All you wanted to know about worship of Swami Aiyappan

  • This article tells you the life of Swami Ayyappan, worship of Lord Ayyappa, what happens on becoming an ‘Aiyappan’, offering to Lord Ayyappan, trek to the temple and story behind Malikapurathamma Temple. Sabarimala is rooted deeply in tradition and discipline of the mind. Let us not destroy the tradition in the name of modernity and equality.


The quest for the Creator is a constant in human lives. They seek him everywhere and would go to any extent to achieve that blissful state of union with God. But, this does not come easy. Pilgrim centres all over India are testimony to the fact that the path is not a smooth one.  Technology and development may have made it less of drudgery but will power and single-minded devotion can only take us to revered shrines like the Vaishno Devi in Jammu or to Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala.


Sabarimala - Eternal celibate god, Swami Ayyappan


The belief is that Lord Ayyappa is a historical figure. He was born in the royal family of Pandalam, a small kingdom located in Patthanamthitta district of Kerala. Sabarimala Temple is located in the same district.

He grew up in the palace of Pandalam. The descendants of that royal lineage are still continuing with many of the rituals associated with the temple during the pilgrimage season.

The young Ayyappa is said to have grown up into an accomplished prince, much loved by his subjects.

A small contingent of intruders led by an Arab commander called Babar or Vavar attacked the kingdom during the time. Ayyappa defeated Vavar, who thereafter turned into his devout follower.

As Lord Ayyappa resides at Sabarimala, Vavar lives in spirit in a shrine at Erumeli, a place situated on the 40 km trek to Sabarimala temple. Vavar is said to be the protector of pilgrims going to visit Lord Ayyappa.

Lord Ayyappa, it is said answers prayers of every devotee who undertakes the demanding and life-threatening pilgrimage to his shrine.

Given the arduous task that he undertook, Lord Ayyappa shunned all worldly desires including contact with women. Many believe this was the reason why menstruating women were barred from visiting Sabarimala Temple.

Swami Ayyappan was born of the union of Brahma and Mohini, the female form of Vishnu. Therefore, Ayyappa is also known as 'Hariharan Puthran' or 'Hariharaputra,' which literally means the son of both 'Hari' or Vishnu and 'Haran' or Shiva. Aiyappa is also commonly known as 'Manikandan' because, according to the legend of his birth, his divine parents tied a golden bell (mani) around his neck soon after his birth. A legend goes that when Shiva and Mohini placed their baby (with his divine destiny) on the banks of the Pampa river, King Rajashekhara - the childless monarch of Pandalam - found the newborn Ayyappa and accepted him as a divine gift, adopting him as his own son. 

The legendary story of the genesis of Lord Ayyappa commences at the point where Goddess Durga killed the demon king Mahishasur. Mahishi, his sister set out to avenge her brother’s death. Brahma granted her a boon:  only a child born of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva could slay her, or, in other words, she was indestructible.  To protect the world from destruction, Lord Vishnu incarnated as Mohini, and wed Lord Shiva, and of their union was born Lord Ayyappa.

The story of Ayyappan's childhood 

After King Rajashekhara adopted Ayyappan, his own biological son was born. Though both the boys grew up as princes, Ayyappa grew up equipped in martial arts and the knowledge of various "shastras" or scriptures.

Though King Rajashekhara wanted to nominate the young Ayyappan to succeed him, but as was natural the Queen wanted her own son to ascend the throne. She therefore conspired to keep him out of the scene by asking him to execute a life-threatening task:  the queen made her physician ask for an impossible remedy - lactating tigress's milk. When no one could procure it, the brave Manikantan volunteered to go, much against his father's will.

On the way he chanced upon the demon Mahishi and slew her on the banks of the river Azhutha. Thus, his life’s destiny was already fulfilled. But there were many more miles to go searching for the milk of a tigress. 

Blessed as he was, he overpowered the tigress and came back to the palace, riding astride the tigress!

The King had already seen through the queen's devious plans and sought forgiveness from Manikantan. The young Ayyappan conveyed that having accomplished his life’s mission, he would return to heaven. He asked the king to build a temple atop the Sabari hill, so that the memory of his short but meaningful life could be perpetuated and those wanting to see him would have to undertake the stiff climb of the hill.

When construction of the temple was completed, Lord Parasuram sculpted a figure of Lord Ayyappa and installed it in the temple on the day of Makara Sankranti. Thus, Lord Ayyappa got deified.

And Makara Sankranti is one of those auspicious dates for the pilgrimage.

The worship of Lord Ayyappa

Lord Ayyappa, however, is believed to have laid down a strict religious code to enable people to receive his blessings. First, the devotees have to observe a 41-day penance before embarking on the temple pilgrimage.

They would also have to maintain abstinence from physical pleasures, live a celibate or 'brahmachari.' 

Moreover, the devotees have to trudge miles on foot, bathe in the holy river Pampa, and finally, brave the steep climb of 18 stairs to reach the Sabarimala temple.

Pilgrims from around the country brave the dense forests, steep hills and inclement weather to seek blessings of Ayyappan on the 14th day of January, known as Makara Sankranti or Pongal, when the Lord himself is said to descend in the form of light, known as “Makara Vilaku”. The devotees then accept 'prasada' or the Lord's food offerings and descend the 18 steps, walking backwards, with their faces turned towards the Lord…

Devotees visiting Udupi Krishna Mandir after pilgrimage to Sabarimala 

On becomng an 'Ayyappan'

Any man deciding to undertake the pilgrimage adopts a 41 days discipline of penance, austerity and prayer. The first step towards this is the doning of a black bead chain done at a temple after some rituals.

