Thus spake the Judge: Sabarimala is no Hindu Temple.

And the Learned Lady was right.

Majority Judgment

On 28th September, 2018, the Supreme Court of India made a landmark judgment allowing women of all ages to enter and worship at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Chief Justice Dipak Mishra, and Justice Khanwilkar in a single judgment, Justice Chandrachud and Justice Rohinton Nariman in separate judgments ruled, in a nutshell, that preventing women of the age group from 10 to 50 (the so-called menstruating age) was ultra vires the provisions of the Constitution. The order required that women of all age groups be allowed to enter the temple and worship the way men did. The four judges were firmly of the opinion that Sabarimala, being a Hindu temple, Article 25(2)(b) allows the State to make any law that opens a public Hindu institution to all ‘classes and sections’ of Hindus. Justice Mishra clarified that all classes and sections includedwomen of all ages.

Thus spake Lawyer of Delhi High Court Who defended the rapist-killers of of a paramedical girl in Delhi 2012.

Unfortunately for the deity who sits in the gold-decked and gold-roofed temple atop the sacred hill, Their Honours relied on the mundane laws of men. What the judges should have done in their wisdom (and to buy peace) was to heed the warning in the sacred Hindu code of law (Manusmriti) laid down by the great ancient Sage Manu and followed by Hindus for thousands of years

“. It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females..”

When the judgment was pronounced, all the political parties including the ruling BJP, Congress Party of the opposition and the Communist Party that ruled the state lauded the majority judgment. Sreedharan Pillai, President of the State BJP of Kerala and Ramesh Chennithala, ditto of the Congress Party in the opposition initially welcomed the judgment. Mohan Bhagawat, Sarsanchalat (head convener) of the semi-militant Hindu organization RSS that holds the final say in the decisions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s (who himself is a proud sanchalak) government thought it was a great decision.

Soon the folly of such a stance dawned on Pillai and Chennithala, who alerted their central leaders. They messaged post-haste that the court ruling was dangerous to their parties; even women of Kerala might vote against them because they too uphold the acharam (tradition) of not equating women with men. Therefore, they warned, that the Communists, who were immensely pleased with the judgment would walk away with the forthcoming election to central parliament. Rejecting the decision of the Supreme Court would give them an edge over the Communists. Soon the Hindu-centric BJP and the less chauvinistic (yet opportunistic) Congress competed to demonstrate who led the move to thwart the judgment of the highest court of the land.

Ramesh Chennithala , Congress Party, Kerala Sreedharan Pilla, BJP

mple. (PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan) (PTI10_14_2018_000087B)

New Delhi: Alleged Lord Ayyappa devotees take part in the ‘Ayyappa Namajapa Yatra’ (chanting the name of Lord Ayyappa) in New Delhi, Sunday, October 14, 2018 against the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa Temple. (PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan) (PTI10_14_2018_000087B)

The Dissenting order by a Lady Judge

Media reports of J. Malhotra’s order

The dissenting judge, Justice Indu Malhotra, the only lady on the bench, did not agree that excluding women from entering the Ayyappa temple was against the provisions of the Constitution because, she ruled, Sabarimala is not a Hindu temple to which the provisions apply, but a temple of a different denomination. In other words, Ayyappa, the deity at the Sabarimala temple is not a Hindu God.

Her Honour, a renowned international arbitrator and Supreme Court counsellor for more than three decades before being elevated to the Supreme Court, was not being pejorative towards the faith of a few million Hindus in the South. Either she had not heard of the miracle of two male Gods mating to produce a third God, or if she had, and tried to confirm it, didn’t find this incredibly weird episode mentioned in any of the scriptures that she researched. Perhaps her sharp mind debated the issue and found some of the arguments presented in this blog.

Interestingly, there was no demonstration against this resounding challenge that hacked at the very the root of the arguments of the Hindu extremists who opposed admission of women to the temple. Yet Some of the Hindu leaders even took the name of the Honourable Judge to show that at least one judge sided with them.

Did they in effect concede the point raised by the Honourable Judge by holding up her decision in their favour?

The Belated Realization

Soon enough the Congress and the BJP in Delhi recognized their local honchos’ advice that the leftist (CPI-Marxist) government of Kerala was milking the benefits of the decision, organizing police contingents to carry it out. Realization also dawned that a good number of women – many of them who were well past the excluded menstrual-age group – were not in favour of allowing younger women to enter the precincts of Sabarimala, which was a privilege denied to them in their betterdays. Even younger women who
presumably were persuaded and threatened by their menfolk joined the fray in the name of safeguarding acharam – the holy tradition – of not equating women with men. Not-equal-to-men attitude prevails even among educated and working women of Kerala, perpetuated through misogynistic ads, movies and soap opera called serials, notwithstanding the fact that more women are breadwinners of the family than men in Kerala[1]. \

Prime Minister Modi and his party men, most of whom had never heard of a Hindu God named Ayyappa, duly changed their stance; Mohan Bhagwat gave a twist to his previous statement on the judgment with a tagline that that the judgment was fine, but the judges should have taken tradition into account. Acharam became a weapon to use against the supreme court order, at the same time a profound issue on the election plank. If Supreme Court did not respect acharam, then damn Supreme Court became the attitude.

The Riots

Acharam – tradition – of keeping women out, not heeding court orders, was the need of the hour, said the contrarian parties. Their bosses at the centre concurred in uncharacteristic silence. Anticipating trouble, but bound to carry out the Supreme Court orders, also not to miss a chance to cock a snook at the opposition, the Communist government of the State sent hordes of policemen to defend the Pampa river bed, the trail all the way to the hill-temple, and the  plateau where the temple stood. Not to be outdone, and enthused by the chance to show that the Supreme Court is a mere fig leaf, the Contrarian political parties sent their hoodlums to prevent entry of women who might some day menstruate, and even if they didn’t, tempt their deity atop the hill to abandon his vow of celibacy, thereby crashing the sky down on earth. While they sent out young and old women with huge banners screaming SAVE SABARIMALA, volunteers pushed, pulled and punished the few women who dared to place their trust on court order and to visit, for the first time in known history, the celibate God.

Women’s activist Rehana Fathima and journalist, equipped with the headload of stipulated sacrificial materials, made an attempt to worship at the temple. A hundred policemen escorted them in accordance with the Supreme Court order.. Not just the barechested rioters, but the priests resisted thier entry. The worshippers of Vavar, a Muslim, questioned the right of Rehana, a fellow-Muslim to visit the temple. Fearing for their lives, the police escorts refused to escort them within a distance of half a kilometre from the temple. Television crew had their vehicle windows smashed and cameras damaged. When a shaken Fathima returned home, she found her house damaged.

K. Surendran of BJP who valiantly fought a 52-year old
woman and prevented her from entering Sabarimala

A BJP leader who manhandled a 52-year-old woman for the crime of looking 50 was hailed as a hero. The few more women who reached up to the top were kicked and sent flying back. Yet when they reached home flushed with a feeling of partial victory, they were kicked out by their menfolk. Acharam, they said, carried profundity, not the pride of their wives and daughters.  

That there were fellow men and women still reeling under the effect of a massive deluge that hit the State a couple of months ago and had drowned the planes and rendered the occupants homeless was ignored. It didn’t matter that soon after the flood receded, the entire ground-water table drained out, wells went dry. Much of the affected populace was  hungry and thirsty, houses remained broken down – there was a God and his virginity to protect, nothing else was important.

While politicians squabbled, young volunteers and NGos helped clean up
and render broken-down houses livable.

While a few NGOs worked hard at cleaning houses, setting up temporary shelters and clearing heaps of filth and mud from drinking-water well, politicians with hired goons roamed the street bellowing the need for honouring the Acharam of keeping women out of the holy temple. A stone God up the hill improved chances of gaining more votes, not mere humans in the planes who would vote anyway.

