Dharmashastha TempleAlso known as:Ayyappan Temple, Sabarimala
Sabarimala Dharmashastha Temple attracts the largest annual pilgrimage in the world with an estimated 45–50 million devotees visiting every year.
Ayyappa or Shastha’s Sabarimala Temple is situated amidst 18 hills and requires a rigorous trek to reach it. Ayyappa is the representation of both Lord Shiva and Vishnu and so is worshipped by devotees of different groups—Shaivaites, Shakthi worshippers and Vaishnavaites. It is set deep in the forests of the Western Ghats in the Perunad Grama Panchayat, Pathanamthitta District, Kerala.
The 18 steps of the temple’s sanctum can be climbed only by devotees who observe the 40 days Mandala, or fasting period. The Sabarimala pilgrims can be easily identified by their black or indigo blue attire, unshaven look and the smear of vibhuti (sacred ash) or sandal paste on their foreheads. They have to avoid non-vegetarian food, take only one meal and be celibate because Ayyappan is a Brahmachari (unmarried) deity. So, women after menarche and before menopause are not allowed to participate in this pilgrimage.
Ayyappan, the iconic deity of Kerala, is supposed to have meditated here after killing the powerful demoness, Mahishi. Sastha and Ayyappa are the two familiar names for the Lord of Sabarimala and are used simultaneously as well. Shastha is the combination of Shiva and Vishnu and therefore has appeal to all Hindus.
Sabarimala Temple is situated on a hilltop at an altitude of 468 m (1535 ft) and is surrounded by mountains and dense forests. There are different temples in each of the hills surrounding Sabarimala. Some are living temples like Nilackal, Kalaketi, and Karimala while ruins of old temples can be seen on the remaining hills.
Sabarimala Dharmashastha Temple is the home of Shastha – Ayyappa and is the combination of the best qualities of Vishnu and Shiva.
The story of the birth of Shastha can be traced to the killing of Mahishasura by Durga. The asura (demon) princess Mahishi was angry that the gods had tricked the asura king Mahishasura. Mahishasura had the boon that he was invulnerable to all men. So the gods had sent goddess Durga-Shakthi to fight and kill him.
Princess Mahishi began a fearsome penance and was able to please Brahma, the Creator. First she asked for the same boon of invulnerability and Brahma had to refuse her. Then Mahishi asked for invulnerability to all men excepting the son of Shiva and Vishnu. He granted her this boon and since a son of Shiva and Vishnu did not exist, she thought she was safe and began to conquer, ravage and plunder the world.
The gods implored Shiva and Vishnu to save them from this catastrophe. When Vishnu had taken on the avatar (incarnation) of Kurma, the boar-headed form, he had also manifested himself as Mohini, the enchantress, to save the nectar of immortality (ambrosia or amrit) from the demons who were not willing to share it with the gods. So, if he assumed the female form of Mohini again, then he could bear the divine child of Shiva. This boy would be empowered by the strengths of Shiva and Vishnu and defeat the demon, Mahishi.
Another version says that the asura Bhasmasura had so pleased Lord Shiva with his austerities that Shiva promised him a boon of anything he wished for. So Bhasmasura asked for the ability to burn to ashes anything on which he placed his hand. As soon as Shiva granted this boon, Bhasmasura ran after him threatening to turn him to ashes.
Shiva called to Lord Vishnu for help. Shiva hid himself in a peepal tree as Bhasmasura ran around searching for the god. Vishnu then donned the female form of Mohini, the enchantress and Bhasmasura became bewitched by her beauty. He courted her and Vishnu asked Bhasmasura to place his hand over his own head and to vow fidelity. As soon as Bhasmasura did this, he was reduced to ashes.
Vishnu went to Shiva and explained the whole matter to him. Then Shiva too wanted to see Vishnu in this female form. When Vishnu appeared thus, Shiva was overcome with passion, and united with her. The two gods thus became Harihara Murthi, a composite form of Shiva and Vishnu as one god. From this union, Dharma Sastha was born and he combined in himself the powers of Vishnu and Shiva.
Lord Ayyappan is an incarnation of Sastha. Sri Ayyappa belonged to the Pandya Royal clan and was its head. It is believed Sri Ayyappa merged into Sastha. Lord Vishnu gifted the newborn deity with a little bejeweled bell necklace and this boy was called Manikanthan Swamy. He is also called as Shasthappan by most South Indian communities.
Other popular stories are associated with Ayyappa among devotees. The stories differ, but have certain common elements. Ayyappa lived in the Pandalam Palace as the son and savior of the King. He is believed to have had superhuman or divine knowledge, wisdom, and courage and loved the King and his people. He protected the King and the kingdom from the attacks of enemies. At the end of His life in Pandalam, he vanished into the forests and since then he is worshiped at the Sabarimala Temple.
