Ayyappan also known as Manikandan was born out of the union of Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu had assumed the form of the beautiful woman Mohini to recover amrita (an elixir of immortality) from asuras who had stolen it. When Shiva saw the Mohini avatar of Vishnu he fell in love with her. A boy with supernatural powers was born out of their union.
Shiva gifted that child to the King of Panthalam who was an ardent devote of the lord. The king didn’t have any child of his own. The king was overjoyed to receive the child and named him Manikandan. The queen also loved him dearly. A few years later she gave birth to a baby boy. The king was delighted to have a child of his own, but that did not affect his love or admiration for his adopted child, Manikandan. The queen, however, began to love her own child more than her adopted child. She wanted her own child to be the next king. Some other members of the palace were also against Manikandan. They conspired against him not knowing who he was.
The palace doctor advised the queen to act as if she had a terrible headache. The queen did so. The king summoned doctors from all over the country to find a cure for his wife’s illness. None succeeded. The palace doctor said that only the milk of a tigress could cure the illness of the queen. There was still one problem. Somebody had to get the milk. None dared to go. This was a calculated move because they know that Manikandan would step in. He was very brave. Also he loved his foster mother dearly. How could he sit idle when she was in so much pain?
As expected, Manikandan came forward and sought the king’s permission to go. He was still a young boy and hence the king didn’t grant him the permission. The boy, however, insisted that he be allowed to go. The king had to agree with great reluctance. The king made arrangements for his soldiers to accompany Manikandan, but he insisted on going alone. His reasoning was simple: the soldiers would scare the tigress away. At last the king allowed him to go to the forest alone. The king sent along essential food items and coconuts. Coconuts have three eyes and they are said to represent Lord Shiva who also has three eyes. Coconuts are commonly used for pujas. The Panchabhutas (five elements) sent by Lord Shiva accompanied Manikandan. On his way to the forest, Manikandan learned about the atrocities committed by Mahishi (a demoness) in heaven.
The legend of Mahishi
Mahishi was a demoness. She wanted to avenge the murder of her brother Mahishasur. He had been killed by the devas. So, she observed austerities for several years. Pleased with her, lord Brahma appeared before her and asked her what boon she wanted. She sought immortality. However, Brahma told her that he was incapable of granting that wish because all living things had to die. Mahishi thought for a while. She made some modifications to her wish and sought the blessing that she could only be killed by the son of Shiva and Vishnu. They are both males, so naturally Mahishi believed that they wouldn’t be able to have a child. Brahma granted her the wish. Assuming that she was invincible, Mahishi started wreaking havoc all over the world.
Manikandan goes to the heaven
Manikandan realized that time had come for him to kill Mahishi and restore peace on the earth and the heaven. He went to the heaven and a battle ensued between the two. Manikandan pushed Mahishi to earth and she fell on the bank of the Azhuta River. Manikandan followed her to earth and the battle resumed. At last Mahishi realized that she was fighting the son of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. She prostrated before Manikandan and died. Manikandan forgave her sins and she obtained moksha (salvation).
Manikandan then went to the forest to get the tigress’s milk. Upon receiving the instructions of Lord Shiva, Indra, the king of devas, assumed the form of a tiger. Female devas became tigresses and they all marched towards the palace. When people saw Manikandan returning to the palace with a pack of tigers, they were scared.
The king was overjoyed to see his son returning to the palace. The queen realized her mistake and fell at his feet seeking forgiveness. The benign boy who turned twelve that day consoled the king and the queen and told them they need not worry. The king and the queen wanted him to stay with them and become the next king.
However, Manikandan said that time had come for him to return to his heavenly abode. The purpose of his birth was to kill Mahishi. Since he had accomplished that he had to return to Davaloka (the world of gods). He asked the king what boon he wanted. The king was heartbroken, but he couldn’t make Manikandan change his mind. The king said that he wanted to build a temple in his memory. Manikandan granted that wish. Manikandan aimed an arrow and it fell at the place where a sanyasini called Sabari worshipped Lord Rama in Treta Yuga (the era when Lord Rama lived). That is how the hill got the name Sabarimala (mala = hill).
The shrine at Sabarimala was built as per the advice of sage Agasthya. Manikandan had made it clear that he would only bless devotees who visit the shrine after observing austerities for 41 days. They had to abstain from worldly pleasures and live the life of a celibate. While coming for his dharshan, devotees are required to carry the irumudi (cloth bundle) containing offerings for the Lord. They have to bathe in River Pampa like he did when he went to the forest to fetch tigress milk.
The Sabarimala temple is situated amidst 18 hills. The 18 stairs that devotees have to climb to get the Darshan of the Lord are said to represent these 18 hills. The temple is situated at an altitude of 468 m above sea levels. Dense forests and mountains surround the shrine. The forests surrounding the temple are known as Poonkavanam (the forest where flowers are in abudance). There are temples on each of the hills surrounding Sabarimala.
Men of all ages undertake the pilgrimage to Sabarimala. Young women are not allowed to enter the temple. However, girls under the age of 12 and women above the age of 50 can undertake the pilgrimage. Ayyappan apparently does not want women in the menstrual age group to visit the temple because he is a brahmachari (celibate). Sabarimala pilgrims wear black or blue dress. They don’t shave until they complete the pilgrimage.
The temple is open for worship only during the Mandalam season which lasts 41 days (approximately between 15th November and 26th December). It is reopened for Makaravilakku or “Makar Sankranti” (14 January) and Maha Vishu Sankranti (14 April). Now devotees can also visit the shrine during the first five days of each Malayalam month. This was not possible earlier; however, most devotees prefer to undertake the pilgrimage during the Mandalam season.