The ancient Pre-1950 sculpture of Dharma Sasta

The sculpture – old and new

That God is supposed to be Dharma Sasta, also known as Ayyappa who sits in a temple atop a hill named after Sabari (or Shabari), a pious character described in Ramayana. The current deity is a moulded sacred five-metal image of Ayyappa, an inventive replacement for the earlier stone image. The said stone image (to the right) was destroyed in the 1950 fire – presumably in an attempt at arson and destruction of the ancient temple. The sculpture had its head severed, its left hand and a few fingers broken off. Although deliberate destruction was a certainty, the culprits were, perhaps conveniently, never found. The destruction and replacement of the ancient stone image could well have been a successful attempt at erasing the ancient remnants of the deity’s true identity. The old stone image, rather crudely done, adopted a posture pretty close to the Lotus-pose of Buddha, perhaps even closer to the way Indian villagers sit on their haunches with legs folded, knees raised up.

A new Pancha-loha (sacred untainted five-metal) image replaced it with a few modifications like, for instance, the elevation of the knees.

The new metallic sculpture installed in 1950

Ayyappa’s posture of sitting on his haunches than on the seat of his dhoti, is unlike the posture of any Hindu God in any temple. . In the original stone sculpure one doesn’t ntoice the strip that is tied across the legs. This invention is supposed to protect the Lord’s celibacy. He sits on a lotus pedestal that is so very much like a sitting Buddha’s pedestal. Traditional Hindu deities stand, or sit on a high pedestal with one leg folded up, the other reaching down. Such Gods invariably have four or more hands, gloriously ornamented physique and are, almost invariably, holding some weapons or other. Goddesses are no different, some of them like Durga or Kali assume ferocious appearance with multiple arms bearing as many weapons in their gold-bangled hands, skulls of their victims adorning their neck; severed and bleeding arms belting their waist.

Notice that the right hand of Ayyappa  (old or new) is held up in Abhaya Mudra (fear-not gesture), sometimes interpreted as Vitarka (no-debate) mudra where three fingers are raised; index and finger and thumb touch their tips forming a delicate loop. This mudra is characteristically Buddhist; there are more than one legend about Buddha assuming various hand-gestures or mudras. Significant among them is abhaya mudra.  You would never see an image of a Hindu God in this hand-gesture, who instead blesses with an open right hand – Occasionally the right hand raised and the left hand lowered – all fingers and thumb invariably raised.

Gold roof, gold flag mast, ostentious house for a God who abandoned worldly pleasures.

The Temple, Old and New

The old temple which was razed, too, was the result of a renovation carried out in 1905. An 1839 English report described Sabarimala temple as a pagoda on top of a hill.

The temple before the 1960 destruction

The Uniqueness of the deity.

Ayyappa sits on his pedestal inside a sanctum sanctorum into which currently only the appointed Brahmin priests are allowed atop ther Sabari hill. His posture is unlike any other Hindu God in any other temple apart from copy-cat Ayyappa temples in other parts of the world. Interestingly, the Tantri or the chief priest is not an Aryan Namboodiri, the customary priest in any Hindu temple of Kerala, but one supposedly brought by Lord Parasurama (Axe-bearing Rama) from Andhra Pradesh after consecrating the deity in the Puranic times (something like 500 if not 5000 BC). The truth in this lofty claim we shall examine a little later. The eighteen steps that lead to the main precinct is considered as sacred as the sanctum-sanctorum where the Lord sits.

Climbing the 18 sacred steps

What appears to be the  crown of Aayyappa is really his massive hair tied in a bun above his head. The golden decoration that wraps around the hair over his forehead is a decorative frill. .

The Ayyappa image has stretched earlobes (which some pictures show as ear hangings and other cover with gold ornamentation) as has Buddha. Elongating earlobes with heavy ear ornaments used to be considered a fashion in Kerala till early nineteen nineties – a subtle reminder of its Buddhist past. Earlobe is elongated over a period of time by hanging heavy golden  ornaments to them.  Though Hindu women regardless of caste used to have pulled-down earlobes (as my Grandmother did), no Hindu God appears to have adopted this ancient Buddhist fashion.

Unlike the images of nearly all other Hindu Gods, Ayyappa’s sculpture carries no weapon, no flowers. Not even a trident (three-pronged spear) appears beside him although he’s supposed to have fought many battles. True,

sculptures of Ganpati in several temples carry no weapons but has only two hands instead of the regulation four, but he is never empty-handed like Ayyappa. Ganpati holds his favourite modak, a sweet delicacy, a Cong shell, spouted jug or a palm-leaf manuscript of Mahabharata, which he was believed to have scripted to Sage Vyasa’s dictation.

The Vow of Celibacy

All Gods of the Hindu pantheon are married, some are proud polygamists. When you take a vow of a day or a few days in honour of one of  them, you are expected to be pure and clean, even fast for several days, but rare is a commitment to abstain from sex. Husband and wife together conduct poojas or Yajnas (symbolical sacrifices, pronounced and spelt Yagyas in the North) at home or in public events. Presence of wife in such events is so mandatory that Lord Ram, who abandoned his pregnant wife in deep jungles, had to have an statue of her got made and seated beside him while performing sacrificial rites. There is no specific mention of the impurity of menstruation in any of the scriptures although many orthodox housewives observe untouchability during their periods. Virtually all Hindu women refrain from visiting temples in those days. .

The legend of Ayyappa

A Pandya Raja of Pandalam found a radiant baby on the banks of Pampa river, and since he had no children of his own, adopted him. He named the boy Mani-kandan or Bell-necked because the baby had a bell round his neck when he was found. If you remember the elegant Mahabharata episode, Karna, the abandoned son of Sun God, had a whole set of armour on his body when he was thus found on the bank of a river. Karna was not to be considered a God, but had all those magnificent paraphernalia attached to him at birth. All that  infant Ayyappa who was a son of two major Gods had to be content with was a bell on his neck. Old and new sculptures of Ayyappa atop Sabarimala show no bell , only a necklace-like ornament which you also find on many sculptures of Buddha.

How is it that no ancient scriptures describe a God named with the unambiguously Dravidian name like Ayyappa? The Brahmins and Nairs – upper caste Shudras – have a solution to that uncomfortable poser. It is easy to stitch a fantasy of your own fertile imagination with one of the ancient ones in epoch-rich Hindu mythology. Thus there is a story that once Vishnu, the arguable Supreme Being, transformed himself into a beautiful maiden for tempting the demons and straying them away from their nefarious intention of getting what was their due from their cousins, the demi-gods. Lord Shiva, a God who competes for the supremacy himself, was enamoured of the beauty of the trans-gendered Vishnu, now with a feminine name, Mohini (One who’d make you spell-bound with desire). The two Gods had a short-term sexual fling.

 Now Lord Vishnu is not a fancy-dress enthusiast like India’s Prime Ministers. When he transformed, he transformed all the way – into a complete woman. What happened was , say the knowledgeable, that Vishnu got pregnant. He carried that pregnancy for several human eons and delivered the baby on the banks of River Pampa in the 12th century. The Pandya Raja of Pandalam found the child and brought him up.

If that story doesn’t sound convincing, here’s another version. Shiva got lustful at the sight of the beautiful Mohini. He had a pre-mature emission, a weakness that had created Kartikeya before. When the seed fell on the ground, it became a baby, Ayyappa who lay dormant for several millennia and suddently appeared, bell and all, before the Raja of Pandalam.

If you find that time-warp rather unsettling, they have another version. Vishnu delivered the Baby, Dharma Sasta, in due course of time, but the offspring lived incognito and died unknown to the Hindu Puranas. Somewhat like Jesus lived unknown to the world for nearly three decades and abruptly appeared with his rebellious ideas and interesting parables out of the blue, Dharma Sasta, after the fashion of his mother Vishnu, reincarnated as Manikandan with the proverbial bell strung around his neck when the raja found him

Pilgrims to Sabarimala do not forget that the divinity of Ayyappa is derived from two of the Hindu Trinity. – Shiva and Vishnu. Justifying why Ayyappa, their bell-knecked God lives atop a hill, they sing:

My Father has a hill, the Kailasa

My Mother has a hill, the Seven Hills

My Brother has a hill the Palani Hill.

