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At the heart of Sabarimala Temple’s bar on women lies a story of unrequited love

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Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of Sabarimala Temple, is said to have been born of a union between Shiva and Vishnu, when the latter was in the form of Mohini.

Bengaluru: The vehement refusal of devotees to allow women aged 10-50 into the Sabarimala sanctum sanctorum has stoked curiosity about the temple as well as its presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa.

Lord Ayyappa is known to be in a state of eternal celibacy, and that’s why scores of believers have refused to honour last month’s Supreme Court order striking down the age-old bar on women.

For them, allowing women into the sanctum infringes on their tradition and beliefs. Dig deeper, and you will find that the belief is rooted in a story of unrequited love and sacrifice.

According to religious historians, Ayyappa is believed to have been born at a point in time when the Hindu community was divided into two groups, the Shaivites (followers of Shiva) and Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu). His name is a combination of the terms Ayya, how Vaishnavites refer to Vishnu, and Appa, how Shaivites refer to Shiva.

Ayyappa, originally named Manikanta, is said to have brought the two groups together.

Also read: I’m no revolutionary, says 32-year-old Kerala teacher as she readies for Sabarimala trip

The royal connection

There are several stories and myths about how Ayyappa came to be recognised as the residing deity at Sabarimala, believed to be 5,000 years old.

According to an account offered on the Kerala government website’s Sabarimala section, Ayyappa had a human incarnation as a king of the state’s Pandalam royal family. This is said to be roughly around a millennium back.

His parents, the royal couple of King Jayendran Namboothiri and Queen Maya Thamburatti, devotees of Shiva and Vishnu, were childless, and had invoked the gods fervently for an heir.

One day, when the king was out hunting in a forest, he found a child abandoned along the banks of the river Periyar. A sage who lived nearby advised the king to adopt the child and raise him as his own. The child was named Manikanta, as it is believed that he was found with a bead (mani) around his neck (kanta).

According to ancient texts, this child is said to have been born of a union between Shiva and Vishnu, when the latter took the form of Mohini to defeat the demon Bhasmasur. It is believed that Shiva was deeply taken in by Mohini’s form and beauty.

The transformation of Manikanta to Ayyappa is said to have taken place with one major event.

At the age of 12, Manikanta was crowned the prince of the Pandalam dynasty despite the fact that the queen had given birth to a son by then.

Also read: Sabarimala temple ruling distances courts from Indians steeped in tradition

Manikanta was very popular with the public, which is said to have caused immense jealousy in the family. A minister in the court began to instigate the queen and asked her to feign illness, saying he would bribe the royal physician to say that only a tigress’ milk could cure her — all a ruse to send Manikanta on a life-threatening mission.

When no one in the palace stepped up, Manikanta volunteered.

In the forest, he is said to have encountered the demoness Mahishi, whom he vanquishes. The next day, the lore goes, he returned to the palace riding a tigress with several cubs in tow. The king was filled with pride, and the public hailed his bravery by chanting “Ayya” and “Appa”. Thus the name Ayyappa.

Legend has it that Ayyappa subsequently expressed a desire to renounce all material wealth and live the life of an ascetic, asking his father to build a temple for him.

At the time, the Sabarimala temple existed in the domain of another king, Udayan. After waging a war, the temple was conquered and the prince assumed the divine form of Lord Ayyappa that we see today.

Why women were barred

It is said that a demoness, known to have wreaked havoc in the southern part of India, was given a boon that she could only be defeated by a child born of Shiva’s union with Vishnu.

When Ayyappa eventually defeated her, it is said, a young beautiful woman trapped in the demoness’ body was set free. Her name was Leela and she is said to have fallen in love with Ayyappa, but he refused to acknowledge her feelings.

Determined, Leela followed him until he relented one day and said he would marry her the day new devotees stopped visiting the Sabarimala Temple.

Also read: Young women police officers don’t want to be posted at Sabarimala and offend Ayyappa

Leela agreed to wait.

Eventually, a temple built next to Lord Ayyappa was dedicated in her honour.

Leela is worshipped today as Malikapurathamma, and it is believed that the entry of menstruating or fertile women to the sanctum is an insult to Leela’s sacrifice for her beloved.

Sabarimala & other religions

Surrounded by 18 hills along the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, the Sabarimala Temple is believed to have been built by the sage Parashuram.

It is a pilgrimage centre open to people of all religions. After offering prayers at the main shrine, devotees also visit a mosque built nearby that is dedicated to Vavar or Babar, a Muslim warrior who was defeated by Ayyappa and later become his trusted lieutenant.

The Buddhists, meanwhile, believe Ayyappa is an incarnation of Buddha.

The influence of Buddhism can be seen in a ritual called ‘Dharma Shasta’, which involves the chant “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa”, just like the Buddhists’ “Buddham Saranam Gachami”.

There is also a Christian connection: Legend has it that one of the early priests of the church, Fr Jacomo Fenicio, was a close friend of Lord Ayyappa. He was deeply interested in Hindu culture and rituals and also shared the love for the martial art Kalarippayattu with Ayyappa. Devotees, therefore, also visit the Arthunkal church on their way back from Sabarimala.

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