swamy. The Tamils call him Ayyanar, and he is also called Shastha or Shasthappan by most South Indian communities.
In most Tamil versions of the story, the legend ends with the birth of the god, and with his passage around the region. But in Kerala, the story continues with Ayyappan’s adoption by the Pandalam Raja, and the subsequent encounter with Mahisi.
Lord Ayyappan had his human sojourn as the son of the Raja (King) of Pandalam. At that time, Raja Rajasekhara ruled the kingdom of Pandalam. During one of his hunting expeditions, the Raja was puzzled to hear the wails of a child on the banks of the River Pampa. He moved in the direction of the voice to find a resplendent infant there. The beautiful baby with radiant face wore a gemstone (precious stone) around his neck, hence the name Manikantan (“Mani”, means gemstone and “kantan” means wearer around the neck). Manikantan was born of Hari (Lord Vishnu) and Hara (Lord Shiva), with Hari assuming the form of a female (Mohini). Hence Ayyappan is also named as Hariharasutan (Sutan meaning Son).The king, though pious, charitable, just, and God-fearing, had no children. The king was an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and his queen was devotee of Lord Vishnu. They had prayed to their respective deities for blessings in the form of a child. He accepted the child as God’s gracious response to his fervent prayer for an heir to his throne. Manikantan was given proper education and training and he grew into a boy well versed in academic lore and martial arts of the time like Kalaripayattu. The Cheerappanchira kalari at Muhamma, in Alappuzha District was responsible for his training in the martial arts. Meanwhile the Rani (Queen) gave birth to a son, however the king regarded Manikantan as his elder son and decided to crown him as the Yuvaraja (heir).
Since the minister of the Raja was always against Manikantan becoming the Yuvaraja, he along with his sycophants turned the queen against the king’s decision. On the coronation day of Manikantan as Yuvaraja, the queen pretended to be suffering from unbearable stomach ache, and said she was unable to get any relief from the treatment of any doctor (Vaidya). Finally a fake practitioner appeared at the instance of the minister, and prescribed “the milk of a tigress” as the cure of the queen’s illness. The king appealed to one and all to get the tigeress-milk, but no-one dared. At last, Manikantan volunteered and went to the forest in search of tigress Milk, despite the king’s attempt to stop him. The king was deeply frightened that the deemed Yuvaraja may not come back alive
Manikantan entered the forest to fulfill his divine duty, to rid the world of demoness Mahishi. Manikantan killed her and released a beautiful woman who had been cursed to become Mahishi. The young woman asked Ayyappan for his hand in marriage, but he declined, being a celibate. However he promised that she would be visited by pilgrims and would be housed next to his temple, and if the number of new pilgrims visiting him stopped, then he would marry her. Hence she is now worshiped as Maalikapurathamma. There is also another version of this story. It is believed that Maalikapurathamma was a young girl in Cheerappanchira family where Ayyappan was trained for Kalari (martial arts).
On the death of Mahishi, Indra – the king of the gods, who was displaced and banished by Mahishi, led several tigers for the disposal of Ayyappan.Days later Manikantan entered the palace precincts riding a fierce tigress and followed by a pack of her cubs. The schemers were frightened into confessing their plot. They were convinced of his divine origins, and prayed to him to be with them for their own salvation and for the safety of the kingdom. Immediately Manikantan disppeared. The king would not eat anything if Manikantan did not come back. Then Manikantan gave a vision (Darshan) to the king.
Filled with emotions of happiness, grief, fear, wonder and ‘Bhakti’ (devotion to God) and self-surrender, the king stood praying for the mercy and blessings of Manikantan. He repented he could not fully visualize the truth of the divine powers of the Lord and repeatedly requested Him to forgive him for behaving as if He were his son only. The Lord lovingly embraced the King who prayed to bless him by freeing from ego and the worldly life of birth and rebirth and grant Moksha (salvation). He told the King that he was destined to return. The king implored Lord Manikantan to allow him to build a temple and dedicate it to him and the Lord assented.
Manikantan then enlightened the King on the path of attainment of Moksha. The Lord shot an arrow that fell at the top of Sabrimala and told the King that he could construct a temple at Sabarimala, north of the holy river Pampa and install His deity there. Ayyappan also explained how the Sabarimala pilgrimage shall be undertaken, emphasizing the importance of Penance vratham and what the devotees can attain by His ‘darshan’.