I, Ayyappa, too have a hill, the Shabari Hill.

Kailasa is in the Himalayas, the Seven Hills arein Tirupati, the great South-Indian temple of Vishnu, one of the richest shrines in the world. Murugan, who was born to Lord Shiv’as seed resides in Palani in Tamil Nadu. Murugan is believedto be the same asKartikeya, whose name appears in the puranas. The holy seed was picked up by a swan (Lord Brahma in disguise) and dropped in Ganges where the foetus matured into a warrior-God.  Vishnu is often addressed (only by the Hindus of Ayyappa’s Kerala) as Mother Narayana. Narayana is a synonym for Vishnu.

Obviously, the story of Sabarimala Ayyappa’s origin from an unnatural sexual union of Gods is a hastily and rather clumsily contrived one. Which is why Justice Indu Malhotra, a Hindu lady, had never heard of it.

Ayyappa- The Synonyms

Ayyappa is a combination of two Tamil words,  Ayya- and Appa , gentleman child. Appa in Tamil could mean Father, man or a child according to the context. On the other hand, within a higher level of probability, the boy who was picked up by the raja of Pandalam came to be known as Ay-appa , Boy of the Ay clan, just as you would describe a person from Afghanistan as Kabuli-wala, a boy of Islamic origin as Mohammaden-kutty (in Kerala). The Ay dynasty was presumably decimated by a series of skirmishes with Chera and Pandya kings of the time, which eventually did away with the casteless Buddhism. Buddhism thrived in many parts of Kerala, particularly Travancore, till the 7th century and faded away only by the 11th century. The boy could have been a child of an Ay chieftain.

Signs of this carnage and occupation or destruction of Buddhist temples abound in many Hindu temples in that part of the South known as Vanji, or Vanchi nadu. Till the kingdom of Travancore was amalgamated with independent India, the king of Travancore was known as the Lord of the Vanchi-bhoomi. The anthem of Travancore began with ‘Vanjibhoome pati, chiram – Forever, the Lord of the Vanji-land.  

A far more plausible claim is made by the Mala-Arayas, the indigenous people who occupied the 18 hills in the area. They found the sculpture atop Sabarimala, established a make-shift temple around it and began to worship it as the guardian of their 18 hills  a long time ago. They claim to have constructed the 18 steps to the seat of their new-found God as a tribute to the 18 hills that were the deity’s vanguard. Araya roughly means owners or occupants. Araya’s Appa (father), Arayappa shortened into Aryappa or Ayyappa. Some time in the 14th or 15th century, impressed by the spiritual power of the deity, the raja of Pandalam drove out the Arayas and ‘nationalised the temple and consecrated the venerated sculpture as his own ancestor Mani-Kandha, the warrior prince who fought many battles,  consolidated and strengthened the small kingdom. While at it, the king made a covenant with the Arayas that the right to light camphor flames atop Ponnambalamedu would be with them. When Sabarimala became a massive money-spinner, the Devaswam  (divine assets) Board of Travancore took over the administration of the temple and the lighting of the Makara flames, leaving a notional job to the descendants of the former Pandalam ruler of keeping the Thiruvabharanam (divine jewels) of Ayyappa and sending it out for adorning the deity on the night of Makar January every year. The sulking descendant himself  does not accompany the bundle of jewels, but sends a lesser representative.

The Araya claim easily explains why the Raja of Pandalam in the fourteenth or fifteenth century had to bring priests from Andhra Pradesh with a promise that their descendants will forever be the head priests of the temple. Local Namboodiris, the presumptuous Sanskrit-flaunting Aryan Brahmanas of Kerala simply refused to worship a God of the untouchables. Andhra Brahmins did not know the background of the temple or didn’t care since the offer was attractive. Over the years, the popularity and affluence of the temple had forced Namboodiris to abandon their arrogance, but the Tantri of Andhra-origin continues to wield authority over the rites and rituals of worship after the government skimmed off much of the annual income. Now Namboodiris, elected annually by lots, play the role of Mel-santi under the guidance of the Tantri.

Manikandan, the adopted prince.

Let us get back to a credible account of  the legend of Ayyappa. While growing up under the wing of the Raja, young Manikandhan trained in one of the many kalaris (martial art gymnasiums) of Kerala of the time. Later he fought many battles with his Muslim General Vavar (whom he befriended after a minor skirmish), and local leaders such as Karupppan, Kadutha etc. The king was keen to install the brave Manikandhan as his heir apparent, but the queen was adamant that their biological son, though younger in age to Manikandhan, should inherit the the throne. She conspired with the chief minister to have Manidkandhan killed by a wild tiger.  Manikandan went to the forests, found a tigress with cub, and returned to the palace riding the animal. The queen did not want to drink the repulsive milk, hence pretended that she was already cured. Fed up with the palace intrigue, Manikandan wandered away to the forests of the 18 hills. Perhaps his loyal lieutenants including Vavar, Karuppan and kadutha accompanied him. The forests were thick and infested with dangerous animals, these valiant men fell from exhaustion or maybe killed by tigers that roamed the hills.  According to Rahul Easwar, a descendent of the Tantri family from his  mother’s side, the prince  himself merged with the sculpture of Dharma Sasta atop the Sabari hills. The image in Sabarimala is not of a warrior-God bearing weapons like the other Hindu Gods and Goddesses. So the ‘merger’ (or disappearance) is more convincing than that the warrior prince sat on the pedestal with his weapons and armour.

Argument in favour of Buddha or Bodhisatta

Manikandhan is more popularly known by two other names – the rustic-sounding Ayyappa and Sanskritised  Dharma-Sasta a . The latter is one of the synonyms of Buddha, the one who established Dharma, the religion. Dharma-Sasta is not a name that appears in any of the Vedas, Upanishads, other scriptures or epics. Every verse that addresses divine personalities or even human characters of nobility in Hindu texts are couched in glorious adjectives, but Dharma Sasta is not one that finds place in any. On the other hand, Dharma,Satta, Satva, Sasta are all names that appear with minor variations in Buddhist fables, describing Buddha himself or his many incarnations as Sakya Muns, Bodhi Satta,(or Bodhi Satva), Dharma Sasta and so on.

The 7th century traveller from China, wrote about a holy mountain in South-West India ‘which he said was the residence of Bodhisatta above a lake and a river flowing into the sea.
River Pampa widens at the foot of Sabari hill. Before much of this width was taken over by a sandy beach by natural causes or by design, this part of the river could easily have been mistaken for a lake. Valmiki Ramayan too describes Pampa as a lake in Aranya Kanda, and as a river in Kishkinda Kanda that immediately followed it.. Xuan Zang’s tour was four centuries before Pandalam raja claimed to have found Mandikandan. The small kingdom of Pandalam was established in late 11th century by a Pandya chieftain (Pandya-alam=Pandalam) who escaped from attacks by Cheras of Tamilnadu and found.

Buddhism of Chera Dynasty

Many of the Chera dynasty who ruled parts of Kerala from the ancient city of Vanchi between the 4th and 8th centuries were Buddhists, among them the renowned Cheraman Perunal. (There is a tale that Cheraman went to Macca, conversed with Prophet Muhammad and converted to Islam. This is yet another hoax created by the faithful; Cheraman Perunal lived three centureis before Muhammad came on the scene in Arabia.) The name Keralam originates from Chera-alam, not because it has coconuts. Alam in the local language means place or residence.

Buddhism imported by Immigrant Ezhavas

The Ezhava immigrants from Ceylon (now Srilanka) were Buddhists. They started out by a trickle to India in the BC era,, carrying with them their religion and practices of Theravada[2] Buddhism. Since Buddhist monks prefer to have their viharas in secluded places, Sabarimala was a good place to install one of their viharas. PC Alexander, Professor of History and Economics in Annamalai university in the forties and fifties suggests in his thesis for M Phil, later published by the university, that it was Ezhavas (spelt as Elavas in Tamil fashion) who brought coconut farming to Kerala. Coconuts have a great role in the worship of the deity in Shabarimala. This is probably the only temple (apart from other Ayyappa-franchised temples in other places) where the traditional ghee (diary fat) is offered in coconut pods. The lack of artistic elegance in the original sculpture shows that it was sculpted and installed in a hurry.

