Sabarimala, which has now turned into an epicentre of the socio-political chaos in Kerala, has been till date reflective of the tranquility that used to prevail in the state. The temple is a marvelous confluence of many not-so-compatible ideals. The presiding deity of the temple, Lord Ayyappa, himself embodies the unity of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. It is true that there was conflict between Shaivites and Vaishnavites on several counts from the ancient times up to the 18th century. Later on, both the rival sects became united under the umbrella of Hinduism.
Though there have been some conflicts here and there, no major conflicts have occurred now. Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. There are many sects and sub-sects under the umbrella of Hinduism. Each sect is like a denomination with it’s own rich religious practices. Each of these denominations share rituals, beliefs, traditions and personal Gods with one another, but each denomination has a different philosophy on how to achieve life’s ultimate goal (moksa or eternal salvation) and different views on the Gods.
Shaivites are those who primarily worship God Shiva as the Supreme God, both immanent and transcendent. Shaivism focuses on yoga, meditation and love for all beings. Vaishnavism is the other major tradition within Hinduism along with Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. The tradition is notable for its avatar doctrine, wherein Vishnu is revered in one of many distinct incarnations. Lord Ayyappa symbolises the unity of these two streams of Hindu philosophy.
According to puranic and oral traditions, Lord Ayyappa was born out of the union of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, when the latter was in Mohini form. Lord Vishnu took the form of Mohini to have destroyed a deadly demon Bhasmasura and acquire the elixir (amrut) for the gods during the great churning of oceans. Legend has it that Lord Shiva got swayed by the charm of Mohini and Lord Ayyappa was born of their union. While Lord Ayyappa was still a minor, a lady-demon had created havoc in the down south. She had got a boon from gods that she could only be defeated by the son born out of the union of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. As it happened, Lord Ayyappa defeated her in a battle.
Upon her defeat, 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 kanni-swamis (new devotees) 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. As both God Ayyappa and Goddess Malikapurathamma are worshiped at Sabarimala, this sacred grove is the confluence of the masculine and feminine manifestations of Divinity too.
Sabarimala also supposedly represents the unity other two rival philosophies-Buddhism and Hinduism. Though there are no solid proofs for this assumption, a few observations can be made. Prominent among them is the saranam chant of the pilgrims: “swami saranam ayyappo”, is said to come from the saranathrayam of the Buddhists- Buddhan saranam gachami, dharmam saranam gachami, sangham saranam gachami. The equality among the pilgrims is also noteworthy: the pilgrims refer to themselves and each other as “Ayyappas”, which is a feature of Buddhism and not Hinduism.
There is no mention of the Dharma Sastha god in any major Hindu scriptures, or legends mentioning him from anywhere else in India. The term “Dharma Sastha” could probably refer to Buddha. The fasting and strict penances taken by the pilgrims could be a reference to the mental discipline promulgated by the Buddhists. During the Advaita movement of Sree Shankaracharya, many Buddhist temples were converted into Hindu centres of worship. Sabarimala may be one of them. But in any counts, the Buddhist moorings of Sabarimala are undeniable.
The presiding deity of the temple, Lord Ayyappa, himself embodies the unity of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu
Vavar, also known as Vavaraswami, is the Muslim presence at Sabarimala. There is a shrine dedicated to Vavaraswami at Sabarimala, as well as Varaswamis mosque at Erumeli next to an Ayyappa temple. The devotion of Vavaraswami to Ayyappan and the key role that the Islamic Masjid has in the Ayyappa Pilgrimage highlights the communal harmony in Kerala.
The devotion of Vavaraswami also highlights the relevance of Ayyappa devotion for members of all faiths, and the equality shown to all, whether they are Muslims, Hindus or Christians. There are many legends about Vavar and his association with Ayyappa. Some believe that Vavar was a Muslim saint who migrated from Arabia to India with the intention of spreading Islam. Others suggest that he was a warrior who reached the shore of Kerala as a pirate in a ship to loot and plunder. During his encounter with Lord Ayyappa, he was defeated.
Impressed by the youth's valour, Vavar became close associate of Lord Ayyappa and helped him in the wars in the mountainous region. As time passed, Vavar too became an ardent devotee of Ayyappa and came to be known as Vavar swami. The old sword on the wall of the Vavar shrine symbolises the eminence of Vavar as a great warrior. It is believed that the Lord Ayyappa himself instructed the King of Pandala Desam to build a mosque for Vavar at Erumeli in Kottayam District. Sabarimala shrine is about 50 km away; deep in the Forest in Pathanamthitta. Erumeli is the gateway to Sabarimala, the hillock shrine of Lord Ayyappa.
This place is very famous for 'Pettathullal', a kind of mass spiritual dance perform by Ayyappa devotees. Pettathullal is performed in the Makaravilaku season, i.e., from mid-December to mid-January every year to commemorate the annihilation of a 'Mahishi' by Lord Ayyappa. It is believed that the aim of the incarnation of Lord Dharmasastha as son of Shiva and Vishnu was the annihilation of the Rakshasi Mahishi. Since Ayyappa is considered as a human incarnation of Dharmasastra, Erumeli is an important place of worship for Ayyappa devotees. After killing the Mahishi at Erumeli, Dharmasastha performed a dance on her dead body. In order to commemorate this event, the devotees perform the ritual called pettathullal in Erumeli.
The barefooted devotees perform this dance by wearing black dhotis, and garnishing their body with different colour powders and flowers and carrying toy bows, arrows and shrub branches and chanting the slogan "Ayyappa-thin-thakathom, Swami-thin-thakathom".
En route the pilgrimage to Sabarimala during the makaravilakku season almost all of the Ayyappa devotees will come to Erumeli and perform the ritual. Pettathullal starts from the small temple situated at the heart of Erumeli town known as 'Kochambalam'. From there the dance procession advance to the Muslim mosque called 'Vavar palli' opposite to Kochambalam and the devotees worship 'Vavarswamy'.
Finally the procession ends up at Dharmasastha temple known as 'Valliyambalam'. There is a shrine dedicated to Vavar in Sabarimala next to the main temple. As per Islamic teachings there is no idol, but just a carved stone slab symbolises the deity of Vavar. A green coloured silk cloth is hung across one of the three walls. The fourth side is open. An old sword is also kept near the wall. The main offering to Vavar is black pepper. A Muslim priest still performs the rituals today as he was a Muslim.
Finally the Sabarimala Temple epitomizes the unity between the deity and the devotee. Both the deity and the devotee are called Ayyappa at Sabarimala (female devotees are called Malikapurams). The important message written at the temple facade is one of the four Mahāvākyas of Advaita or the non-dualistic school of philosophy.
Tat Tvam Asi, the 3rd of four Mahavakyas which in Sanskrit translates to "Thou Art That" is the principal philosophy that governs the temple and pilgrimage. As the pilgrimage is symbolic for the journey to self-realization that all living beings possess the essence of Brahman, pilgrims refer to each other as Swami, acknowledging their divinity. It means, in short, you are part of the Paramatma, which is the quintessence of Advaita philosophy.
In short, the Sabarimala Temple signifies a bundle of unities-the unity of the two major streams of Hinduism namely Shaivism and Vaishnavism, the unity of Buddhism and Hinduism, of masculine and feminine manifestations of Divinity, of Hinduism and Islam and above all, the confluence the worshipper and the worshipped. This sacred grove should not be turned into a den of divisive politics and social disharmony. The God of the God’s own country should not be a god of small things like hatred, violence and parochialism.