Friday, January 13, 2012





A lone temple on the top of Sabari Hills, deep in the forests of Kerala, attracts millions of devotees from all over the country every year. It is said to have this name from Sabari, the humble lady-saint of the Ramayana fame who lived here and attained salvation. Devotees travel through dense forests full of wild animals, over steep hills and increment weather to have the glimpse (darsan) of Lord Aiyappan on Makara Sankranti day which falls on the fourteenth of January. It is said that Lord Aiyappan comes down to the Sabari Hills on this day in the form of light to give darsan to his innumerable devotees, and he lights the lamp. It is on this day that Makaravilakku, a mysterious divine light is seen on the Kaantamalai Hills, also called Ponnambalamedu, and disappears. Thousand of devotees assemble on this day just to witness it. Then in a moving and beautiful ritual the pilgrims partake of the prasad (offerings) and walk backwards down the eighteen steps, their face turned towards the Lord shining with devotion and ecstasy.


Sabarigiri is 118 miles to the north of Tiruvanantapuram, the capital of Kerala State. The hill is 3100 ft above sea level and the temple is located 40 ft high from the surrounding ground level. Aiyappan is also known by the name Hariharaatmaja, Arya, Saastaa and Manikanthan. According to the legends, the temple was built by Visvakarma, the divine architect and the original image sculpted by sage Parasurama. The present image is 18 inches in height and is made from five different metals (panchaloha). A devastating fire destroyed the old temple in 1951 A.D. One of the special features of the temple is the flight of eighteen steps. This is supposed to be the ladder to heaven. 18 is a mystic figure: Bhagavadgeeta has 18 chapters; Mahabharata contains 18 parvas(chapters); Mahabharata war was fought for 18 days with 18 akshauheenees of the armies (11 from Kauravas and 7 from Pandavas); Mahabharata contains 180000 slokas. These steps are 6ft long and 8 inches wide. 18 represents 18 principles--5 sense organs, 8 internal enemies like lust and greed, 3 gunas (satva, rajas and tamas), and Vidya (knowledge of Brahman) as well as Avidya (knowledge of the world).


Small River Pampa takes its birth in the nearby Kaantamalai hill and flows below the 18 steps leading to the temple. It is said to have been brought to this earth from Lord Paramesvara himself. As a part of the pilgrimage the devotees take a holy dip in the river Pampa.


A strange and fascinating series of divine events led to the birth of Manikanthan. He is born to Lord Siva and Mohini (an incarnation of Vishnu). Siva and Vishnu are quite different from each other and yet very similar. The two gods represent the two approaches to the cosmos; to the life itself. They compliment each other. When Siva refused to participate in worldly affairs, Vishnu took on a female persona and became the ravishing Mohini. Enchanted Siva embraced her and ceased being a hermit. Together they became Harihara. At Lingaraj Temple in Bhuvaneswar in Orissa, the Linga is offered both Tulasi and Bilva leaves as it is believed to be a symbol of Harihara. In Harihara in Karnataka there is a Harihaesvara temple for Harihara. Padmanabhapuram Palace in Tiruvanantapuram has a Sankara-Narayana idol. The right half is coral red representing Siva and the left half is blue representing Vishnu.


As the enchantress Mohini was distributing Ambrosia nectar (Amrita) to the gods, Siva fell in love with her and sought union with her. The iconographic representation of Siva as Hari-Hara, and Ardhanaari is ascribed to this detail. The right half of the icon represents Siva and the left half Vishnu as Mohini. Saastaa is described as the off-spring of the union of Siva and Mohini, and so called Hariharaatmaja.


The Hindu genius has the peculiar virtue of reconciling the irreconcilables. Whenever Vaishnavites and Saivites fight, the story in the Bhagavata of Siva being enraptured by the voluptuous beauty of Mohini, an incarnation of Vishnu comes handy. By taking it to logical conclusion it produces the wonderful deity Hariharaputra or Saastaa, more commonly known as Aiyappan (a corrupt form of Aarya). Whatever it is, he is a compromise candidate, tolerated by both the groups, but Supreme God Himself, veneratd by both the groups. The word Saastaa means one who controls and rules over the whole world. Saastaa is also one of the names of Buddha. The deity is said to ride on a white elephant called Yogi. He is also described as the protector of Dharma and hence called Dharma-saastaa. Hence some scholars opine that Dhrma-saastaa may be Buddha who has been absorbed into the Hindu pantheon by the South Indaian Hindus as Buddha was by North Indians.