When Buddhism began to wane in popularity, Ezhavas migrated to Hinduism, but not forgetting many of the principles of Buddhism – specially, abhorrence of caste discrimination. Names like Siddhartha, Gautama, Jaina and Ayyappa were more common among Ezhavas than among other castes of Hindus till recent times. Ayyappa (which meant Gentleman Father) could well be a Tamil (and hence Ayyappan in Malayalam) name for Buddha. till recently, higher-caste Shudras like Nairs shunned such names; Brahmins would never think of taking up such Boudha names. Even before the society became somewhat more egalitarian and Ezhavas climbed the ladders of educational and administrative positions, you could find among them men and women of high sophistication as well as others of lower professions such as coconut picking and toddy-tapping among Ezhavas of the time. Dr. Padmanabhan Palpu, who inspired Swami Vivekananda to visit Kerala and gave him directions to Kodungallur Temple was a renowned bacteriologist and social reformer from the Ezhava Caste. Practising of Ayurveda medicine was common among Ezhavas of Kerala as well as the Buddhists of Ceylon. Nonetheless, As Buddhism faded,and became repugnant on account of its resistance to casteism, Ezhavas came to be  derisively called Bouddhas.  Thus the remnanansts of no-caste Buddhism became low-castes in Kerala while their Buddhist deity got elevated to the status of a God, an unheard-of son of an impossible union of male Gods.


Buddhist monks move in groups called Sanghams. Sangham is also a word associated with old Chera Perumal literature. You are expected to visit Sabarimala in a group of Sangham with a leader addressed as Guru swami – a senior, experienced monk-like person who knows all the rituals and the sequence of their performance.

Manimekalai, a virtual sequel to the famous Tamil epic Silapathikaram, is predominantly Buddhist in content. Interestingly, one of the odes in praise of Buddha goes thus:

” Bliss during this birth! And deliverance in the coming birth!

The sweet toddy matured in the palm of lush green branches!!

Is there killing in this? Oh! Saint of true austerity!

Consume it and get convinced!”

Professional toddy tappers of Kerala were, and to a large extent are Ezhavas – the people who are reputed to have brought coconut farming from Ceylon along with their religious beliefs.

The Sharanam (or Saranam ) call

Swami Saranam, Ayyappa Saranam‘ is a chant that the pilgrims call out while on their long and arduous journey towards the temple. This is a minor deviation from ‘ Buddham Sharanam (Gachhami)” call of Buddhist monks. Have you ever heard a Hindu reciting Vishnum Sharanam, Shivam Sharanam , Ramam Sharanam or Krishnam Sharanam?

Sabarimala PilgrimsMonk-like asceticism

The devotees who take the vow of 41 days before trekking (these days motoring, even flying) to the abode of Ayyappa are expected to behave like, and to be treated and addressed with respect like a Buddhist monk is treated in countries where Buddhism prevails. They must not have any close contact with women, must observe strict celibacy and be free of all vices including alcohol, gambling and use of expletives. . They must address each other, and be addressed by others, as Swami, Lord or the holy one. So it is with Buddhist monks who are addressed as Lama, Ajarn, phra, Prabhu , Prabhuratna (all meaning rough equivalents of Indian Swami or Lord) depending on the country and language of a Buddhist monk. One major difference is that while Buddhist monks shave their heads and beards, Ayyappa swamis refrain from the use of razors during the forty-one days

Dharma Sasta -Ayyappa’s alternative name

Amarakosa,  the ancient book of Tesaurus in Sanskrit lists Dharma Sasta as one of the 25 synonyms for Gautama Buddha. This name does not appear as a synonym for any other God or Gods in any Sanskrit books or lexicon.

No celibacy for Hindu Gods

There is no Hindu God who is sworn to celibacy. Many of them are polygamists and are proud of their wives’ names. Shiva is the only God who took a vow of celibacy after the death of his first wife, Sati.This was not a pious vow, but one taken up in grief. Parvati, his next wife to-be- broke the vow with the help of the God of Lust (Kama) and his wife Rati, the Act of love making. Hymns in honour of many of Gods include tributes to their multiple wives. Parents do name their babies Rati, Kamayani, Mohini etc. unmindful of their sexual connotations. Until the advent of Islamic invasion, sex was not considered a taboo subject. Kama-sutra, science of sex, was written by a Hindu sage. The knowledge of this science was considered mandatory for anyone ascending the Jnana Peedham Throne of Knowledge a coveted awardof old times, honoured higher than any Nobel Prize of our times.

Hindu temples did not shun women. In fact, in Kerala, till the early years of the 20th century, women entering a temple were to walk in the temple with their upper body uncovered. (It is so with men till today.) Temples were like clubs with God as its honoured guest. Even in Vedic sacrifices, Gods of the time (natural forces like Sun, wind, fire etc.) were invited to join in and partake of the Soma – a heady juice – and the sacrificial animal. (Gods got the fat through the medium of fire, so one could only guess who enjoyed the privilege of the flesh. Devadasis danced, story tellers told stories, Song-and-dance troops performed. In the popular Chakyar kooth in Kerala temples, the original stand-up comedy, performed within the sacred premises the performer dressed as a clown picked out men or women in the audience as butts of his joke, even divine characters were not spared. Sexual innuendos and double-endentres were not taboo. No one was offended when Kala mandalam Krishna Nair, the doyen of classical Kathakali dance performing in our temple grounds, eloquently gestured wiping the traces of semen from his thighs after raping Rambha, one of Indras’s concubines. Another Kathakali performance showed Dushyasan tying to disrobe Draupati who was draped in yards and yards of cloth. He gave up in disgust when her menstrual blood showed up for the audience to see. Many devadasis had their houses allotted near the temple, where the alpha and even beta males of the town were entertained in bed.

No Hindu God despised women; sex was an open book No poetical work was ranked as a Mahakavya (great poetical work) unless it contained lyrical tributes to the physical beauty of women. Gita Govindam by 8th-century poet Jaydev, an immensely beautiful collection of lyrics that cleverly mixed pious stanzas and erotic relation between Krishna and his paramour Radha (not his wife) is set to music and sung in temples till this day.

In Valmiki Ramayana (which incidentally has no Laxman-Rekha), Ravana praises Sita’s breasts, nipples, hips and thighs, yet the young royal lady accepts the compliments with grace, not at all embarrassed that a person whom she took to be a sage would speak such things. Female breasts were so adored that temple doors were engraved with rows of bulbous breasts with shining nipples. Copulation was an object of art in not just Khajuraho, but in many temples spread across the length and width of India. The most important form of public worship in Kodungalloor Mother’s temple, Kerala, is a series of folk songs, accompanied by suggestive dances, in plain and unadulterated sensuality. One of the most popular hymns sung with explicit body language go like this:

To screw  the Mother of Kodungallur,

She demands a penis big as a flag-mast

If you have a penis big as a flag-mast

She has  clitoris big  as a jackfruit pod.

This episode becomes even more significant when you consider that the Mother of Kodungallur is Durga, the destroyer of Mahishasura, the demon-buffalo. Contrast this with the myth that Manikandan (Ayyappa) – the alleged friend of this goddess – kind of partners in buffalo slaughter.

Many Kerala Hindus believe, perhaps with justifiable reason,  that this highly explicit song-and-dance,  the practice of decapitating  cockerels and goats, all  in sacrifice performed at Kodungallur were introduced by Adi Shankara (Shankar Acharya) with the intention to drive out the Buddhists by hurting their moral sensitivity and offending their principle of non-violence. Recall the line I quoted from the Tamil epic Manimekalai where the devotee assures Buddha that there was no killing involved in the making of toddy. This could well be a reason why Durga in Bengal is proptiated with a huge number of lambs being sacrificed to her every year. Budhism lost its grip on Bengal in the 7th and 8th centuries – just about the time it happened to Buddhists in Southern India, particularly Kerala.

