This is the chant heard all over South and other parts of India in the months of December-January when thousands of devotees observe the sacred ‘Vratha’ (vow of self-purification) to visit Sabarimala- the abode of Lord Sastha who is also referred to as Ayyappan. The celebrations culminate on the day the Sun transits from the zodiac of Sagittarius to that of Capricorn which generally is on the 14th or 15th of January.

Movies and serials have been made on the story of Lord Sastha as Manikantan – His birth, His miracles, His vanquishing the demoness Mahishi and so on. In many of them the name Ayyappan is used interchangeably for Manikantan.

However, it was not till a few years ago, I came to know that Ayyappan is different from the Manikantan or Hariharaputran mentioned in the Puranas.

I stumbled upon Shri Aravind Subramanyan’s blog https://shanmatha.blogspot.com a few years back and came to know that Ayyappan was a historical figure who is the reason for the survival of the ancient tradition of worship of the Sabarimala Sastha temple which continues today.

Shri Aravind Subramanyan has published many books on Lord Sastha of Sabarimala. The story of this historical figure of Ayyappan is the outcome of Shri Aravind’s laborious research. With his permission I narrate this story.

The worship of Lord Dharma Sastha with his consorts in our country exists from time immemorial. Manikantan or Hariharaputran is understood as an incarnation of Lord Dharma Sastha. The Puranas say that He was found and raised by a king, and later on performed arduous tasks like bringing the milk of a tigress to cure His stepmother’s ailment, curing His Guru’s mute son, slaying Mahishi and so on and finally took to Yoga at the Sabarimala. It is this temple of His which is situated at Sabarimala from the ancient times.

Now for the story of Ayyappan…

In the early tenth century, the ruling Pandya king of Madurai was persecuted by the Cholas. He escaped and fled to Kerala with his men. On reaching Pandalam, the king settled down there and established his kingdom. The ancient Shri Sastha at Sabarimala was the guardian deity of the region, and the king accepted Him as his family deity. The Pandya dynasty flourished.

Around the end of the tenth century, a dreaded dacoit by name Udayanan came with his gang from the Tamil regions beyond the borders. He started dominating the Pandalam region of Kerala.

Building fortresses on the mountains of Talappara, Injippara and Karimala in the forests of Pandalam, he became a perpetual threat to the people living in that area. The ancient temple of Sabarimala was on the route – a highway between Tamil Nadu and Kerala, along which the merchants travelled. Udayanan mercilessly plundered wealth from the travellers and killed people and the people in the area lived in constant fear.

At one point Udayanan became so arrogant that he and his gang attacked the Shri Sastha Temple at Sabarimala, ransacked it and broke the Murti of Lord Sastha into pieces. The gang also murdered the priest so that it would not be possible to conduct Poojas anymore.

The son of the priest by name Jayanthan, somehow escaped. Distressed by the gruesome murder of his father, he wanted to take revenge by killing Udayanan and his gang, and to rebuild and consecrate the Sastha temple at Sabarimala.

With this single focus, he, while wandering about the mountains in hiding, completed his education and mastered all forms of warfare. He then went to the various chieftains and kings seeking for help to kill Udayanan. Though the kings appreciated his valour, they were not forthcoming to help him as they feared the wrath of Udayanan.

Jayanthan then realized that the task needed divine intervention and went to Ponnambalamedu, where he started doing penance by meditating upon Lord Sastha.

Udayanan, meanwhile, in one of his looting expeditions happened to see the beautiful princess of the Pandya kingdom and wanted to marry her.

He sent the marriage proposal to the king, which was politely refused by the king. After all, who would want to marry off their princess to a gangster?

This refusal by the king enraged Udayanan. So, he raided the palace, and abducted the princess. He threw her into prison and gave her one month to make up her mind to marry him or face death. The soldiers of the Pandya king could not find out where the princess was hidden and also, they had no clue as to whether she was alive or dead.

One night, in the dream of the princess, Lord Sastha appeared and informed her that she would soon be rescued and He Himself would take birth as her son.

At the same time, the Lord also appeared in the dream of Jayanthan who was at Ponnambalamedu. He indicated the location of the prison and instructed Jayanthan to rescue the princess and marry her so that He could take birth as their son.

While Udayanan and his gang were traveling through the mountain routes collecting booty, Jayanthan made a lightning attack on the guards at the prison where the princess was kept and set the princess free. But since the princess was missing for more than 21 days from the palace, the royal family had considered her to be dead and performed all her last rites.

Eventually, as per the directions of Lord Sastha, Jayanthan married the princess and they settled in an inaccessible forest region (near the present Ponnambalamedu), engaging in intense penance and meditation. They earnestly prayed to Lord Dharma Sastha for a son who would be able to slay Udayanan and rebuild the Sabarimala Temple.