The following days has a schedule which includes going to the temple twice a day, in the morning and the night. Abstinence is the norm in everyday life. One could, in the 21st century, explain these strictures as a method of strengthening the mind and body to make it fit to undertake the tough trek through uninhabited, wild animal infested dense jungle tracks.

The Sabarimala Temple is open to every individual who takes the 41 day vow of celibacy and discipline, irrespective of faith  they profess, displaying the inclusiveness of Sanatana Dharma.

Ayyappan' the woman pilgrim as "Malikapurathu" and the young boys as "Manikantan". The pilgrims don black, or deep blue dhoti and upper garment only. Looked at from a practical angle, it helps others also to understand that this a person who has taken the vow to go to Sabarimala and has to be treated with a reverence befitting a pilgrim.Till the completion of their visit to the temple the man is addressed as '

Offering to Lord Ayyappan

Any picture of a pilgrim to Sabarimala shows that he/she carries a small loosely packed bundle on his head which contains offerings to be made to the god. This packing is usually done at the home of the pilgrim or in a temple close by the accompaniments of chants, "Swamiye Sharanam Aiyappa".

The packing is done in such a manner that there are clearly two sections to the bag. Any picture of an 'Ayyappan' (every individual making the pilgrimage and following the 41 day vow of austerity  and celibacy is also called an 'Ayyappan), front end of the bag will contain the following - 

A coconut filled with Ghee after the water has been emptied, cash for offering, betel leaf and areca nut, honey, turmeric, sandalwood, holy ash and rosewater are part of the contents.


The other end has two coconuts, rice, beaten rice flakes (poha), puffed rice, jiggery or kadali pazham (a variety of banana), candy, camphor, kismis, and incense sticks. Two coconuts are used twice, once when taking the ascent to the shrine from the 18 steps, and the other after darshan when one is stepping out of the shrine.


The practice is that once the accompaniments are in place in the bag, the pilgrims have it placed on their heads and immediately commence their trek to the hill shrine of Sabarimala.


Once the Irumudi is filled, it is treated with reverence and must not be placed directly on the floor. It is held reverentially and is placed on a sheet or any protective layering.

The trek to the temple

In these times it would be difficult to conceive of the arduous trek undertaken by the pilgrims. Roads had not been carved out of the hillsides. Through dense jungles groups of Aiyappans trudged the steep hill tracts to ascend the hill and get a darshan of the god who had made his abode atop the hill.   

There are three routes to Sabarimala namely -


1. Erumeli route

The Erumeli route, used by Ayyappan himself during his forest expedition to kill Mahishi. The Erumeli route is the most arduous and the pilgrims cover about 61 km on foot through forest and hill track.


2. Vandiperiyar route

The Vandiperiyar route starts at 94.4 km milestone on the Kottayam–Kumili road. The Sannidhanam is about 12.8 km from here.


3. Chalakayam route

The Chalakayam route is the easiest of all. Chalakayam is near Pampa river. Sannidhanam is just 8 km from here.

Pathinettupadi - 18 divine steps to the sanctum sanctorum is divine in all aspects. The first three steps depict “Bhoomi, Agni, Vayoo & Akash”, 6 to 9 steps for Karmendriya, 10 to 15 for Jhanandriya, 16th for mind, 17th Intelligence and 18th Jeevathma Bhava. Those who cross all these steps are believed to achieve “Punyadarshan”.


Malikapurathamma Temple

Upon the defeat of Mahishi, it was revealed that the demon was actually a beautiful young woman who had been cursed to live the life of a demon. The defeat set the woman free who, in turn, proposed to Lord Ayyappa.

He refused saying that he had been ordained to go to forest and answer the prayers of devotees. But, the young woman was persistent. So, Lord Ayyappa promised to marry her the day new devotees (kanni-swamis) stop visiting him with their prayers at Sabarimala.

The woman agreed to wait for him at a neighbouring temple. The woman is also worshipped today as Malikapurathamma at a neighbouring temple. The legend goes further saying that in honour of Malikapurathamma, Lord Ayyappa does not receive any menstruating woman. Also, the women chose not to visit Lord Ayyappa for it would be an insult to Malikapurathamma's love and sacrifice.

This probably is the origin of the strictures placed on women between 10 and 50 keeping away from the temple.

Malikappurathamma Devi temple is located on a small hill just 100 meters away from Sabarimala. According to legend, Malikapuram temple is the place where the demon Mahishi rests in eternal wait. Every pilgrim visits this temple too en route to the Sabarimala Temple.

When is Sabarimala pilgrimage undertaken?

The pilgrimage is undertaken between November 15 and January 14 every year. According to the Malayalam calendar it is from Vrishikam 1 to Makara Sankranti which falls on 14 January. Due to huge crowds, in recent times, the Temple is kept open for darshan for one more week. So also on the first of every Malayalam month it opens technically for a day. But, the worship practices make it necessary to commence worship a day earlier and close on the second day, in effect devotees get darshan for three days every month, apart from the Mandalam season which is how the November to January phase is called.

Sabarimala is rooted deeply in tradition, symbolism and discipline of austerity and penance. Hope this tradition is not destroyed in the name of modernity and equality.

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