The logical history of Sabarimala is linked to the mythical history of Lord Ayyappa. It would be an arduous effort to find out the border at which the myth crosses over to reality and vice versa. Nonetheless, both the logical and mythical histories have their own significances.
Sabarimala – The myth
Sabarimala was once under the regime of the Pandalam dynasty. So there can’t be a mythical history for Sabarimala without the mythical histories of Lord Ayyappa and Pandalam dynasty.
Lord Ayyappa, the deity of Sabarimala had his human sojourn at Pandalam as the adopted son of the King of Pandalam. It is believed that the King of Pandalam, who didn’t have an offspring to assume his throne, got a baby from the banks of the river Pampa. The king heard an oracle that he should take the baby to his Palace and that the baby will show the intent of his birth at 12. Because the baby had a bell tied in a string around his neck, he was called Manikandan; meaning a person who has a bell around his neck. At 12, he would be known as Ayyappa. The King took the baby home and the Royal Family accepted the child as the Prince. But after some time, the Queen delivered a baby and the attention of all except the King in the Royal Family switched to the new born baby. The Minister in the Royal Palace told the Queen that unless Manikandan was thrown out of the Palace, her own son could not become the next King. He was playing on her jealousy. It worked out.
According to the directives from the Minister, the Queen pretended to have fallen ill. The Royal Family doctor prescribed her the milk of leopardess. It was also a trick of the Minister. He knew that Manikandan would take up the challenge. As expected, Manikandan went to the forest in search of leopardess-milk, despite resistance from the King. He was around 12 now. In the forest, in a fierce battle, he killed the demon queen Mahishi, who used to attack and kill the people and their cattle. She was even feared by the Gods. After she was killed, all the Gods praised and worshipped Manikandan. Knowing the intent of Manikandan’s visit, the King of the Gods, Indra, transfigured into a leopardess and the rest of the Gods joined them, as leopards. Manikandan climbed on top of the leopardess and led the way back to the Royal Palace.
Everyone was surprised to see the Prince coming with a group of leopards. Ayyappa took rest underneath a banyan tree. The Queen and the Minister were now frightened and confessed to the King about their misdeeds. Finally, the King came out himself with others to welcome his son to the Palace. Manikandan forgave the misdeeds of his mother, the Minister and others. Despite demands from the King that Manikandan should take over as the King of Pandalam, he nominated his younger brother to follow his father. He then took the King to the forest and told him that the intension of his human sojourn was complete and that he had to leave now. He then blazed away an arrow toward a hill. He asked the King to construct a shrine for him where the arrow alighted. He also requested his father to come annually to visit him at the shrine. Thus he gave up his human life and his divinity entered Sabarimala. Parasuram, another incarnation of Lord Mahavishnu, built the idol of Ayyappa and the architect among the Gods, Viswakarma built the temple in the Sabarimala (Sabari hills) at the place where the arrow alighted. This is the myth about Lord Ayyappa.
Sabarimala – The reality
The Pandalam Royal Family has its roots in Tamil Nadu. The members of the Pandalam Royal Family are descendants of the Pandya dynasty of Madurai. The Pandya Kings fled to today’s Kerala in two groups, after losing the battle against Malik Khafer, the General of the then Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji. One group settled down in Punjar (Kottayam Dist) and the other in Pandalam in 1202 AD. The then ruler of Venad helped them establish the Kingdom of Pandalam. The Kingdom of Pandalam extended to over 1,000 square miles. The royal family of Pandalam belongs to the 'Bhargava Gothra' while other Kshatriya families in Kerala belong to the 'Viswamithra Gothra'. Secularism was one of the prime principles of Pandalam dynasty and they helped the other religious followers to build a mosque at Kadakkad and a church at Kudassanad. It is also believed that those who settled down in Pandalam had sympathies toward the Buddhist beliefs.
There is no clear evidence as to when did the pilgrimage to Sabarimala begin. After the instauration of the temple, it left unreached for about three centuries. One of the Kings in the later generation rediscovered the traditional paths 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 today known as Saramkuthy. Those who are on their maiden visits to Sabarimala thrust arrows at this place. The temple was then renovated. In 1821 AD, the kingdom of Pandalam was added to Travancore. 48 major temples including the Sabarimala temple were also added to Travancore. The idol was erected in 1910. The temple conflagrated in 1971 and underwent a major revamp.
The history behind the worshipping methods
The customs of the pilgrims to Sabarimala are based on five worshipping methods; those of Shaivites, Shaktists, Vaishnavites, Buddhists and Jainists. At first, there were three sections of devotees – the devotees of Shakti who used meat, liquor and other drugs to worship their deity, the devotees of Vishnu who followed strict penance and continence, and the devotees of Shiva who partly followed these two methods. It was then that the Buddhists and Jainists entered, spreading the concepts of Ahimsa. Another name of Lord Ayyappa is Sastha which means Buddha. This is a prime example of the reach of the Buddhist beliefs to this part of the world. All these can be seen merged into the beliefs of pilgrims to Sabarimala. The chain the pilgrims wear comes from the Rudraksha chain of the Shaivites. The strict fasting, penance and continence is taken out of the beliefs of the Vaishnavites. Ahimsa is taken from the Jainists. The constant and repeated utterance of prayers reminds one of the Buddhists. The offering of tobacco to Kaduthaswamy can be considered to be taken from the Shaktists.
Those who decide to go to Sabarimala need to observe strict celibacy. The procession of Malikappurathamma to Saramkuthy and her return without any exuberance shows one the patience, endurance and mental strength a man can achieve. The ghee filled coconuts in the blazing fire hearth symbolizes the burn off of one’s selfishness. A bath in river Pampa stands for driving away the sins one committed in his life.
Where humanity scores over myth and logic
The striking significance of the beliefs about Sabarimala is the absence of the touch-me-not-ism among the upper castes of Hindus. All are equal before Lord Ayyappa. Even the deity and the devotee are known by the same name – either Ayyappa or Swamy. This is the only such belief in the entire world.
Through the observation of strict penance, fasting and continence, one learns to control his senses. He gives up his lust and other human desires. He remoulds himself. On reaching his destination, he realizes the meaning of Thathwamasi – ‘That is You’. Thus he recognizes the enormous power, restraint and resilience from within.
Another importance which is more relevant these days is the oneness of diverse religious beliefs. It is one temple in the world, with doors open to all, whatever be their beliefs. The triumvirate of Ayyappa, a Hindu; Vavar, a Muslim and Kochu Thomman, a Christian speaks volumes for this factual truth. It is here that Sabarimala becomes more of a reality than a myth.