Lord Ayyappa is one of the most worshipped and loved Gods of the South India
Abode of Lord Ayyappa
Lord Ayyappa is one of the most worshipped and loved Gods of the South Indian community especially people of Kerala. Adhering to strict penance for a period of 41 days (mandala kalam) and then climbing the Sabari hills to worship Lord Ayyappa is a pilgrimage of vital importance to the body and soul of every Malayalee. Many consider this pilgrimage the high point of their lives. They try hard to go every year at least once to Sabarimalai to have the Lord Ayyappa's darshan and seek His blessings.
Lord Ayyappa is the outcome of the merger of Lord Siva and Lord Vishnu. With the union of Lord Vishnu as Mohini avathar (female aspect) and Lord Siva (male aspect), the creation of Lord Ayyappa was manifested. Lord Ayyappa is the sum total of cosmic knowledge (Siva) with cosmic energy (Shakthi represented by Vishnu as Mohini). Normally during mandala kalam (from Vrischikam, first day of Karthikai for 41 days), the aspirants desiring to go to Sabarimalai adhere to strict penance and dietary restrictions. After morning and evening bath, they chant Swamiyai Saranam Ayyappa at least three times and then pray to the Lord to shower His blessings on them to successfully undertake the pilgrimage and to fulfill their wishes. They adhere to pure vegetarian food only. They do not smoke nor have any alcoholic drinks and refrain from sensual pleasures during their penance. They normally wear black or dark blue and sometimes saffron coloured dhoti. Thus they are easily identified as Ayyappas and they greet one another with the chant 'Swami Saranam'. The symbolic meaning is that each one of them is considered as Lord Ayyappa Himself. Usually only girls that have not attained puberty are allowed to undertake pilgrimage to Sabarimalai to have darshan of Lord Ayyappa. Ladies after their menopause only can undertake the pilgrimage to Sabarimalai. This restriction on ladies is since Lord Ayyappa is Nithya Brahmachari (perennial bachelor) and is doing penance.
The most important offering to the Lord is ghee which is filled inside a coconut through one of the three eyes of the coconut. The water inside the coconut is drained off, the ghee filled and sealed off. Swami illustrates the significance of coconut as Lord Siva. Lord Siva has three eyes, so also a coconut. Normally one eye of the coconut which is soft is opened out and ghee is poured into it after draining the water inside. When one eye of the coconut is opened, the other two are in closed position. Similarly in our life, when we close our two physical eyes, that is when we are ready to give up all the worldly desires, our Netrikkan (the eye of Gnanam — divine vision) really opens. When we overcome desires for materialistic pleasures and whimsies, our eyes open for the eternal search of absolute bliss. Hence coconut is equated with Lord Siva who destroyed Manmadan (worldly desires) and created Lord Murugan (Lord of wisdom) who in turn gave Lord Siva, his father, the real meaning of the sacred syllable 'Om' (Brahman).
Ghee normally has four stages. Milk turns to curd and curd is churned to get butter which is melted to get ghee. These four stages signify the four aspects of human life — the mortal body, karmic action, meditation and lastly divine wisdom (gnanam). So also the outer husk covering of the coconut represents the human hair, the outer hard shell represents the human skull. When the water is taken out completely from the coconut (when one completely gives up worldly desires) one reaches the inner white delicious pulp which is gnanam. Our heart and mind should be like the ghee searching for the pure soul within us. Ghee also represents Mahalakshmi (Goddess of wealth) since it is obtained from milk that originates from the udder of the sacred cow. Goddess Mahalakshmi is considered as the consort of Lord Maha Vishnu and is supposed to reside in the heart of Lord Maha Vishnu. So ghee also signifies the manifestation of Maha Vishnu and the humble coconut represents Lord Siva. Thus the merger of Lord Vishnu with Lord Siva is represented by the ghee filled coconut.
The legend behind Lord Ayyappa is fascinating. The deadly demon queen Mahishi (in animal form) living in Sabari hills, started harassing all the saints, sages, the demigods and other people. Her atrocity and evil doings were cause for great concern. All the suffering people prayed to Brahma, Vishnu and Siva to protect them from Mahishi and to put an end to her wicked deeds. Moved by their sincere prayers, Maha Vishnu assumed the Mohini avathar (female aspect of the divine) and Siva (the male aspect) in divine unison gave birth to Lord Ayyappa. Thus, Lord Ayyappa came to this world to kill Mahishi, put an end to her wicked deeds, and thus protect the pious and restore peace in the land.
Ayyappa devotees carry normally irumudi on their heads while climbing the Sabari hills. Iru mudi in Tamil means two parts of a bag. The front part (mun mudi in Tamil) contains offerings including the mudra thengai (ghee-filled coconut) and the rear portion of the bag (pin mudi) contains rice and other articles to be used by devotees enroute for their sustenance while trekking through the dense forest. The irumudi represents the merger of jeevathma with paramathma (merger of body soul with the absolute).
The climbing of the sacred eighteen steps is considered as the most important and significant spiritual achievement by every devotee of Lord Ayyappa. Swami explained the significance of the sacred steps as follows. The first five steps represent our five sense organs and the next five steps represent the five vital elements — air, water, fire, earth and sky. The third set of five steps symbolize our sensory actions (karmic actions). The sixteenth step represents the mortal body, the I, ego. The seventeenth step represents the body consciousness, that is the mind and the eighteenth step represents the ultimate, God — the absolute truth. Thus by climbing the first fifteen steps, we try to get detached from physical desire and sensory craving. By climbing the other two steps personifying the cloud of ego (body self) and selfishness (mind), we try to get rid of the last iota of ego and attachment to our mortal body. Finally, we reach the eighteenth step, the pinnacle, to attain the absolute truth, Lord Ayyappa. So we have to slowly develop step by step, year after year to eliminate the physical bondage, systematically refraining from worldly materialistic desires to reach the ultimate goal of life, to merge with the absolute. Swami is the looking glass of gnanam that focuses all the rays of wisdom and bhakti, burning away petty desires of his devotees over time. When one meditates on Him, our sins and wrong doings are burnt to ashes by the focused divine vision of Swami and his siddhis. Swami explained the added significance of the sacred eighteen steps. During the Mahabharatha war between the pancha pandavas and kauravas (actually the war between righteousness and adharma), for eighteen days, countless innocent lives were sacrificed. These bereft souls prayed ardently to Lord Krishna asking what wrong they had done to be punished thus, with untimely death. Lord Krishna assured them that all of them will attain salvation. He placed their souls on the eighteen steps at Sabarimalai and whenever the devotees (Ayyappa personified), chanting Swamiyai Saranam Ayyappa climb the steps, their foot prints stepping on the souls will grant the souls salvation.