Sabarimala Ayyappa is unique – He is the Buddha

Buddha, on the other hand, had chosen to be a celibate mendicant. He abandoned family life and royal trappings. He observed celibacy through the rest of his life and never returned to the wife except to teach her and his son the new religion. In fact, there are few references to female sex at all in early Buddhist literature. Compare that with the demands on Swami, the forty-one-days-monk of Ayyappa, who must not speak, think or perform sex. Since the presence of young females would tempt and disrupt the Buddhist vow of celibacy undertaken by Ayyappa (Gentle Father), even his followers of the season should shun this natural and biological urge.According to those who call themselves believers, it is their duty to save Ayyappa from having to look at young females. A Super Buddha sits in Sabari hills.

Other Ayyappas

There is by now an Ayyappa temple in every city in India or abroad wherever there is a sizeable population of Keralite Hindus. There are several ancient Ayyappa temples in the region that once was Pandalam kingdom. Some of these Ayyappas have female consorts, some hold weapons, one rides a tiger and another an elephant. There is no restriction in these temples against entry and worship by women. The recent Ayyappa-franchised temples are clearly Hindu in nature (after the South-Indian fashion) where Ayyappa presides, and other gods of the Hindu pantheon co-exist within the precincts, along with the nine planets (Navagraha) who need to be propitiated to ensure that one’s fate is kept in good order. I know a couple whose marriage was conducted within the precincts of an Ayyappa temple in Mumbai. The priest conducted the wedding and blessed the couple in the name of Ayyappa.

Sabarimala pilgrims (Swamis) paying their obeisance
at Vavar Mosque on their way. On their way back, they
are to end their vow by removing the rosary-garland at
a Christian church. (described in a later paragraph)

The priest of the Ayyappa temple in RK Puram, New Delhi told me that the deity in that temple was more powerful than the original Ayyappa in Sabarimala. In that case, I asked him, why is it that women are not allowed in the temple of Sabarimala, but are allowed in RK Puram? That Ayyappa is different, he told me, he is sworn to strict celibacy. Evidently, not all Ayyappas are the same deity. In Sabaimala temple, instead of worshipping other gods of the Hindu pantheon before reaching the presiding Ayyappa (apart from a recently constructed Ganpati temple near the river) , you propitiate a Muslim friend of his and a lady who is not a goddess. Along the 65-kilometre trek from Erumeli, you would also pay obeisance at the larger Mosque named after Vavar, and smaller memorials to his friends Karuppan and Kadutha.

Buddha, though sworn to celibacy after marrying a princess and giving her a baby, kept her waiting in the vain hope that he would return. The story of Malikappurathamma (Lady of the High house or  palace) waiting in the vain hope of marrying Ayyappa but never realizing her wish sounds like a take-off from a Buddhist legend. One is reminded of Vasavadatta, a rich courtesan, who waited all her youthful life for a Bodhisatta to visit her, but never realized her wish till she was in death bed.

Casteism in Kerala

Some time in late 1880s, Swami Vivekananda, already famous throughout India, and later to be the noble flag-bearer of Hinduism throughout the world, visited Kerala at the instance of Dr. Padmanabhan Palpu, a bacteriologist and a wealthy social reformer of the Ezhava caste. Vivekananda, being a Kali-devotee like his Goddess-realized Guru Ramakrishna, wished to visit ‘Mother Kali’ at Kodungallur temple. When he arrived at the famous ancient shrine, Vivekananda was stopped at the gopuram (gate). The management demanded to know the caste of the strangely attired and strange-looking man before he was allowed in. Swami Vivekananda was peeved, but obliged them saying “Kayasta,’ was his caste of birth. The management and the priesthood went into long hushed debates and researching of scriptures to find out where in the caste hierarchy of Kerala did Kayasta belong. Not accustomed to such a treatment, the great man nonetheless waited for three days under a sacred Banyan tree. Still no sign of admission, he decided enough was enough and announced to the world that Kerala was a lunatic asylum of casteism.  

The main reason why Buddhists were driven out of India, and specifically from the Chera country or Kerala, was that Buddhists did not observe castes; but allowed the much abhorred Sankara, or inter-mixing of castes, the ancient Indian version of Jim Crow law. Bhagavad Gita declares that contamination of social hierarchy by sankara would lead to defilement of women, and annihilation of social mores (Gita 1:42-44). Buddha and Buddhists scoffed at such discrimination. This was what led to their undoing and forced flight beyond the seas. As mentioned before, those who stayed back after the flight of Buddhism from their land came to be considered lower castes. In Kerala, upper castes derided them as Bouddhas.

The tradition is that the deity in Sabarimala held aloft the ideology that all men are equal, that there should be no discrimination of caste or religion within the Caste’s own Country of Kerala. Even before the 1936 proclamation, the Sabarimala temple was open to all castes. Buddha had proclaimed 2500 years ago that castes are a subterfuge played on the gullible by crafty Brahmins. 2500 years approximately coincides with the period when Parashurama was said to have consecrated an idol of Dharma Sastha atop Sabarimala. Hence the original sculpture and the idol was either Buddha, the Dharma Sasta  or a Bodhi Satta, one of his incarnations .Not surprisingly, as many Buddhist temples all over the world practise some ways or other, Sabarimala did and does discriminate against women. Though the entry itself is rarely proscribed, women are not allowed to  circumambulate the stupas (sacred pillars) or visit some sacred sections of Buddhist temples in South-East Asia. This rule, though does not apply to the touristy temples in those places any more than no-entry-for-women rule does not apply to the Ayyappa temples at Bombay, Delhi or any other cities in India or abroad.

Misogynism of Sabarimala

Why is the Ayyappa who resides on a hill named after a woman (Sabari) so mysogynistic, even if msiogyny extends only to young women of sexually attractive age? Because he is Buddha himself, or a Bodhisatta, an incarnation of Buddha, who is quoted to have said:

“Of all scents that can enslave, none is more lethal than that of a woman. Of all the tastes that can enslave, none is more lethal than that of a woman. Of all the voices that can enslave, none is more lethal than that of a woman. Of all the caresses that can enslavbe, none is more lethal than that of a woman.”

That is exactly the law of Sabarimala Ayyappa. When priests tell you that women are allowed in all other Ayyappa temples dotting the landscapes of many cities of India and some abroad, worshipped only by South Indians, it is because Sabarimala Ayyappa is unique, they drive the nail right on its head. Ayyappa at Sabarimala is not a Hindu God, but Dharma Sasta., the very Buddha-appa.

Acharam, the sacred tradition

A century and four decades after Vivekananda left in disgust, Kerala, like much of India, continues to be the madhouse of caste. In 1936, the enlightened and educated Maharaja of Travancore made the royal proclamation that Hindus of all castes should be allowed entry to all Hindu temples. This was not a voluntary reform, but one forced on the king (a Prince in British parlance because the arrogant Britons did not want to equate Indian kings with the loftiness of their own king) but after a thunderous revolt led by such great men of eminence as EV Ramaswami, the Dravidian reformist and, among many others, none less than Mahatma Gandhi.

The Maharajah, Sri Chitra Tirunal, was held in high esteem by his subjects of Travancore. Yet the Brahmins and upper caste Hindus tried to resist the  order on the pretext of upholding Acharam, the sacred tradition. Just as women’s entry was prevented by mass revolt 85 years later in 2018-19 winter all over Kerala, and for the same excuse – the Acharam – against the unequivocal order of the Supreme Court of India.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone; In 1891, when the British government, under the persuasion of such reformers as Poet and reformer  Behramji Malabari, proposed a law to raise the age of consent from 10 to 14, Hindu members of the Legislative Assembly in Delhi raised an uproar. “Do not interfere with our sacred tradition,” was their plea. Eventually, as acompromise, the age of sexual consent for girls was raised to 12!  The revolt against the 1936 proclamation fizzled out on thesurface, but physical entry by castes lower than the fiery Ezhavas (who in recent times demanded and got the status as Other Bacward castes, for the material benefits akin to America’s positive affirmation) seldom attempted to enter the temples for quite some time.

