Hindu shrines are usually situated near river banks, sea shores or on mountain tops to help pilgrims meditate and to provide them a sense of peace. The shrines found on hill tops are especially enthralling, not only because of their religious appeal, but also due to their approachability (or lack thereof). The hill shrine of Sabarimala and its deity Lord Ayyappan is matchless in Hindu religion and special to the State of Kerala in South India. This forest abode of Lord Ayyappan is situated in the Western Ghats of India. Lord Ayyappan is a symbol of religious unity and communal harmony. Being born out of Mohini (the female incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and Lord Shiva, he is also known as Bhuthanatha, DharmaShaastha, Harihara Puthran, Ayyanar and Manikantan.
There are several temples dedicated to Lord Ayyappan all over India. Among these, the important temples along the Western Ghats are: Kulathupuzha – where Lord Ayyappan is a child, Aryankavu – where he is a bachelor, Achankovil – where he takes the form of DharmaShaastha with Poorna and Pushkala (his consorts), Erumely – the shrine of Sri Dharma Shaastha and Pettai Shaastha, Kanthamala – where there is a “virtual” shrine for Lord Ayyappa, and the most popular of them all Sabarimala – where he is a yogi, meditating for the benefit of all.
Kulathupuzha is situated in the middle of a forest tange in the Thirivananthapuram – Shenkottah road. The temple is located on the banks of Kulathu Puzha (and hence the name), a tributaty of Kallada River, and the Lord can be seen here in the form of a Veeramanikantan. The legend behind this temple is that when an elderly Brahmin, who was returning from his Rameswaram pilgrimage, tried to break a piece of stone to size to use as a platform for cooking, blood gushed our of the stone – thus revealing to the Brahman the divine presence of Lord Shastha. The Lord is still worshipped in the form of the original stone that was broken by the Brahmin. A Panchaloha vigraha has been installed for the purpose of alankara.
Achankovil is situated deep in the forests of Kerala. Devotees have to drive through winding roads, through rural landscapes, and go through Tamilnadu before reaching Achankovil. Lord Ayyappa is refered to a Manikanta Muthaiyan in this temple and can be seen with Poorna and Pushkala on either side. This is one of the few temples where the original Vigraha installed by Parasurama can still be found. This temple is famous for curing poisonous snake bites. Lord Ayyappa was worshipped with Sarpa Suktham by Siddhas in ancient times.
Aryankavu is located 22km from Shenkottah bordering Tamilnadu. The temple is located 35 feet below the road level. This place used to be referred to as Arya Vanam in ancient days. The Lord can be seen here with hair in the form of fire – agni kesham – and a bunch of flowers in his hand. The panchaloha murti of Lord Ayyappa in this temple is an embodiment of majesty and radiance.
Erumely is located about 60km from Kottayam and was originally called as Mahishi Marika Vanam. Lord Ayyappa, who loves the forests (poongavanam) appears here as a hunter. This temple is world famous for the mass ritual dance –Petta Thullal -by the Ayyappa devotees going on pilgrimage to Mount Sabarimala. Even though according to age old custom, only the Kanni Ayyappans (pilgrims going to Sabarimala for the first time) need to participate in Erumely Petta Thullal, half of the pilgrims going to Sabarimala usually participate in the grand devotional dance in Erumely. The most important day in Petta Thullal is on 27th Dhanu (around January 10) when the grand dance by Ambalapuzha and Alangadu (Paravur) groups (yogams) are staged. The thullal by Ambalapuzha commences only after seeing the Krisha parunthu (kite) above the small Kochampalam in Erumely Petta situated opposite the Muslim Mosque named after Vavar .The assumption being that Lord Sree Krishna of Ambalapuzha arrives in his garuda vahana to witness the celebration. Similarly the petta thullal of Alangadu yogam start only after they have seen a bright star at noon, which is a very strange phenomenon. There are number of views about the origin of Petta Thullal. The most accepted one is that it is to commemorate the preparation of the army by Ayyappan and his comrade and disciple Vavar. Another view is that Ayyappa killed a fierce beast (Eruma) in Erumely and people danced enthrilled when it was killed and the thullal is to commemorate that dance.
Sabarimala (Mount Sabari – about 3000 feet above mean sea level) is the most favorite and significant temple in Kerala. Pilgrimage to this temple symbolizes the journey to heaven and is a soul cleansing experience. Under the guidance of a leader (Guruswami), pilgrims observe austerities with devotion, wearing rudraksha or tulsi beads strings in the neck, adorn black or saffron or blue clothes, fast for 42 days (vrata) to condition the body, mind, and soul, and embark on their spiritual journey through “gods own country” and mountains to reach the temple.
The pilgrims, after observing the vrata, carry on their head, the holy ghee for the Lord’s Abisheka that is filled in a coconut that is packed in the form of an “Irumudi” (two compartment cloth bag).The feeling of delight and spiritual elevation that devotees get when they have the darshan of the deity is so remarkable and significant that it brings tears of joy in the eyes of the devotee. The magnetic charm is so high, it makes any devotee, who undertakes the yatra (pilgrimage) once, to revisit the shrine every year in quest of spiritual solace.
The striking significance of the beliefs about Sabarimala is feeling of universal brotherhood – 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 temple where such belief is practiced.
Sabarimala temple is open to all men and women who are either below the age of ten or above the age of 50 (because the Lord is a chaste yogi in Sabarimala), irrespective of caste, creed, religion, social status or nationality. The male pilgrims are called ‘Ayyappan’ and the female pilgrims are called ‘Malikappuram’. The shrine is open only during specific period in a year. It is open from Mid-November to Mid-January and for first five days of every Malayalam month.