Tucked away in a rugged, remote hill, high up on the Sahyadri ranges, Sri Dharmasastha temple is the abode of Lord Ayyappa. Said to be among the oldest temples in Hindudom, it is also one of the most visited shrines in south India. The temple is open only for a few days: the first festival called Mandalam lasts for 41 days, from November 15th to December 25, Makaravilakku, from January 1st to 14th, on Vishu, the Malayalam New Year, the days of the vernal equinox in April, and during the first five days of every Malayalam month. The shrine is open to all males belonging to any religion, caste or sect, but women are not allowed, unless they are less than six or over sixty. Pilgrims fast, pray and practice celibacy for 41days before embarking on the journey to Sabarimala. They climb the steep hills and stand in queue for hours at a stretch for a glimpse of Lord Ayyappa, lasting a few seconds. Those carrying the Iru Mudi Kettu are alone allowed to ascend the main temple complex, Sannidhanam, through the holy 18 steps called Pathinettampadi. It is said that the 18 steps represent the 18 hills that surround the shrine, and the 18 gods therein. The 18 deities are propitiated during the padi (step) pooja.
Historians and archaeologists maintain that the temple is 4,000 to 4250 year old, while, according to popular belief, it is 5000 years old. It was earlier known as Mathanga mala, as sage Mathanga is said to have lived here. It became Sabarimala after Sri Rama met Sabari, sage Mathanga's disciple, during his peregrinations down south in search of Sita.
According to the Puranas, Rajasekhara, the king of Pandalam a line of the Pandyas, had no issue and prayed to Lord Shiva for a child Lord Shiva then instructed Dharmasastha, an emanation of the Mohini avatar of Lord Vishnu, to be born as Ayyappan. The King, who was returning from a hunt, found the infant, Manikandan (Lord Ayyappa), on the banks of the Pampa. The ruler was still in a dilemma as to adopt the child, when a yogi appeared before him and told him to bring him up as his own son. He also asked the king to name him Manikandan, since the child had a golden bell round his neck (Manikandan: the one with a bell round the neck). After completing his education in the martial arts and shastras, he decided to leave his guru's ashram. The guru, wo was aware of Manikandan's divine origin, appealed to him to make his dumb son speak. Manikandan did so, but requested the guru to reveal his divine prowess to anyone.
Meanwhile, the king decided that Manikandan was old enough to be crowned king, a decision that was resented by the Diwan (prime minister). He plotted withthe queen, who by now had a son of her own. Accordingly, the queen pretended to be sick and said that only the milk of a tigress could cure her. Much against the king's wishes. Manikandan went to the forest, alone, to bring the milk. On the way, he fought and killed Mahishi, a female demon, who had been terrorizing the devas. Lord Shiva then appeared before him and asked him to go to the palace, riding on Indra, the god of gods, in the form of a tiger, while the other devas would accompany them, also as tigers and tigresses. Seeing Manikandan coming to the palace with the animals, onlookers fled. The old yogi then reappeared and revealed to King Rajasesekhara the real identity of Manikandan. The king fell at Manikandan's feet, and requested him to return the animals to the jungle, as the queen's health had recovered the moment he left for the forest. Manikandan was twelve when this incident occurred. The boy however told the king that His earthly sojourn was over. The king then wanted Manikandan to indicate a place where a temple for Him could be built. Manikandan cast an arrow, which fell at the place named after Sabari. Atemple could be built thee, indicated the youth and disappeared. The king is said to have constructed the shrine, as per the instructions of sage Agastya, while Parasurama installed the idol of manikandan.
Manikandan had stipulated that he would bless only those of His devotees who observed the 41-day vratha of isolating themselves from Samsara (family bondage), practiced Brahmacharya (celibacy) bathed and kept themselves clean in body and mind, carried the holy irumudi as Manikandan did when He went tothe forest to fetch the tigress' milk and uttered the word Saranam, while climbing the 18 steps.
The irumudi is a kind of bag with two compartments, one containing coconut filled with ghee, besides other materials for the Lord's abishekam; and the other, the personal belongings of the devotee. The guru places this on the head of the devote at the beginning of the journey. It is a reminder of the bundle that Manikandan carried to the forest.
To this day, the sacred ornaments of Lord Ayyappa are carried on the head by a descendent of the Pandalam royal family, three days before the Makarajoti festival in January. An eagle, said to be the sacred Garuda, hovers in the sky, as the procession makes its way from Pandalam to Sabarimala. It vanishes after the Lord is adorned with the jewels, it is said. A star, not usually seen, appears on the sky on the Makaajyyoti evening.
There is an interesting story about how manikandan got the name Ayyappan. It is said that a few centuries back there was an attempt to demplish Sri DharmaSastha temple. Ayyappan, an army chief in the pandalam royal family, drove back the attackers, but was himself killed in the clash. The king, however, reconstructed the temple with the help of a Muslim devotee, Vavar. After his demise, Ayyappan was believed by people to be an incarnation of Sri Dharma Sastha. Later Sri Sastha and Ayyappan became synonymous. Vavar is revered as Vavarsamy in a small shrine in Erumeli, on the way to Sabarimala. This mosque was reportedly built by the Pandalam king, on the instructions of Lord Ayyappa.
The temple is on a plateau, with a lofty view of the mountains and valleys around. The roof of the sanctum is copper-plated. In the altar sits the panchaloha image of Sri Ayyappa, legs crossed.
How to get there
1) Erumeli route: the most difficult (61km on foot), though forest and hill track.
2. Vandiperiyar route: on the Kottayam-Kumili road
3) Chalakayam Route: Near the Pampa, the easiest; the temple is just 8 km from here.
Tiruvalla is the nearest railway station for those coming via Ernakulam, though some would prefer Kottayam (128)km. For those coming from south Tamil Nadu, Kumili (180km) is good option. Kochi (200km) is the nearest Airport.
Accommodation: Rooms are available on the hills, though they could be at a (hefty) premium during Makarajyoti and Vishu.
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