Soon, a child was born to them on 14-01-1095. He was named Aryan. Aryan is one of Lord Sastha’s well-known names. Aryan was trained in fields of spiritual, science and military art including warfare by his able father Jayanthan. Jayanthan’s objective was to bring up Aryan in perfect military discipline with sufficient background in spiritual matters. Aryan was exceptionally brave and intelligent for his age.

When his parents thought that the time was ripe for Aryan to be sent to his own palace, all details about his birth and up-bringing were written in a letter addressed to the king of Pandalam. Aryan was sent to his uncle’s palace with the letter.

The king was overjoyed to know that his sister was alive and such a divine looking young boy was his nephew! In fact, when the information spread, all the people were delighted by this wonderful news.

The king was greatly impressed by the military training Aryan had undergone under the tutelage of his father. He seemed to possess extra-ordinary faculties. So, the king made him a chief in his army and gave him all powers even though the boy was barely into his teens. He was given the name ‘Aryan Kerala Varman’ and addressed as ‘Ayyan’ or ‘Ayyappan’.

In spite of being in a luxurious palace amidst all worldly things, Ayyappan often sought solitude and seclusion at Sabarimala. He regularly went there and meditated, contemplating on the mission for which he had taken birth.

Once King Manivikrama Pandya of the Poonjar kingdom was attacked by Udayanan’s dacoits while he was travelling via Vandiperiyar. Suddenly, a boy of about fourteen years came riding on a wild elephant which he had tamed and chased away the dacoits and told Manivikrama to go home in peace. The boy was none other than Ayyappan who was roaming in the jungles.

The time had now come for completing Ayyappan’s life mission. So, he set about meeting the kings at Kayangulam, Ambalappuzha, Chertala, Alangad and the Pandya Kingdom.

The kings were very happy to assist Ayyappan. The king at Kayangulam offered warriors from all the ‘Kalaris’ in his region. (Kalarippayat is the martial art of Kerala and the place where it is taught is called Kalari).

Before Ayyappan left Kayangulam, news came that a pirate by name Vavar was attacking the people of the coastal areas. With the help of the minister of the Kayangulam Raja, Ayyappan defeated Vavar both in body and mind and Vavar became his disciple.

Ayyappan’s army now included Kochu Kadutha, the master swordsman, Talappara Mallan and Talappara Villan, the expert archers and of course, Vavar.

While Ayyappan was at the Kalari of Chera Mooppan at Chertala selecting warriors, the daughter of Mooppan confessed her love for Ayyappa. Ayyappan on the other hand, gave her such beautiful advice which lifted her mind from the mundane to a spiritual level.

Then with Erumeli as the centre point, the first attack against Udayanan was launched by Ayyappan but it was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Udayanan’s gang abducted Mooppan’s daughter and killed her.

Prior to the next attack, Ayyappan told his army to observe ‘Vratha’ for 56 days before entering Sastha’s Poonkavanam. They all then prayed to Kirata Sastha at Erumeli.

The army was divided into three divisions under the leadership of Kochu Kadutha, Vavar and Talappara Villan/Mallan respectively. They planned to attack Udayanan’s hideout from the North, South and East sides. Ayyappan had the central command. Ayyappan also asked the warriors to disguise themselves in tribal dresses so that they could not be easily identified by the enemy.

Right from the time Ayyappan and his entourage entered the Poonkavanam, Ayyappan’s demeanor totally changed, and he became so serene and blissful. He did not touch any weapon but merely led the army.

Soon the armies raided the hide-outs at Injippara, Karimala and Udumpara and very soon Udayanan was slain by Kochu Kadutha at Karimala Kotta.

With his mission accomplished, Ayyappan led the army to the temple which had been pillaged by Udayanan. He told his men to deposit their arms under a big banyan tree there, as carrying weapons to a place of worship is sacrilege.

After leaving their weapons they went to the temple where Ayyappan’s father Jayanthan was ready with a new ‘Murti’ for installation.

The broken temple had to be renovated for the new deity to be installed. Ayyappan stayed back in the forest engrossed in deep meditation till the renovation of the temple was completed and made ready for re-installation of the new deity and consecration.

On the first day of the month of Makaram (mid-Jan) when the Sun moved from the zodiac of Dhanus to that of Makara, the re-installation of the idol and re-consecration of the Sabarimala temple was ceremoniously conducted by Ayyappan.

Soon after the ceremony was over, a holy flame was seen at Ponnambalamedu and no one saw the Prince Arya Kerala Varman – Ayyappan thereafter.

It was then, that they realized that their beloved Arya Kerala Varman – Ayyappan, who had been their lovable, gentle, merciful prince was none other than the incarnation of Lord Sri Dharma Sastha!

Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa!!