Many holy shrines of Hindus are located close to nature, on mountain tops, river banks or sea shores, where the environment is conducive for reflection and meditation. Of these holy destinations, hilltop shrines have been difficult to access as often the climb is long and arduous.
It is widely believed that the difficulties encountered on a journey increase the benefits one would derive from the pilgrimage and in turn enhance the sanctity of the pilgrim centre. Such pilgrimages present a challenge to pilgrims not only because of the difficult terrain they have to negotiate — this in itself provides an adventure — but also on account of the presence of wild animals on the way, which adds an element of risk and uncertainty to the journey.
The annual trek across the sylvan and wildlife-rich Western Ghats to Sabarimala or Mount Sabari, the forest abode of Sri Ayyappa in Kerala, is one such pilgrimage. In addition to the hardships to be endured on the long and demanding trek, devotees observe rigorous austerities including practice of celibacy and abstain from social functions and pleasures for 41 days prior to the trek.
Open to darshan only during specific seasons in the year, Swami Ayyappa's shrine attracts millions of pilgrims from all over India and is popular in Kerala next only to the Guruvayur Sri Krishna temple. First-time pilgrims often return, making the pilgrimage an annual routine for the solace they get from the experience. The advent of Dharma Sasta, as Ayyappa is called, is an interesting and unique story.
According to some Puranas and folk songs of Kerala, he was born out of the union of Vishnu and Shiva. The story is that Shiva was captivated by the charming Mohini in which form Vishnu appeared at the time of the churning of the ocean of milk in order to distract the asuras so that the devas could divide the nectar among themselves. Shiva succumbed to the beauty of Mohini and Sasta is believed to have been born out of the union. Thus He is called Hariharaputra — son of Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara) — and is regarded as the third son of Shiva, the other two being Ganesha and Muruga or Kartikeya.
This is how Sri Sankaracharya of Kanchi describes it: “When the merciful charm of Narayana and the serene jnana (know-ledge) of Shiva combined, an effulgent light (tejas) was the outcome. Out of this tejas was born Ayyappa also known as Ayyanar, Sasta or Hariharaputra". The word Ayyappa is derived from aryan (one worthy of reverence) and appa or appan meaning 'father' in Malayalam.
Ayyappa thus embodies in Himself the qualities of both Shiva and Vishnu. He keeps guard over us, from evil spirits and also endows us with jnana leading to salvation. The purpose of the avatara of Lord Ayyappa was to restore order in the country and to renovate the temple at Sabari Hill. Ayyappa fulfilled the mission in due course and thereafter entered the sanctum sanctorum and disappeared. It is believed that He reunited with the Supreme.
The Sabarimala shrine is the most important and popular of the Sasta temples in Kerala. It is also the most significant because the pilgrimage to the shrine symbolises the struggle of the individual soul in its onward journey to the abode of bliss and beatitude.
|Image of Lord Ayyappa|
|Front view of the temple|