The most popular and widely accepted story tells that Lord Ayyappa was the son of the Raja of Pandalam. At that time, Raja Rajasekhara ruled the kingdom of Pandalam. During one of his hunting expeditions, the Raja heard the wails of a child on the banks of the river Pamba (Pampa), and was surprised to find a beautiful infant there with a radiant face and wearing a ‘mani’ (beaded bell necklace) around his neck. The King, though pious, charitable, just, and God-fearing, had no children. He accepted the child as God’s gift to his fervent prayers for an heir to his throne.
Manikantan grew into a boy and excelled in academics and martial arts. Meanwhile the Rani gave birth to a son. The King regarded Manikantan as his elder son and decided to crown him as the Yuvaraja (prince-heir). The King’s corrupt Minister disliked Manikantan. He convinced the Queen that the kingdom belonged to her son who would face evils if Manikantan was crowned Yuvaraja.
They conspired to get rid of Manikantan and bribed the royal physician into becoming an accomplice. The Rani pretended to be afflicted with a severe pain in the stomach and the physician prescribed the milk of a tigress as the only cure. The King knew that this milk could not be obtained but the young and valiant lad, Manikantan, stepped forward and volunteered to fetch the milk. Despite the worried protestations of the King, Manikantan set out in search of tiger’s milk deep within the fearful forests.
Days later, Manikantan entered the palace riding a fierce tigress that was followed by a pack of her cubs. The Queen and her accomplices were frightened into confessing their nefarious plot. Everybody recognized the fact that Manikantan was no ordinary boy. They were convinced of his divine origins and prayed that he should stay in the palace to protect them and the country. However, Manikantan was determined to leave the place and he then enlightened the King about gaining moksha (salvation). These words of the Ayyappa are contained in ‘Bhuthanathageetha’.
Ayyappa blessed the king and all people born in his family and said that he would always answer the prayers of devotees. Manikantan asked the King to construct a temple at Sabarimala, north of the holy river Pamba and to install his deity there. Ayyappa also explained how the Sabarimala pilgrimage should be undertaken, emphasizing the importance of the vrutham (fast) and how the pilgrimage would help devotees.
A collection of legends called ‘Ithihyamala’ (garland of stories), first published in 1904, gives a slightly different version. In it, the Raja of Madurai met in a forest a young man called Ayyappan who was well versed in archery. The story follows the tiger milk incident except that the Raja recognizes him as an incarnation of Sastha. This story explains why even today, members of the Pandalam royal family do not stand directly in front of the sanctum at Sabarimalai. This version puts Ayyappan as a Senapathi (Captain) of the Pandyan army whose popularity and influence with the King was disliked by locals.
Another story says that Sabarimala is the temple of Ayyappan, also known as Ayyan who belonged to the Vellalar Kulam (clan). He was the army chief of the Pandalam Royal family. He lived with his uncle Perisseri Pillai of Erumeli in Kottayam District, Kerala. Ayyan helped to defeat Udayanan who attacked Sabarimala and tried to demolish the ancient Sastha temple in the thick forests.
Earlier, King Pandya had migrated from Tamil Nadu to Kerala about 800 years ago. He reconstructed the destroyed Sastha Temple at Sabarimala with the help of Ayyan, Vavar who was a young Muslim boy from Kanjirappally and Kadutha a Nair boy from Muzhukeer in Chenganoor, Alapuzha.
During a clash, Ayyappan got killed. His uncle Perissery Pillai constructed Kochampalam – an old Sastha temple – at Erumeli, opposite the Vavar Pally (Mosque) constructed by Muslims in memory of Vavar Swamy. After the demise of Ayyappan, people thought that he was the incarnation of Sastha and began to worship him. Later Ayyappan and Sastha became synonymous with each other.
Another legend says that Ayyappan was the son of a Brahmin. In his book ‘Mahashekthrangalkkumunpil’, Nalankal Krishna Pillai states that Brahmins never had the name Ayyappan or Ayyan. In the old text ‘Elavarsevampattu’, it has been clearly mentioned that Ayyan belonged to the Vellalar clan who lived near Erumeli in Kottayam. In fact you can still find a Vellala house called Puthenveedu in Erumely. In the same compound there is a 300-year-old thatched and dilapidated mud house that had belonged to Perissery Pillai, Ayyappan’s uncle and the Vellal Chieftain of Erumeli. You can see the ancient sword used by Ayyappan to kill the monstrous Eruma Mahisham (buffalo-headed demon). The place where the ‘eruma’ (buffalo) was killed became Erumakolly and later Erumeli.
