Lord Ayyappan (Ayyappa, Ayappa), is a Hindu god worshiped mainly in Kerala and parts of South India. He has become more popular since medieval times and therefore does not appear in the most well-known puranas. He is the god of Dharma, truth, discipline and celibacy and the representation of yoga.
Why Ayyappan Is Called Manikandan
Ayyappan is also known as “Manikandan” because his divine parents tied a golden bell (mani) around his neck (kandan) soon after his birth. Therefore when Shiva and Mohini abandoned the baby on the banks of the Pampa river, it was easy for King Rajashekhara to find him. He was the childless monarch of Pandalam who accepted him as a divine gift and adopted him as his own son.
Why the Gods Created Ayyappan
The Devas had combined their powers to create Durga who is well-known for killing Mahishasura who was creating havoc. Mahishi, his sister, created ruckus in the universe to avenge him. She pleased Brahma and was blessed with a boon which stated that only a child born to Shiva and Vishnu could kill her. Vishnu transformed into his Mohini avatar and united with Shiva to produce a child. And this child came to be known as HariHara Putra. Therefore, the main purpose of Ayyappan’s birth was to eliminate Mahishi.
Slaying Mahishi and riding the tiger
King Rajashekhara wanted Ayyappa, or Manikantan, to reign but the queen wanted her own son to be the king. Feigning illness, she made her physician ask for an impossible remedy — lactating tigress’ milk. When no one could procure it, Manikandan volunteered to go. On the way, he came upon the demon Mahishi and slew her on the banks of the river Azhutha. Manikandan then entered the forest for tigress milk, where he met his father, Lord Shiva. At his behest he sat on the tiger, who was Lord Indra taking the form of a tiger. On his return therefore his true identity was revealed to the king.
The Deification of Lord Ayyappan
The king said that they would build a temple so that his memory could be perpetuated on earth. Manikandan chose the location by shooting off an arrow which landed at Sabarilmala. Then he disappeared, leaving for his heavenly abode. When the construction was complete, Lord Parasuram sculpted the figure of Lord Ayyappan and installed it on the day of Makar Sankranti.
The Worship of Lord Ayyappan
Lord Ayyappa is believed to have laid down strict religious adherence to receive his blessings. First, the devotees should observe a 41-day penance before visiting him in the temple. They should maintain abstinence from physical pleasures and family ties and live like a celibate, or brahmachari. They should also continuously contemplate on the goodness of life. Moreover, the devotees have to bathe in the holy river Pampa, adorn themselves with three-eyed coconut (representing Shiva) and aantha garland, and then brave the steep climb of the 18 stairs to the Sabarimala temple. As he is is the god of celibacy, he is not worshipped by women who might want to bear children.
The Pilgrimage to Sabarimala
Sabarimala in Kerala is the most famous shrine, visited by more than 50 million devotees every year, making it one of the most popular pilgrimages in the world. Pilgrims from around the country brave the dense forests, steep hills, and inclement weather to seek the blessings of Ayyappan on January 14, known as Makar Sankranti, or Pongal, when the Lord himself is said to descend in the form of light. The devotees then accept prasad or the Lord’s food offerings, and descend the 18 steps, walking backward with their faces turned toward the Lord.
The characteristics of Ayyappan
Ayyappan is the son of Shiva, so that makes him half-brother to Lord Ganesha and Lord Murugan (Kartikeya/Skanda). There has been a suggestion that Ayyappan is a confusion with the specific Tamil deity known as Aiyanar or Shasta ( ஐயனார், சாஸ்தா), but this has not been conclusive. His symbols are usually a bow and arrow upraised in his left hand, while in his right he holds either a bow or a sword diagonally across his left thigh. Other depictions of Sri Ayyappan, particularly paintings, generally show him in a yogic posture wearing a bell around his neck and sometimes shown riding a tiger.