The legend of Aiyappan goes as follows:

Mahishaasura performed severe penances to obtain invincibility from any man on this earth. Brahma pleased with his severe penance was quick to grant him his wish. He thus became the most powerful man on earth and invincible by any man. Emboldened by the boon, he began harassing all on earth. The Devas held a council and thought about a plan to destroy him. They came to the conclusion that only a strong woman could do that. Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesvara evoked one with their combined powers and created Chandika. Chandika went down to Earth. The whole world shook with her descending force. In the fierce battle that ensued Chandika killed Mahishaasura and ascended to heaven.


When Mahishi, the devoted wife of Mahishaasura learnt of her husband's death, she was enraged and wanted to teach Devas a lesson. Mahishi also went on a severe penance and as a fulfillment of her vow she wanted no death at the hands Siva or Vishnu. If neither Vishnu nor Siva can destroy her, who else can on earth do so? Mahishi now started taunting Devas and Devas were in great trouble. They approached Siva to put an end to her arrogance. Siva wanted to have a council with Vishnu and wanted to create a son who can destroy Mahishi. He also wanted some one to rear the child they planned to create by their mutual and combined power.


Siva caught Vishnu at the right time. Vishnu in his Mohini's incarnation had finished distributing ambrosia to the divines. Siva was dazzled by her voluptuous beauty. He prevailed upon her to marry him. The union was successful. They had a beautiful child Hariharaatmaja.


Siva knew that Rajasekhara, a pious king and his queen were longing for a child. Siva planned to take the new born baby there. He tied a gold bell around the neck of the child before taking to earth and left him in the forest near the Pampa River. Rajasekhara who was on a hunting expedition saw the helpless and orphaned baby rolling over and making noise with the bell tied round his neck. On the advice of a Brahmin who suddenly appeared on the scene, he named him "Manikanthan", one tied with a bell round his neck, and took him home. The strange Brahmin also predicted that the child will turn miraculous on his twelfth birth day. Manikanthan grew up soon into a strong boy. The Dewan (chief minister) who had an eye on the kingdom, since the king had no children so far, did not like this sudden development. He wanted to get rid of Manikanthan somehow, who was being groomed for the kingdom.


Manikanthan proved himself to be a gifted and miraculous boy. He restored the sight and speech to his guru's son, as desired by his teacher, by way of guru dakshina, a traditional tribute given by the disciple to his teacher. Everyone was sure he will succeed his foster father and will be a benevolent and powerful king. In the meantime the queen got a son of her own. Still the king was keen to make Manikanthan his successor. The Dewan plotted with the queen to kill Manikanthan. The queen pretended to be severely ill and insisted on tigress milk for her migraine headache on the planned advice from the royal physician. Many were sent in search but none were successful as the forest around belonged to Mahish and impermeable. Manikanthan wanted to go himself to the forest and get the milk. The king was worried and did not want his beloved son to go on this dangerous mission, but Manikanthan prevailed upon his father to go on this mission. He had to pass through Mahishi's forest and in the process he killed her. Indra was pleased with the termination of Mahishi and he himself assumed the form of a tigress with full of milk and wanted Manikanthan to accompany him. Several Devas also appeared in the form of tigers and followed Manikanthan riding the tigress. The king was astonished and was also greatly frightened to see so many tigers marching towards the capital. It was also the day of Manikanthan's 12th birthday. Just then there was a divine voice announcing that Manikanthan was none other than God himself! The king at once fell at his feet and requested him to remove the frightening tigers from the scene, begging his pardon. He also wanted to punish his queen and the wicked Dewan for the wicked plot, about which he had just learnt. Manikanthan advised the king not to punish them as they were helpful in hastening his mission on earth, that of getting rid of Mahishi for which purpose he had taken his birth.


The king expressed his desire to build a temple for him at a spot chosen by him before departing. Manikanthan shot an arrow and it fell at a spot in Sabarimalai. Manikanthan blessed the king and said he would send Visvakarma, the divine architect to build the temple. Soon a magnificent temple was built by Visvakarma with 18 steps leading to the temple above the Pampa River. The king was then worried about the installation of a life-like idol of Manikanthan. Sage Parasurama in the guise of a Brahmin brought an idol on Makara Sankranti day. He revealed his identity to the worried and prayerful king and installed the idol at Sabarimalai. It was so life-like the king was filled with joyful of tears praising the glory of God. In the meantime the wicked Dewan was afflicted by an incurable disease. He repented for his past action and sins. He then had a dream to go to Sabarimalai and worship Aiyappan. He ran to the temple crying all the way "Swaamiye Saranam Aiyappa" and fell at the feet of the Lord. He was cured of his disease. Even to this day all the pilgrims make their way to the temple with reverence and repeating the words of repenting Dewan.


