One of the key principles of Hinduism is that ‘god’ exists in every soul as Brahman and also encompasses the entire universe. The definitive objective of spirituality is to explore this inner reality and to sense this god who is believed to be beyond elements pertaining to name, form and shape. This resulted in the formation of the Bhakti tradition and the notion of love to a personal god. Every god stands for one element of Brahman and supports the worshippers to steer their energies, increase their consciousness and attain Moksha or enlightenment, considered to be the ultimate aim of human life.
The pursuit of the all-encompassing ‘creator’ is endless in human lives. They look for him everywhere and would go to any degree to reach that heavenly state of union with their god. One such deity who has a powerfully divine connection with billions of devotees is Lord Ayyappa, one of the most renowned gods of Kerala, India.
Who is Lord Ayyappa?
Also referred to as Sastha or Dharmasastha or Manikandan, Lord Ayyappa is a revered Hindu deity famous in Southern India, especially in God’s own country, the state of Kerala. The Hindu God of self-control is believed to be the union of Mohini (the female avatar of Lord Vishnu) and Lord Shiva. He is known to be the embodiment of truth, righteousness and dharma and is frequently expected to annihilate evil.The Indian state of Kerala is well-known for its exquisite beauty and luscious flora and fauna, along with its rich ancient culture of temples. Kerala houses one of the most revered and famous pilgrimage sites in the world – Sabarimala – dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. Devotees from all over India as well as abroad visit this holy place to experience a divine connection to Lord Ayyappa. This deity is mentioned in several Hindu scriptures and is highly worshipped in South Indian traditions.
Origin of Lord Ayyappa
In South India, ‘Appa’ means father and ‘Ayyan’ signifies a title of respect. Thereby, the name stands for a revered senior deity of the area. But you will not find the term ‘Ayyappan’ in the South Indian versions of the medieval-era Puranas, thus leading experts to theorize that Ayyappan may have its origins elsewhere. Another theory links the Malayalam word ‘acchan’ and Tamil word ‘appa’ which refers to father, with Ayyappan implying ‘Lord-Father’. This alternative proposal is backed by the other names for the deity such as Sastava, a Vedic term. The Puranas contain the words ‘Dharmasastha’ and ‘Sastha’ as a Hindu god.
Lord Ayyappa or Ayyannar is also called ‘Hariharasuta’ which refers to the son (Suta) of Hari (Lord Vishnu as Mohini) and Hara (Lord Shiva). Some of the other well-known names are Manikantha because when he was discovered in the woods, he was wearing a Mani (jewel) around his Kantha (neck). The other name Dharmasastha refers to righteousness and Sastha is a common name for teacher and guide.
Iconography Lord Ayyappa
His iconography is typically showcased with a bow and arrow raised in his left hand. A bow or a sword is held by his right hand that is diagonally placed across his light thigh. A few other portrayals of Lord Ayyappan, especially paintings, typically display him in a yogic pose donning a bell around his neck and is occasionally shown riding a tiger.
Lord Ayyappa in depictions is consistently outfitted in armlets, necklaces, crowns, bracelets, gem-studded waistband as well as a cincture on his chest. He is always shown youthful and sometimes passionate and fiery that demonstrates endless energy of the youth and the vigor to be victorious and successful. He is sometimes also known in white color that could imply purity and honor, thus illustrating his unsafe mission to save a woman he believed needed his help and assistance.
Legend of Lord Ayyappa
There are numerous tales connected to this deity. It is generally believed that Lord Ayyappa was born to Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva when Vishnu acquired the form of Mohini to lure the asura Bhasmasura. The asura had been bestowed with the boon that he could burn anything and everything. When he tried to burn Shiva, the deity asked Lord Vishnu to help him. Lord Vishnu took the form of a seductress named Mohini and deceived the asura to burn himself to ashes. After Lord Shiva was saved from the asura, he is said to have united with Mohini and brought forth a son named Dharma Sastha who was subsequently incarnated as Lord Ayyappa.
Another story detailing the birth of Lord Ayyappa has to do with demon king Mahishasura and his sister Mahishi. After Mahishasura’s death by Goddess Durga, his sibling Mahishi was craving revenge and thus created a riot in the universe. After deep penance, she was able to please Brahma and was bestowed with a boon that only a child born to Vishnu and Shiva could obliterate her. She exploited her boon and became invincible. To put an end to her, Lord Vishnu assumed the Mohini avatar and united with Lord Shiva to create a child. This son was then named HariHara Putra. Thereby, the key objective of Lord Ayyappa’s birth was to annihilate Mahishi.
One of the most popular stories talks about how Lord Ayyappa was discovered by Raja Rajashekhara Pandiyan who was the ruler of Pandalam Kingdom during one of his hunting sessions on the bank of River Pampa. The baby was wearing a Mani (jewel) around his neck. The king was thrilled as he had no children. He took the child home and named him Manikanda. He grew up to be a courageous and clever boy and was extremely good at martial arts. In the meantime, a son was born to the queen. When the king desired to crown the elder son as the Crown Prince, one of the ministers poisoned the queen’s mind that her son should be crowned instead. Unable to see beyond the love for her child, the queen was convinced to remove Manikanda from the way and bribed the royal physician.
The doctor prescribed the milk of the tigress to be the only cure when the queen faked severe stomach pain. When no one volunteered to go deep into the woods on this suicidal mission, the brave Manikanda decided to get the milk and informed the king of the same. Despite protests from the king, Manikanda valiantly proceeded to the jungle. Some tales suggest that he carried some food and coconut tied in a bundle on his head which is believed to be the origin of the concept of the ‘Irumudi’ which the pilgrims carry to the Sabarimala to this day.
