“Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa” !!!
These are the first words that come to our mind, when we think of Lord Ayyappan. He is also called Manikantan (since there was a ‘mani’ or bell/bead around his ‘kanda’ or neck, when the king Rajasekara Pandiyan found him) and Hariharasudhan (son of Hari (Vishnu) and Haran (Shiva)).
History of Lord Ayyappan’s birth
Birth of Lord Ayyappan:
There was an ‘asura’ princess called ‘Mahishi’ who was filled with anger and revenge against the gods, for playing trick and eventually killing her brother ‘Mahishasuran’. ‘Mahishi’ started her ‘thavam’ (a kind of meditation). When Lord Brahma appeared at the end of the ‘thavam’, she asked for complete invulnerability, which was refused. She planned a trick. She asked for invulnerability against all men except to the one born to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Her boon was granted. After all, it is against nature that two men would give birth to a child. ‘Mahishi’ was confident that she cannot be defeated and started conquering the world with all her might. However she didn’t know what Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva had planned for her.
Prior to this was another ‘asura’ named ‘Bhasmasura’. He did his ‘thavam’ towards Lord Shiva, who had granted him the ability to turn anything that he touches into ash. He was a constant trouble maker to the rishis and gods. When Lord Shiva could not handle it beyond a point, he requested Lord Vishnu’s help. Lord Vishnu took the ‘Mohini’ avatar. ‘Bhasmasura’ naturally attracted to ‘Mohini’, engaged himself in a dance sequence with her, in which he repeated the steps that she performed, at the end of which he placed his hands on his own head and turned into ashes.
Lord Shiva had an encounter with Lord Vishnu, disguised as ‘Mohini’. Due to the inevitable attraction, they had a boy child, who later on was called ‘Lord Ayyappan’.
Now, Mahishi’s killer is born. How does he actually get linked to her? How does he kill her? In the first place the new born needed a place to grow. The gods now decided to answer the prayers of the childless king Rajasekara Pandiyan of the Pandalam dynasty. While the king was hunting in the forest one day, he heard a baby cry. He found the baby (that was born to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva) on the banks of the river Pampa and named him ‘Manikantan’. Since then the baby grew in the palace.
When the queen had a second son, the minister/diwan corrupted the queen’s mind by saying that it is improper for ‘Manikantan’ to be the king’s successor, when her own son is alive. Together they staged a drama that the queen was unwell and need the milk of the tigress to cure her. ‘Manikantan’ was sent for this deadly assignment. He took it as an opportunity to kill ‘Mahishi’ and accomplished the same.
The Panchabhutas of Lord Shiva followed Manikantan into the forest. Mahishi and Manikantan had a terrific battle in the banks of the river ‘Azhutha’. At the end, Manikantan mounted on the chest of ‘Mahishi’ and danced so vibrantly and eventually killed her at ‘Erumeli’. Apparently, Mahishi was married to the son of Trimurthis in her previous birth. Due to a curse, she was born in the ‘asura’ family in this birth. With Lord Ayyappan’s dance and her eventual death, she was freed of her curse and attained ‘moksha’.
Manikantan returned to the palace after defeating Mahishi. Lord Devendra disguised as a tigress, with Manikantan sitting on him and several other angels from Lord Indra’s office as other tigresses magnificently walked to the palace. Everybody was shocked. The king, who then knew about the evil plot of the queen and diwan, fell on Manikantan’s feet and remorsefully asked for apology. The Lord was pleased by the faith and the devotion of the king. He accepted the apology and said that he would grant him a boon. The king requested for constructing a temple and beseeched the lord to suggest a suitable place for the same. Manikantan aimed an arrow, which fell in a place called Sabari. Thus the construction of Ayyappan temple started at Sabarimala hills.
Only men are allowed to observe the vrutham and it is followed for 41 days. This is the most vital step towards the pilgrimage. The idea is to follow the discipline continuously for a specific period so that it becomes a habit. The mudra mala around the neck commences the vrutham. This mala signifies that Lord Ayyappa had a mudra around his neck, when he was first taken by the king. The devotees wear only black, blue or saffron dhotis. Refraining from the routine human life, they try to lead the life of sadhus. Eating non vegetarian food, drinking, smoking, involving in physical pleasures are a strict NO! Even dressing up, cutting the hair or the nails and wearing slippers are not to be done. They take bath twice a day before they chant the prayers. It actually makes sense when we understand that such a practice is to detach themselves from material desires and take a step forward towards heavenliness.
The real purpose of the Sabarimala pilgrimage is to realize “Tat-Tvam-Asi”, which means “That You Are”. The pilgrims carry a travel kit with them called ‘Irumudi’. There are two compartments in the ‘irumudi’, the first one has things to offer and the second one has the things needed for travel. In the olden days, when travel was not so feasible, the devotees used to carry blankets and sometimes vessels to cook, on the way. The Guruswami or the leader of the group of pilgrims, who has been to Sabarimala for nearly 18 years, prepares the ‘irumudi’ and places it on the head of the pilgrim.
The 18 Steps:
The Pilgrimage to Sabaraimala is said to be complete when the pilgrim climbs the holy 18 steps or the ‘pathinettampadi’. Only those who have undergone the 41 day rigorous vrutham climb the steps. Though girl children before their puberty or women after their menopause are allowed inside the temple, entry to the 18 steps is restricted to only men and boys, who take up the 41 day vrutham. Each step in the Sabarimala represents each value. The first five senses symbolize the five senses, namely, Vision, Hearing, Smell, Taste and Touch. The next eight steps indicate the ‘ashta ragas’ or the eight moods, that is , Love, Anger, Avarice, Lust, Pride, Unhealthy Competition, Jealousy and Boastfulness. The next three steps stands for the ‘gunas’ or the inborn qualities, which are, Satva (perspicuity, discernment), Rajas (activity, enjoyment) and Thamas (inactivity, stupor). The last two steps represent Vidya (Knowledge) and Avidya (Ignorance).
The ‘makarajyothi’ is the light that is said to appear atop the ‘Ponnambalamedu’ hill near the Sabaraimala temple. It also signifies the appearance of Sirius star. Some people believe that Lord Ayyappan descends on the hills of Ponnambalamedu during this time. The ‘makaravilaku’ is the deepam that is shown to Sabaraimala Ayyappan when the ‘makarajyothi’ appears.
This also includes another festival called ‘Thiruvabharanam’, where the Ayyappan idol is decorated with the jewels brought from the Pandalam palace ceremoniously. It is surmised that when Manikantan left the Pandalam palace, the king requested that he should be decorated with the jewels and the lord accepted that it could be done on only one day. This is done every year on the day of ‘Makarasankaranthi’ (14th January), the day when the Lord Ayyappa’s idol was installed on the temple.
There are more than 50 million devotees that visit the Sabarimala temple every year during this time. The traditional route to the shrine usually covers Erumeli, Kalaketti, Azhutha, Karimala, Pampa and Sabarimala.
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- by Dhivya Karthic