But before the departure of the Lord, the King secured a promise from the Lord that on thai Pongal on January 14, every year,(celebrated as “Makara Jyothy” all his personal jewellery (usually kept at the Palace) will be adorned on His image at Sabarimala. Hence on the 12th of January every year, the Jewellery will be taken on foot from the Palace by a special emissary of the kingdom, after the puja with all pomp, devotion and reverence. Immeditely when the Arti is over, Royal Garuda (Eagle) flies over the Palace, (which seems to be quite automatic). The Royal Garuda flies ahead, and appears guide the pilgrims throughout their journey. Since there was no modern means of communication like Telephone or Mobile, to the hundreds of thousands of Devotees desirous of worshipping Lord Manikantan’s Jewels enroute to His Abode, this Garud was the sole and absolute signal of advance information even to the Temple authorities at Sabarimala to get ready for the adorning of the Jewels. This journey on the 12th and 13th of January finally reaches Sabarimala on January 14th. Immediately after the jewellery is adorned on the Deity, there is an Aarti ( offering by burning Camphor). The miracle is that just after the Arti, without loss a second, the Jyothy appears on the east side of the Temple up above the Hills (details are given hereunder).
But then the Lord further consoled the King saying that the devotees who held him and his descendants in ‘Bhakti’ shall happen to be devoted to Him as well. Manikantan then blessed the King and all others assembled there, and vanished. The King duly constructed the temple at Sabarimala, dedicated to him. The deity for installation was prepared by Parasurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, and was installed by himself.A strong liking for sweets is a common factor of all Hindu Gods and Ayyappa is no exception. Appam and Aravana (Payasam made of rice, ghee and jaggery) are the prasadams of the Lord. There is an interesting story behind these prasadams also. The Raja of Pandalam admitted Ayyappa to a famous Kalari (gymnasium where traditional martial arts of Kalaripayattu is taught) at Cheerappanchira in Cherthala in Alappuzha district. The young daughter, Leela, of Kalari Panicker fell in love with Ayyappa. But Ayyappa was so involved in his studies that he didn’t notice the girl’s infatuation. It’s also believed that she later became Maalikapurathamma who was dejected when Lord Ayyappa refused her marriage proposal, after offering her a seat in Saram kuthi near Sabarimala Devasthanam
The Pandala Raja constructed a small temple, 18 steps above the ground as instructed by the lord himself. Each of these eighteen holy steps represents a desire one must conquer in life. The 18 steps and the temple have in recent times been coated in gold. The original vigraham was a wooden idol , and was inaugurated by Parashurama (incarnation of Vishnu).The common cry heard during the pilgrimages to his shrine is “Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa!” (“Oh Swami, we take refuge in you”).Pilgrimage to Sabarimala begins from the 1st of Vrichikam, a Malayalam month coming in the middle of November (probably between 14-17. The most important day for Ayyappan is Makarasankranti Day, which is the 1st of Makara (a month of the Malayalam calendar). This day will fall between January 14-16. Currently millions of devotees come from all parts of India to Sabarimala for a glimpse of Lord Ayyappan, having undertaken 41 days of Vratham (austerities). In 2005, at least 50 million devotees made the pilgrimage to Sabarimala (from 1st Vrichikam to the 1st Makaram).
On Makarasankranti,*** every year without fail, miraculous events occur. Firstly as the jewels (Thiruvaabaranam) of the Lord are transported from the Old Pandalam Palace to Sabarimala, a Krishnaparanth (holy Garuda – an eagle – the vehicle of Lord Vishnu), circles above the precious jewels (in fact guarding them), like a protector. This rare eagle is rarely seen in the midst of people for a long period of time, yet the auspicious bird follows the Thiruvaabaranam procession, finally circling above Sanithanam at Sabarimala nine times as it pays its respects to Lord Ayyappan. During this time, there is not a single star in the sky except for a special Nakshatram. As the beautiful jewels are placed on the golden body of the Lord within the temple, the several hundred thousand devotees outside, crammed into any available free space, chant “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa”. When the jewels are finally all adorned on the Lord, the Nakshatram in the sky miraculously disappears, as all the Devas and Celestial beings leave the sky to get a glimpse of the Lord in all his splendor. Within moments of the Lord being adorned with the Thiruvabaranam, an effulgence (Divya Jyoti) appears in the opposite hills of Shabarimala, appearing 3 times. This hill is called Ponnambalamedu. It is believed that the Lord himself appears in the form of that Divya Jyoti. It is firmly believed that Lord Indra himself lights the divine efflugence. The entire hillside reverberates with the chant “Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa” as the devotees witness this auspicious Darshan, as the Devas and celestial Rishis arrive at Sabarimala to participate in birthday celebrations of Ayyappan effulgence. These auspicious sights are different forms of the Lord Himself appearing. The devotees then climb the 18 holy gold steps to arrive at the sanidhanam where they finally get a glimpse of the Lord as Himself, in all beauty, Manikanta Shri Dharmasastha, adorned with jewels. It is believed that if one witnesses these events after having undertaken 41 days of severe austerities (Vratham), one can attain Moksha.
This is why Ayyappan is also known as “Kaliyugavaradhan”, since He can help us attain Moksha in this difficult age of Kaliyuga, the age of hypocrisy and violence.