The history of Sabarimala is linked to the great Indian epic, Ramayana. Lord Rama (the seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and his brother Lakshmana were searching in these forests near River Pamba for Rama’s wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by the ten – headed demon Ravana. At Sabarimala they met Sabari, a tribal devotee. She offered Rama the sweetest fruits only after tasting them. Rama accepted her offering gladly as he knew that she gave it to him with great devotion and did not want him to eat sour fruit.
Rama turned around after the meal and saw a divine person doing penance. When he asked Sabari who it was, she replied that it was Sasta. Rama walked towards Sasta who stood up to welcome the Prince of Ayodhya. The anniversary of this incident is celebrated on Makara Shankranthi or Makara Vilakku day (January 14). It is believed that on Makara Vilakku day, Lord Dharmasasta stops his meditation and penance to bless his devotees.
There is no clear evidence as to when the pilgrimage to Sabarimala began. After the installation of the temple, it was mostly inaccessible for about three centuries. One of the kings of a later generation rediscovered the original path to reach Sabarimala. He had many followers with him, including the descendants of the Vavar family. They refreshed their resources at Erumely and this marked the beginning of the famous Petta Thullal at Erumely. They laid down their arms at the place known today as Saramkuthy. Pilgrims who are on their maiden visit to Sabarimala thrust arrows in this place.
The temple was then renovated. In 1821 CE, the kingdom of Pandalam along with 48 major temples including the Sabarimala Temple was added to Travancore. The present image of Sastha was installed in 1910. In 1950, unidentified persons destroyed the temple by breaking the Sreekovil, the sanctum and the main image of the deity and set fire to the temple. It was rebuilt and again caught fire in 1971 and underwent a major revamp.
Sabarimala devotees are expected to follow a vratham (41-day penance) prior to the pilgrimage. This begins with the wearing of a special mala (a chain of Rudraksha (Shiva) or Tulasi (Vishnu) beads). After this, they have to refrain from eating non-vegetarian food (except dairy), taking alcohol, tobacco and using foul language; they cannot cut their hair or shave and have to be celibate.
Pilgrims to Sabarimala are expected to bathe twice a day and visit the local temples regularly. They wear plain black or blue colored veshti/dhothi (unstitched wrap around pieces of cloth). Some senior pilgrims who have attained the status of Mahaswami wear saffron veshtis.
The pilgrims carry on their heads an Irumudi made up of two bundles made from handloom cotton cloth. These bundles bear the offerings to Ayyappa or Shasta of Sabarimala Temple. The Irumudi symbolically signifies the merging of the Jeevatma (soul) with the Paramatma (eternal divine). The Irumudi is color coded and a red one is carried by a first-time pilgrim called Kanni Ayyappan. A navy blue is used till the third year and then onwards a saffron colored Irumudi is used by veteran pilgrims.
Hundreds of devotees continue to trek the traditional mountainous forest path (approximately 52 km) from Erumely, which is believed to have been taken by Ayyappa himself. The path starts from Erumely to Aludha River, crosses the Aludha Mountain to reach Karivilam Thodu.
After the sacred Karimala crossing, the journey goes on to Cheriyanavattom, Valliyanavattom and finally the pilgrims reach Pampa River. The next stage is to climb Neelimala and enter the Ganesh Peettam and Shree Ramar Peettam.
Aranmula Kottaram is an important halting place in this holy journey as it is the home of the jewels of Ayyappa from where the Thiruvabharana Khosayatra (sacred ornamental procession) starts. Many people are now using vehicles to reach Pamba River by an alternate road. Thereafter, all pilgrims have to follow a four kilometer path through forest, up a steep hill called Neelimala to reach Sabarimala. This path has now developed into a thoroughfare with shops and medical aid centers in what used to earlier be a rough trail through dense forest.
Tat Tvam Asi, meaning ‘That Thou Art’ is the message of Ayyappa. It means that you are part of the Paramatma (Universal Soul) which is the quintessence of Advaita philosophy. Pilgrims greet each other as ‘Swami’ for they see the divine in the other person.
The Rituals At The Temple
At Sabarimala Temple, Harivarasanam, an Urakkupattu (lullaby) is sung before closing the temple doors at night. This song was composed by Sri Kambangudi Kulathur Srinivasa Iyer. It is said that Srinivasa Iyer used to recite the composition after the Athazha Puja, standing in front of the shrine of Ayyappa in the main temple. The composition has 352 letters and 108 words in 32 lines (8 stanzas). The temple now plays the version sung by the renowned singer, K J Jesudas.
Neyyabhishekam is an important ritual in which sacred ghee brought by pilgrims in their Pallikettu or Irumudi is poured on the deity.
The prasadam (sacred offering) at Sabarimala Temple is Aravana Payasam and Appam made with rice, ghee, molasses etc. The rice needed to prepare the sacred offering at Sabarimala is supplied by Chettikulangara Devi Temple, the second largest temple under the Travancore Devaswom Board situated at Mavelikkara.
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