Till 1905, another sacred tradition, Acharam, was that women must not enter the temple with their torso covered with a blouse or some other apparel. The breasts must be visible, period. When women began to defy this tradition, Brahmins and many of the upper castes fought against this defiance. Some of them enforced their their sacred right to stare at breasts and salivate, resulting in the suicide of at least woman.

Even after this nefarious tradition was done away with, other acharams came in. In 1935, My mother, a young bride accompanied by her husband was not allowed to enter the temple because white Mundu and white blouse was the acharam, not a colourful Sari and blouse that she wore. The fact that my father was in the Police sorted out matters in her favour. Resistance against the North-Indian apparel of Salwar-Kameez (erroneously described as chudidar in Malayalam) was short-lived, but it did surface in many temples in the seventies and eighties.

Naryana Guru, the 20th-Century Buddha

Two years after the unpopular Temple-entry proclamation,  Sri Narayana Guru, a social reformer from the Ezhava caste by birth, consecrated all-caste temples in four  places. Upper castes preferred to call it Ezhava temples and banned their castes from worshipping in those temples. The gentle but the staunchly revolutionary Guru was often lauded as the nineteenth century Buddha. His disciple and poet, Mahakavi (great poet) Kumaran Asan wrote several poems on Buddhist lores. Guru’s  famous motto for the world was “One religion, One Caste and One God for all men.”  I recall that in 1948, I, only 8 years old , was taken to task by my grandparents for accompanying an Ezhava friend to pray at such an “Ezhava temple’ in Cherai, and, horror of horrors, partaking of prasadam (divine pleasure – a little rice and jaggery) from the hands of the Ezhava priest. Next year in Parur,  the same friend, Chandran, was kicked out of the public bath attached to the Peruvarom temple when he expertly dived into the sacred (but moss-infested) water with me for a swimming race. After Chandran departed in tears and blaming me for the humiliation, I got a slap when I came out of the water. I was warned by the Podwal, a the traditional employee of the temple, that temple-entry law referred only to their entry in the temple, but it did not permit a bouddha to pollute the sacred bath water. Splitting hairs to spit on fellow humans.

No Reform, only murder

Ayyappa was not a Hindu deity. Hindu Gods are like the God of the Abrahamic religions – they do not reform the bad ones (or good ones described as the rivals of the raceand thus deemed to be bad), but utterly destroy them. Lord killed 14,000 forest dwellers to make it convenient for the sages to clear forest areas and hold fire sacrifices at will. Ramakilled the king of Lanka, a Brahmin and beheaded a Shudra for doing an extreme penance which was prescribed only for higher castes. Vishnu killed Madhu who was born from his own ears, but did some mischief. For this valiant murder, Vishnu is also praised as Madhusudan – killer of Madhu.. He took avatars time after time to kill those who opposed his favourite race of devas or demi-gods. One of those avatars, Krishna, killed his uncle, his own nephew, and was instrumental in the genocide of the entire Kuru race. His actions finally ended in the annihilation of his own Yadava race.  I happen from era to era to destroy the bad ones and to protect the saints,” says Lord Krishna in Bhagvad Gita, the Divine Ballad. He certainly had not come to reform the bad ones. Gods are praised in hymns for the weapons they carried and the killings to their names..

Reforming with advice, parables and kind deeds was Buddha’s forte. Buddhist folklores abound regarding Buddha and his sages (Sakya Munis) and re-incarnations  – Bodhi-sattas – (Bodhisatwas in Sanskrit) reforming those who went to kill Buddha, but became pious Buddhists themselves. Thus the reforming and befriending ways of Dharma Sasta (Ayyappa) is a grand departure from the character of any divine character in Hindu mythology. Ayyappa is said to have reformed a killer-bandit Muslim (Vavar – presumably Babar), accepted him as a friend and assigned him a mosque close to his temple. The significance of this story is explicit – Dharma Sasta  is no vengeful God of the Hindus, or for that matter, any God of any other religion which boasted of a killer God. The deity in Sabarimala temple is Buddha, the Dharma Sasta, or  Ayya-appa, the gentle father. Manikandan, who is supposed to have merged into the image was a mere convert, or a follower, or a character in a sham legend invented by a petty raja to justify the appropiation of an ancient place of worship.

The legend of killing a she-buffalo.

One legend of valour relating to Ayyappa is that he fought and killed a she-bufflao., named Mahishi and that this buffalo was a goddess in disguise. After death, she re-emerged as the Goddess again. A corollary to this story is that the High-House Lady (Malikappurathamma) who is waiting in vain to marry Ayyappa is the same Goddess. The claim that this buffalo was the sister of the powerful Mahishasura (Buffalo-demon) who was killed by a Goddess Durga (also known as Mahalakshmi), is a preposterous fib. You will have to be gullible enough to believe that this buffalo-sister of the buffalo-demon emerged from the underworld of the ancient puranic  times and started tormenting the hill-side residents of Kerala in the 12th century. The story of Mahishasura appears in Markandeya Purana (not Bhagavata Purana as alleged by some) and is elaborated in Devi Mahatmyam recited by many in the South. Different versions of Mahishasura mythology abound in Northern India, and is of profound significance to the Hindus in Bengal. None of those versions mention a vengeful sister of Mahishasura.

On the other hand, one of the stories among Buddhist lore goes thus : As Buddha walked through villages, blessing the sufferers and healing the sick, he happened by a herd of buffaloes in a village. “Stranger, don’t go near that buffalo to your right, it is dangerous and has killed many,” shouted the villagers. Buddha didn’t pay heed. As he approached the herd, the vicious  buffalo rushed towards him. The villagers thought that the stranger would be gored. As the buffalo charged at him in fury, Budhha raised his hand.. The buffalo halted and  lowered its head as if in sorrow. Buddha said : “All things in life are transitory. Your bad days are done. Now you can attain Nirvana.” The story doesn’t say that it fell dead, but, obviously, attaining Nirvana is discarding the body. So you can’t miss where the legend of Ayyappa killing a buffalo originated.

The Tigress’s Milk Story Manikandan’s step mother, wife of the reigning raja, hated him for the fear that he, being smarter and older than her own son and a favourite of the king, might usurp the throne. She, conspiring with the ambitious chief minister, pretended to be terribly sick. The minister bribed a vaid (ayurvedic doctor) to prescribe that the only remedy for the serious illness was to give the patient the milk of a tigress. If that milk was not given to the queen soon enough, she would die. Ayyappa, though he knew the connivance to do away with him, readily went to the forest and returned riding a tigress for milking. Having thus established his divinity, Manikandan decided to abandon the pleasures of palace life and to live a hermit’s life

This is a Buddhist story twisted around. One of the Budhisattas, an earlier incarnation of Buddha, was hunting and frolicking in a forest with his brothers. He then noticed the cubs  of a tigress starving for want of mother’s milk. He sent his brothers home and stayed back in the forest. The mother tigress who lay beneath a tree was too weak to hunt for food, and was all skin and bones to yield milk for her cubs. The Bodhisatta, full of Buddhist mercy, lay down before the tigress, hoping that it would eat him and be able to produce milk. The tigress ignored the living man. Not put off, Bodhisatta got atop the tigress, reached for a branch of the tree, broke off a twig, sharpened its end with his teeth and stabbed himself. Soon he fell before the tigress, bleeding profusely. The tigress lapped up the warm blood, grew strong enough to start eating the Bodhisatta who was by then dead. The tigress got her feed for many days, produced enough milk for her cubs, and was soon strong enough to hunt for herself and her cubs..

