A World famous Hindu temple of India situated on the Western Ghat in Kerala amidst thick forest and lofty hills.
The annual Mandalavilakku (in November) festival of this temple witnesses one of the largest conglomeration of devotees in the world, closely followed by Brhmotsav at Lord Venkateswara temple at Tirupati, Kumbhamela in different parts of India and the Christmas celebration at Vatican.
There are many legends on the origin of the temple which is often confronting; at times even confusing too. However, the widely accepted legend goes like this. Ayyappa is the adopted son of the King Rajasekhara of Pandalam dynasty. One day, on return from hunting, he heard the cry of a boy in forest. There he saw a boy left with nobody. The childless king is only happy to accept this boy as his son.
The story of this divine boy goes like this. There was a demon called Mahishasura, who created much trouble in devaloka. So Lord Vishnu killed him. To take revenge on Devas, Mahishi- the sister of Mahishasura, did severe penance to please Lord Brahma. Finally she got a boon from Lord Brahma that she can be killed only by a son of Hari-Hara (The combination of Lord Shiva as male and Lord Vishnu, known as Mohini, as female)
On the strength of this unique boon, which is difficult to happen, Mahishi played havoc on Devaloka. The terrified Devas requested Lord Vishnu to take the form of Mohini and entice Lord Shiva to get married. Seeing the plight of Devas, Lord Vishnu did the same. In the end, a son was born to this divine couple. This is the child that the king of Pandala got on his hunting.
The king Rajasekhara considered the child as his own son and gave him all the required training for becoming the next king of Pandala. Meanwhile, the queen became pregnant and gave birth to a male child.
At that time the small but wealthy kingdom of Pandala was attacked by a robber called Udayana. The little Ayyappa led the force of Pandala and killed Udayana. Soon, another Muslim robber Vavar also attacked Padalam. Little Ayyappa defeated Vavar, but instead of killing, Ayyappa befriended him.
After seeing these valiant deeds of young Ayyappa, King Rajasekhara decided to crown him as the ruler of Pandala as he was getting aged.
Meanwhile,Diwan or Prime Minister of Pandala and the queen plotted against Ayyappa. They want to crown the son of the queen as the next king, not the adopted son – Ayyappa.
The queen acted as having severe stomach pain. They conspired with the Chief Physician of the palace. He prescribed tigress milk (pulipal) as the only medicine to cure this dangerous illness. None dared to take the challenge of collecting milk from the udder of a tigress as it is unimaginable!!
The young Ayyappa volunteered himself to go to the forest and collect milk from a tigress. King tried to dissuade the boy as it is beyond human comprehension. But Ayyappa stood firm and managed to get consent from the King. He went to the forest; while at forest, he heard a divine voice asking him to come to the Devaloka. At that point, the boy realized who he was and his mission in life.
He reached Devaloka, met the demon Mahisha there. He brought the demon on earth and fought with her. Finally, the Mahisha was killed near a place called Azhutha. After her death on the hands of Ayyappa, Mahishi became a beautiful young woman. She requested Ayyappa to marry her. Ayyappa declined as he had decided to become a brahmachari.
The Devas praised the boy on killing Mahishi, but Lord Shiva reminded him of his mission to collect tigress milk as the loving king was waiting anxiously for his arrival. Lord Shiva asked Indra, the head of devas, to become tiger and other goddess to be tigress. Mounting on a tiger and accompanied with many tigresses Ayyappa returned to the Pandalam palace.
Although bewildered, by the sight of having his son returned with many tigresses, the king felt happy. Both king and queen apologized on what had happened. Ayyappa revealed to his parent who he is. He told them that he wanted to go back to the forest to do meditation as a brahmachari.
The king and queen felt sad about leaving Ayyappa. So Ayyappa asked the king to build a suitable abode for him where the king can come to meet Ayyappa once in a year. The Ayyappa sent an arrow to the forest and asked the king to build an abode to him where the arrow falls. The spot of the present temple marks the place where the arrow had fallen.
But it may be noted that according to many others there was a temple dedicated to Lord Sastha (which was consecrated by Lord Parasuram when he created the land of Kerala) at the spot where the temple now stands. Ayyappa only became part of the existing idol.
To them this place is an ancient place of worship referred even in Ramayana (where Sabari of Ramayana offered fruits to Rama during his search of Sita). Addition of Ayyappa to the temple is comparatively recent, based on the historical facts, they claim.
Whatever be the legend, the fact remains that Lord Ayyappa is having a large mass of devotees all around the World. The devotees take a dense, rocky forest path to get a darhan of him. The temple is about 3000 feet above the sea level. The devotees are expected to take a tough vrita of about 40 days. During this period they are expected to take only vegetarian food, worship of Lord, after bath, twice in a day and also observe celibacy etc….
The famous Hindu temple is open for worship only about 120 days in a year. The temple shall be opened for the Mandala-Makaravilakku festival for 41 days, on Vishu and Onam festivals and also during the first six days of the Malayalam months in a year.
The Mandala-Makaravilakku festival in November, which lasts for 41 days, is the most important festival. Makara Jyothi, on the last day of the festival, attracts a huge gathering. This event is the biggest gathering of devotees on a single day for a single event in the world. The thundering sound of ‘Saranamantra’ from the crowd, when they first spot the Jyothi, is memorable one; a must for a devote Hindu at least once in his life time.
The 18 steps known as ‘Pathinettam padi’ and the ‘Malikapurathamma shrine’ nearby are also considered as holy as the Ayyappa shrine. Only devotees who had taken vratha and having irumudi kettu (as a proof of this) on their heads are allowed entry to the 18 steps. Malikapurathamma is the incarnation of Mahishi, who was killed by Lord Ayyappa on his way to get the tigress milk.
The original wooden temple was destructed by a major fire in 1971. The present temple dates back to 1971.
The temple is 200 kilometers from Kochi and 120 kilometers from Kottayam.