Manikanda returned to the palace riding a tigress along with her cubs. The people who conspired against him realized that he was not an ordinary human being. They immediately bowed down to him and asked for mercy. The king asked for forgiveness as well for treating him as an ordinary son and for not identifying his divinity.
When the king desired to build a temple for him, Lord Ayyappa proposed the sacred site at Sabarimala, situated alongside the banks of the Pampa River. Lord Ayyappa described the process that had to be commenced by worshippers on the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Then, he proceeded to give his blessings to the king and the members of the royal council and then disappeared. The ruler then built the temple at Sabarimala based on the suggestions by the Lord.
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Characteristic Traits of Lord Ayyappa
Ayyappa is revered for being a strong warrior deity. He is worshipped for his dedication to dharma – the moral and ethical way of living, military skills, courageous and daring yogic war capabilities that help annihilate those who are powerful but abusive and unethical.
Vahana of Lord Ayyappa
It is believed that Lord Ayyappa’s vahana (vehicle) is the tigress, although, occasionally, he is sitting on the lotus flower. The tigress is thought to denote his victory when he was on a dangerous mission in the forest. On the other hand, the lotus is said to stand for the connection to his father, Lord Shiva, with whom the lotus flower is always linked. In certain places such as Sri Lanka, he is also shown riding a white elephant.
Interesting Anecdotes on Lord Ayyappa
After King Rajashekhara took baby Ayyappa home and adopted him, his biological son Raja Rajan was born. Both the boys were raised as royal princes. Ayyappa was extremely intelligent and was excellent in martial arts. He impressed everyone with his in-depth knowledge of the many shastras or scriptures. Even before Lord Ayyappa (then named Manikanda) revealed his divinity and godly avatar, his superhuman powers were noticed even during childhood which surprised everyone. After he finished his princely training and studies successfully, he offered gurudakshina to his guru. Aware of his divine power, his master requested him to bless his dumb and blind son with speech and sight. Upon hearing this, Manikanta blessed the boy by placing his hand on him. The miracle happened and the boy was able to see and speak. He requested that his magical powers not be revealed to anyone and returned to his royal chambers.
If you’re an ardent devotee of Lord Ayyappa, you would want to embark on the Sabarimala pilgrimage at least once in your lifetime. Visited by approximately 100 million devotees annually, this temple is believed to be named after the incredible Tapaswini Shabari who was blessed by Lord Rama and eventually achieved salvation. Sabarimala is nestled in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala in the midst of the 18 hills of Western Ghats. It is supposed to stand for the 18 steps that lead to the main temple.
How to worship Lord Ayyappa
A true devotee would have to adhere to a strict religious code to be able to receive Lord Ayyappa’s blessings. First, the worshippers will have to perform a 41-day penance before starting the temple pilgrimage journey. They need to completely abstain from all physical pleasures as well as family ties and live life like a celibate or a ‘Brahmachari’. They should avoid any worldly pleasures and not have any alcohol and non-vegetarian food. They should not cut their hair, nails, or shave. They are not supposed to let their thoughts or actions hurt anybody else’s feelings under any circumstance.
The pilgrims carry the irumudi on their heads. It is a cloth bundle comprising two compartments. This travel kit is typically in black, dark blue, or saffron color. The front portion includes pooja articles and the holy offerings to be made to the lord such as ghee-filled coconut, jaggery, cane sugar, raw rice, betel leaves, camphor, etc. while the personal belongings of the worshipper are placed in the second compartment.
Furthermore, the pilgrims need to trek miles on foot, take a bath in the sacred river Pampa, cover themselves with the three-eyed coconut and the ‘aantha’ garland. They have to eventually climb the steep 18 stairs to reach the Sabarimala temple. Devotees from all over the country walk through the dense woods, hike through the hills, and brave adverse weather conditions to seek the blessings of the lord.
You can also book Lord Ayyappa Puja online with Rudra Centre where it will be performed by learned priests.
Benefits of Worshipping Lord Ayyappa
If you are a sincere Lord Ayyappa devotee and perform all the rigors that come with it, you are sure to gain on several fronts as individuals and your entire families. Devotees will be blessed with good health, success, and prosperity. Lord Ayyappa is well-known for his unique abilities to regulate the malefic effects of the Shani (Saturn planet). Worshipping him can help in reducing or eliminating any hardship due to hostile placement of the planet, signified by challenging times like Saturn in the 8th house of the birth chart, Saturn affliction, Saade Satti (seven and a half-year period of Saturn), etc.
Festivals Dedicated to Lord Ayyappa
Millions of devotees embark on the challenging Sabarimala pilgrimage by hiking through steep mountains and walking through dense forests. They cover enormous distances on foot, particularly during months of Karthigai and Margazhi (Mid November – Mid January). This journey concludes with the appearance of the Makara Jyoti, a flash of light as stars that show up around sunset time at a faraway distance, on the sacred Makar Sankranti Day, commonly on the 14th or 15th January. As Ayyappa is celibate, menstruating women cannot embark on the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Scroll Down to read more
The Niraputhari festival that marks the commencement of the harvest season is also held annually at the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala. Priests are known to conduct the puja on paddy spikes as part of the festival.
The Sabarimala pilgrimage has drawn millions of worshippers since ancient times as devotees are attracted to the divine magnetism and power generated in that sacred site.
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