Not the same story as Ayyappa riding a tiger to get her milk, but quite amenable to adaptation by reversal of roles.

Aravana – the sweet pleasure of the Lord

Aravana is a prasadam (prasad in Hindi) is an offering you do not take on your trip to offer to the deity and take back after he is pleased with it. It is a sweet prasadam you buy at the official window of the temple and take home. It is mixture of rice, jaggery and some other flavouring things got manufactured by contractors and sold by the millions. Pilgrims take it home as a gift from Ayyappa himself.

How is it that you had not heard this strange name – Aravana – in any Hindu temple? Because it is named after a Buddhist teacher who came to Vanchi Buddhist Viharas in Kerala to research on Hindu rituals and practices. Aravana Guru finds mention in Manimekalai, the sequel to Silapadikaram written in the 5th Century AD.

Abandonment and Celibacy

The ancient Sabarimala Temple

The most prevalent tale about Manikandan of Pandalam is that to spare further pangs of jealousy for his adopted mother, Ayyappa decided to abandon worldly pleasures and leave for the forest, For the sake of his doting father, he shot an arrow into the distant hills and promised  that he could be found in the forest where the arrow fell. Presumably knowing the dangers of the long trudge through the forests and living where elephants, tigers and other wild animals abounded, he suggested that the king might not see him again, but he could build a memorial (temple) for him. Then he trudged up to the Sabarimala hill and merged with the stone sculpture there. Perhaps, in truth, the young man searched for and found the temple of his own clan’s deity, Buddha,  He died there from starvation or disease, and was carried away by the wild animals. The  search crew of the king, looking for an arrow in the forest – harder than finding the proverbial needle in the haystack – finally found the stone image. The king, like you would frame a photograph of a deceased  child, or build him a marble memorial, built a temple around the ancient stone sculpture.

The hoax of the synchronized Crocodile star (Makar Jyoti)

Makar Sankranti, the night of the Capricorn, is a special night in Sabarimala.  Devotees throng the hilltop in their near-million to get a view of Makar Jyoti, (Radiance of the Capricorn) which they believed to a bright flame that miraculously lit up three times when the priest opened the door of the sanctum sanctorum after adorning the supposedly reclusive Ayyappa with gold and jewels. Till 2011, nearly all of the half a million or more men present on the hill strained their necks towards South-East. Sight of those flames, well synchronised with the swaying of lamps in the temple set off shouts of enthralled devotion, verging on epileptic fit for many a devotee. Crowds surged over each other; children were lucky not to be stamped upon. The miracle, to many, was worth all the journeying they did from distant places not only in Kerala, but also from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, some from among the diaspora in far-off countries.

The entire show, of course, was a hoax. The so-called miracle began with the indigenous forest dwellers swinging their torches from the distant Ponnambala medu (‘Hill of the golden temple’ which has neither gold nor a temple). Seeing the money-spinning opportunity, the government took over the conduct of the magic show; methods for precise timing were devised, and it is the policemen who light the huge flames, cover and display it again three times. The Ponnambala medu has an elevation that is nearly twice that of Sabarimala; hence in the darkness of the night of wintry January, the light that appears from a distance of 4-kilometres over the top of trees look as though it is a star lighting up the sky, saluting the Ayyappa God. The hoax minted money; even the Communist government played along and prevented the public from climbing the hill  named after the non-existent golden temple.

By 2011, the hoax became public and the miracle could no longer be defended.  To save face, the chief priest explained: “What you see is Makara vilakku – lamp of Makara (Capricon) which is man-made. Makara jyoti is a star in the sky.” Even this was a lie; Makara or Capricorn is not a star but a constellation, which is too faint to deserve the name of Jyoti or bright light. It appears in the Eastern sky nearly all through the year from Sabarimala which is located at 77 degrees East. I have been to Sabarimala on Makara jyothi nights four times and have had the benefit of watching the hoax, but never had seen anyone looking up further up in the sky for the faint constellation named after Makara, the crocodile

The Hoax of the hovering kite

Why Makara Sankranti, interpreted as the date of winter solstice (but not exactly coinciding with the date as per modern computations), has significance in various forms all over India. For Tamils as well as Srilankans, who call it Pongal,  it is one of the most important events of the year, celebrated with feeding and adorning cattle. Whether this is the date when Ayyappa was delivered by Vishnu on the banks of Pampa, or was found by the king of Pandalam, or the date on which he abandoned all worldly belongings and pleasures including a date with the lady who hankered after him and began his journey to the forest is not clear. Whatever be the reason, every year a procession sets off  from near the Pandalam Palace (where the ornaments are stored) to the Ayyappa temple atop the hill some 83 kilometres away.  The descendant of the king, the adopted father of Manikandan, sends a representative of his with all the ornaments, mask and flag of warrior hero on the Makar Sankranti day. The journey by foot takes three days.

The Ornaments and face mask are carried in a bundle, a flat box presumably carrying Ayyappa’s flag and another box covered with flowers and attractive frills. Among the many animals once roamed and birds that flew over these pristine forests are white-necked kites which presumably have their nests atop the trees in the many hills. Round the year, you can watch  kites hovering in the sky hoping to spot a squirrel or a nestling in the trees. When hordes of men, many of them carrying what could possibly be foodstuff on their heads wend their way, you might spot a kite or two in the air. It is not true that a white-necked kite (not an eagle) leads the procession all the way. It certainly is not true that a kite hovers above the temple during the Makar Sankranti worship and circles the temple three times and vanishes. Kites are a common sight all over central Travancore, especially above the forests. White-necked kites are considered sacred, but their appearance in the sky is no more miraculous than the chicks on the ground of villages along the way that could be snatched away by the former.

Hoax of the trees that do not burn

During the 160 days of the winter celebrations, there’s a standing fire in the open ground to the left of the eighteen steps. The fire is fed by coconuts flung by the devotees before they begin to ascend the steps. Such an open fireplace is a novelty designed to prevent the pilgrim swamis from smashing the coconuts on the steps and thereby injuring the naked feet that trudge up the steps,. Crackling bits of coconut shells are too heavy to stray very far in the air. Forest fires happen in the extreme heats of summer, and are rarely, if at all, occurrences in the relatively cold hills of Kerala,

On the other hand, if this Ayyappa held the power of miracles, he didn’t show it during the 1950 destruction that beheaded his own image and amputated his limbs. He didn’t prevent the 1952 fire caused by fireworks that killed  at least 66 devotees (government figure; I recall that newspapers of the time reported hundreds dead), my asolescent mind remained disturbed for many days and nights.  Neither could the deity help out in the 1999 fire when at least 42 pilgrims were reported dead. A stampede of 2011 resulted in 106 confirmed deaths and more than 450 injured. Pilgrim deaths are commonplace almost every year, manly on account of vehicle accidents that speed up and down the narrow forest roads to the base of the Sabarimala shrine..

The shamesless talk of menstuaration

Not long ago the senior Tantri (priest) of Sabarimala temple was crude enough to state that when they invent a machine to reveal menstruation of a visiting woman, then Sabarimala would be open to women of all ages. A minister in charge of the Devaswom board (Board for the administration of divine assets) shamelessly repeated this later.

At a time when clothes were not many and sanitary napkins were unknown, it was difficult for women to conceal the flow, they used to go into hiding. A menstruating Draupati of Mahabharata was hauled out into the king’s darbar and disrobed in public. Dushasan, the vilest villain of the story, only stopped when he saw stains of blood in her clothes. None of the men of royalties cringed; none demanded that Dushasan go take a bath or that the lady be sent into a dungeon.When her five husband and herself had to go away to the forest as per the stakes in the lost gamble, she was not asked to keep a distance. Menstruation was accepted as a normal bodily function those days. There is no direct mention of menstruation in Ramayana. At least Valmiki does not mention Sita staying away for three or four days from Rama any time during their long forced forest sojourn. Menstruation figures only once among the many contemptuous references to women in Manusmriti. In this compendium of laws loaded against women and Shduras (exxcept one consolation verse which states that the house where women are not honoured will perish) as prescribed by Manu, supposedly one of the original direct descendants from God, makes a passing reference to menstruation:

A chandala[3], a village pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, and a eunuch must not look at the Brahmanas while they eat.(Manusmriti, 3: 239) .