The steps to Aiyappan temple are to be climbed only by those devotees who have taken the prescribed vows. The pilgrimage season is from November to March. From mid November to mid December the temple is open for 41 days. Makara Sankranti is the most crowded time of the year when the pilgrims flock to see the Makara Vilakku, the mysterious light.


The vow comprises of the following disciplines and has to be strictly observed for 41 days before seeing (darsan) of the image in the temple; wearing black or blue or ochre dress.; wearing rudraaksha or necklace of beads; strict celibacy during the period; avoiding meat, alcoholic drinks and drugs; visiting temples. Initiation into this vow is to be done under the guidance of a guru either in the temple or in one's house. It consists of preparing Irumudi, a bag like contrivance with two compartments. One compartment must contain a cocoanut filled with ghee to be used to bathe the image and some items necessary for worship. The other compartment is filled with food articles for the journey. This Irumudi has to be carried all the way on one's own head. Women in the menstruation age are not allowed to enter the temple since Aiyappan is a strict celibate.


The King Rajasekhara had prepared a number of excellent ornaments for his adopted son to be worn on the day of ascension to the throne. However, the young prince had refused to the crown and to wear them but had promised to be decorated with them on Makara Sankranti day every year, to please his father who was so dear to him. So, even now, these ornaments (called Tiruvaabharanam), now in the possession of Rajasekhara's descendents are brought from the place of the king at Panthalam, 55 miles from Sabarimalai in ceremonial procession and the image is richly bedecked with them just for the day.


The icon of Saasthaa has four arms, three eyes and a peaceful countenance, and is seated in Padmaasana. Two of the hands carry the sword and the shield and the other two exhibit Abhaya (protecting posture) hasta and Varada (boon giving posture) Hasta. According to another version, the icon has only two hands and two eyes, and is seated with the legs folded. It is bedecked with ornaments and three stranded Yajnopaveeta, the sacred thread, depicting his bachelorhood. A crooked stick, fruits and tender leaves of plants are sometimes shown in his hands. A Vajradanda (diamond studded staff) is also shown occasionally. Icons in the standing postures also seem to exist though rare.


Kerala population is prone to migration to all parts of the world and within India too. Wherever they are, they have built temples for Aiyappan. Aiyappa temples are as popular as Viswanaatha and Venkatesvara temples all over the world where Hindu migrants are settled.


The ritual pilgrimage to the shrine of Sri Aiyappan at Sabarimalai is considered to be extremely auspicious and meritorious. A devastating fire destroyed the ancient temple 1n 1951 A.D. and since then a new temple has been built in its place.


Saasthaa, being the son of Siva and Vishnu, has the powers of both of his parents. He destroys all negative tendencies through the power of destruction gained through his father Siva. He maintains the thought of the Supreme, through the power of maintenance of his mother. The usual custom to visit this temple is to observe strict austerities and self- control for forty-one days preceding visit to the temple. By such Tapas (austerity) the mind is made to withdraw its attachment to the world and slowly direct it to the thought of "Swaamiye Saranam Aiyappa", the Reality. During this period of austerity, the devotee is allowed to wear only black or saffron colored clothes and a rosary necklace (Maala), and strictly observe Nityakarmas, daily rituals. The black or saffron clothes are meant to convey the mental resignation from the world. Black indicates darkness. The world is dark to him. The saffron color represents fire. That means his body is dead or burnt to this world. Thus with his symbolic attire the pilgrim withdraws from his mental preoccupations with the world. With such a prepared mind he cries Swaamiye Saranm Aiyappa—The Lord is my refuge, all along the way to the shrine. The way to the temple is through the jungles and on foot. The idea is to develop concentration of the mind which has already undergone strict austerities. All along the path the devotee tries to maintain the one and only thought of the Lord. Truth reveals itself to such a seeker, which is symbolized by the Darsan, vision of the Lord in the temple.


"Hariharaatmajam swami devamaasraya

Saranam Aiyappa swami saranam Aiyappa"


This lecture has been prepared by N.R.Srinivasan for the Vedanta Class at Sri Ganesha Temple at Nashville, TN, from the following literature sources by suitably extracting, abridging and editing:


  1. Shyamala Mahadevan, Aiyappan, Amar Chitra Katha, India Book House Limited, Mumbai 400059, India.
  2. Swami Harshananda, Hindu Pilgrim Centers, Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore 560019, India.
  3. Swami Harshananda, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.
  4. Prof Ramachandra Rao, S.K., Vishnu Kosha, Kalpatharu Research Academy, Sankarmutt, Bangalore, India.
  5. Parthasarathy A, The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals, Vedanta Life Institute, Mumbai 400006, India.
  6. Mukundan T.K., A Concept of Hinduism, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mumbai, India.