On the other hand, it is the Bible (Leviticus), and hence Quran and several Hadiths that shun a menstruating woman and deem her untouchable. After the advent of Islamic invasions, Hinduism adapted several of their regressive ways – such as face-and-body veils for women, head-covering for men entering the temple in North Indian temples (a practice not allowed in South Indian temples), humiliation of women about their biological function of abandoning their unfertilised dead eggs.  

Traditionally, Hindu women refrain from visiting temples during their periodical days of irritability and angst. No temple, even Ayyappa temples doting the many cities of India wherever Keralites congregate, checks for signs of menstruation when women enter the precincts of the temple.

What about male Ejaculation?

That men of reproductive ages without access to sex or refraining from masturbation for nearly a month ejaculate naturally, normally in a pleasant dream is treated like a state secret. At least the Bible is candid enough to mention male ejaculation along with menstruation. It says :

th. “If one of you becomes unclean because of a nocturnal emission, then he shall go outside the camp, but must not come within. When (next) evening comes, he shall wash himself with water, and when the sun has set, he may return. (Deut. 23:10-11).

A study to verify how many men observing sexual abstinence (if they truly do and without masturbation) ejaculate the night before their holy visit to Sabarimala may reveal interesting statistics.

Ayyappa, the unknown ruler of all things material

Till recent times, few North Indian Hindus had heard of a supposedly Hindu God named Ayyappa. As mentioned before, the name does not appear in any of the epics or Hindu scriptures. In the 1980’s when we stayed in New Delhi, my wife would ask our driver, a Ramakant Trivedi who preferred to be called Pandit (Brahmin scholar) to drive her to the Ayyappa temple in RK Puram. The man was not particularly enthusiastic of this trip – he believed that he was being forced to drive her to a Christian church. He did, but stood outside the walls of the temple and politely refused the ‘Prasadam that my wife offered him when she came out after her worship. He failed to be convinced, even by much persuasion, that Ayyappa was a Hindu God.

Most North Indians heard of Sabarimala and the God who resided on it only after superstar Amitabh Bachchan was heard to have gone on a pilgrimage subsequent to his recovery after a serious shooting accident.  Wherever Keralites went, they installed an Ayyappa temple – some modest and others ostentatious – but few, if any, Hindus of the North worshipped in such temples until persuaded that Ayyappa was the product of the homosexual union between Shiva and Vishnu. That is a story many had heard.

These last few years, when the number of pilgrims rose from thousands to millions during the December-January-period that often extends to February, you find Pampa to be a filthy channel carrying human waste of those who relieved themselves in the forest upstream. Bathing in this river is part of the rites. Men lay down in the river to submerge only half their body and then flip over to wet the other half in an imaginary holy bath. Then you trudge up a narrow road which used to be an arduous jungle trail not so long ago. The climb is only 3 or 4  kilometres with several landings and some make-shift restaurants on the way. You literally rub shoulders with hordes of sweaty but frenetic men.Mules that carry grocery and things to the temple and possibly the make-shift eateries, a few old men being carried in long chairs and an occasional old woman claiming right of the way make the trudging pretty trying. If you are not dressed in a uniform of black mundu,(a wrap-around sheet of cotton cloth)  and do not call out Swami Sharanam or Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa (Lord Ayyappa is my  refuge) and do not carry a bag of a few coconuts and other sacrificial materials on your head, you would be viewed with suspicion and will not be allowed to climb  the sacred 18 steps.. You are supposed to travel in a group in which the leader is also a teacher (Guru swami -a monk with several pilgrimages under his belt) who guides you about a series of rituals as you move along, never omitting to bellow that the Lord is your refuge.

The hapless lady of the High House

If you are going to this unique temple for the first time, you are expected to shoot (stick) a twig on a banyan tree representing the demon that stands along the way.(You can buy ‘arrows’ from some of the vendors.) You are reminded that Muslim pilgrims who visit Mecca need to throw stones on a wall that represents the Satan. The legend is that if  it ever happens in one season that celibate Ayyappa finds that the tree has no arrow on it, which means that would mean that he had no new devotee visiting him in the season, Ayyappa is then bound to marry the young woman waiting in the High House next to Ayyappa’s own. Before you go for a vision of Ayyappa, you pray before this hapless young lady forever waiting for the day. If that day dawns, then Ayyappa would cease to be the virgin God with a vow to keep. However, Ayyappa has remained forever an abstinent virgin because there has always been a rookee newcomer every year.

Hindu temples do not ban entry of women of any ages. It is implicit that no Hindu woman would dare to enter a temple while she is menstruating and earn the curse of the deity. Some Shani (Saturn) temples in Maharashtra do ban the entry of women, but the reason given is that Shani might harm the women by his presence, not the other way round. The alleged fear in Sabarimala Ayyappa temple is that the presence of a menstruating woman – or a young woman of the menstruating age – could harm Ayyappa or deter him from his vow of celibacy. The eternally young God’s vow is pretty delicately balanced, too easily liable to succumb to temptation.

Should women be too keen to visit this templ?

Justice Indu Malhotra is almost certainly right. Sabarimala is not a unique Hindu temple, but it is probably a Buddhist temple annexed by a Hindu raja or chieftain for commercial benefits. Alternatively, a place of worship of the humble indigenous people with little to do with the temples where only Brahmins have their say

I had always held that no self-respecting woman with a sense of hygiene (which has nothing to do with menstruation) should really visit Sabarimala during the celebratory months. Rahul Easwar, the pseudo-rebel of the Tantri family, says that the #Metoo movement will come up with thousands of complaints if young women are allowed to rub shoulders in the crowd of men who trudge up like schools of sardines. The place is crowded and filthy, the river in which you are expected to bathe is unfit for the purpose, the few lavatories that the government built are abominable. Many of the so-called swamis are crude, self-centred and hard to manage. Catholic priests are shining examples that taking a vow does not prevent men on forced abstinence from being sly sexual predators. The crowd during those days are difficult to control, hence the policemen are irritable and not too frequently violent with those people whom they address as swamis.

A Sadhu at Kumb Mela paying homage to the river goddesses by
playing with his holy

I might not advise my wife and children against taking a trip – as pilgrims or tourists – to such places as Palani hills, Tirupati in the Seven Hills or  Vaishno Devi in the Himlayas. I  might not feel too bad if they wished to visit the Kumbh mela, half or full. It might be fun to watch the ghastly sight of  self-styled sadhus walking, dancing or performing in the nude, but you might not be allowed where Nanga babas (nude old men) congregate. In spite of the presence of such ‘holy’ men, and the sight of thousands of men in the nude and women virtually nude with their saris sticking transparently to their skin bathing in the river, there is no ban on women visiting Kumbh Mela. It’s another matter that few women decide to go.

On the other hand, a woman has the right to feel offended that she wase being denied equality with the male sex in the name of menstruation or for being a temptation to man and god. On that ground alone, My Lady Indu Malhotra has erred. Nothing is more sacred than our Constitution; no religion or God should be allowed to ride over it in the name of stupid traditions or rituals.

So if you are ready to face staring eyes, idiots screaming at your presence, politicians interfering with your right  and hordes of bipolar policemen and women not sure to protect you or to stop you, yes, take that  trip to the temple of a different  denomination..


[1] Jagati Srikumar, the most popular character actor and comedian of ‘progressive’ movies in Kerala, once said this about the theme of a serial produced by him: “The woman may be of the glorious IAS (Indian administrative Service), but at home she should remain a slave of her man.” There was not a voice of protest.

[2] Theravada means ancestral. Interestingly, the  ancestral family is known as Tharavadu in Kerala.

[3] Chandala is the funeral-place keeper, one of the lowest and considered the most heinous in the order of castes

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