Appropriation of Ayyappa Cult: The History and Hinduisation of Sabarimala Temple

The restriction on entry of women into the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple is a recent phenomenon. With its rich history of non-Brahmin influences, historians argue the temple's past has more similarities with Buddhist traditions than Hindu ones.

The issue of restrictions on entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 in Sabarimala Ayyappa temple has been a topic of national debate for quite some time. Now, with the Supreme Court’s verdict lifting these restrictions, the issue has once again attained national attention. In Kerala, right-wing Hindu groups have been orchestrating demonstrations and different campaigns of Hindu mobilisation against the Supreme Court verdict in the name of protecting a centuries old custom. Barring the ruling left-led coalition, opposition parties like Congress and BJP are also agitating.

In this article, a historical investigation is attempted examining the evolution of Sabarimala Ayyappa cult, the custom of restricting women’s entry and the appropriation of the cult or the Hinduisation of this temple.

Ayyappa cult: locating a heterogeneous history

The history of Sabarimala and the Ayyappa deity is shrouded in mystery. The scholar Radhika Sekar in her book The Sabarimala Pilgrimage and Ayyappan Cultus says the myth and legends of Ayyappa are not found in any of the major Puranic texts. The cult is traditionally not found in the northern parts of India. “Ayyappa worship is not known further north than mid-Karnataka, where it was probably introduced from Kerala”, observes M.N. Srinivas in the book Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India.

Also Read: The Politics of Sabarimala in the Aftermath of the SC Verdict

Due to the significant non-presence of god Ayyappa in the conventional Ithihasa-Purana texts, it becomes difficult to categorise the cult as strictly belonging to Hindu tantric modality. It is after eighth century AD, with the coming of Brahmin migrants, that the Hindu temples of Ithihasa-Purana tradition started to be built in Kerala. Most of the temples were in the wetland areas. One of the most notable things is that the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple does not find much mention in historical records of ancient Kerala, as Thikkurissi Ganghadaran says in his chapter of the book Kerala Samskara Padanangal.

On the other hand, non-Brahmin influences on the historical evolution of Sabarimala could be located. The relationship between the horseman god Ayyanar of Tamil Nadu and Ayyappa of Sabarimala is one such influence. As T.A. Gopinatha Rao observes in Elements of Hindu Iconography, “Ayyanar is basically a village tutelary deity, worshipped by the lower castes. There are iconographical similarities between the two deities and etymologically too it appears to be feasible.”

In ‘Ayyanarvillupattu’ (traditional Ayyanar Tamil songs), Ayyanar’s lieutenant Karuppuswami has also been eulogised and praised lavishly. Ayyanar’s temples are usually accompanied by Karuppuswami temples nearby.

The cult is traditionally not found in the northern parts of India.

According to historian A. Sreedhara Menon, Sabarimala history is has more to do with Buddhism than with Brahmanism. “Ayyappa devotees strictly follow non-violence, vegetarianism and abstention from sex during the two months before the pilgrimage. It resembles the Ahimsa principles practiced by Buddhists”, Menon says.

For some scholars, Ayyappa is Nilakantha Avalokiteswara depicted in the Buddhist Puranas. “It has been mentioned in the Buddhist Puranas that the temple of Nilakantha Avalokiteswara was erected somewhere in the Sahya mountains,” M. Sreekala Nair writes in her chapter of Introduction to Kerala Studies. The posture of Ayyappa closely resembles the meditating stature of Buddha.

Another uniqueness of the temple is the presence of Vavar (a Muslim deity) in its premises. Some Christian influences could also be identified. Sabarimala pilgrims visit Arthunkal church, where thousands of them return their malas (string of beads). This is another example for the mixed religious culture. From this heterogeneous identity, the Sabarimala space witnessed a transformation into the Brahmanic fold of Hinduism, especially in the twentieth century.

Hindu pilgrims queue outside the Sabarimala Temple to offer prayers to the Hindu deity "Ayappa", about 70 kms west of the town Pathanamthtta in Kerala, on January 15, 2003. Credit: Reuters/Dipak Kumar/Files

Hindu pilgrims queue outside the Sabarimala Temple to offer prayers to the Hindu deity “Ayappa”, about 70 km west of the town
Pathanamthtta in Kerala, on January 15, 2003. Credit: Reuters/Dipak Kumar/Files

‘Desecration of the Temple’, the historical turning point

The most significant turning point in the process of Hinduisation is the Sabarimala arson case of 1950. “The Santhikkaran (priest) who went to the temple on June 14 found the Sreekovil (Sanctum Sanctorum), the Mandapam (Temple Porch) and the store room destroyed by fire and the idol partly damaged.” It was portrayed not as an accident, but as a deliberate attempt to ravage the temple.

Also Read: Kerala Opposition Parties Want Sabarimala Temple to Continue Bar on Women From Entering

Hindu Mahamandal, an organisation working for ‘Hindu unity’ called for a hartal (strike) in Thiruvananthapuram city on July 1. A ceremony to re-install the idol and purify the temple was was conducted on June 25, 1950 with strong religious appeal to all Hindus. Under the leadership of Akhila Bhartha Ayyappa Seva Sangam, an ‘Ayyappa Jyothi’ was ceremoniously taken around Kerala and Tamil Nadu by the devotees for the first time to generate public awareness, interest and involvement in the temple’s reconstruction.

The temple has undergone significant ritual changes after the 1950 incident. One such significant change is the restriction on entry of women. The ban was enforced under Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965.

The notion that this is a recent restriction finds resonance in the Kerala high court’s judgment. “Women used to visit the temple earlier. The Maharaja of Travancore accompanied by the Maharani (queen) and the Diwan had visited the temple in the Malayalam year of 1115 (1940). There was thus no strict prohibition for women to enter the Sabarimala temple in olden days,” the judgment read. “Both women below the age of menstruation and above the age of menstruation belong to the Sabarimala pilgrims. Nowadays women belonging to menstruating age are also pilgrim to Sabarimala,” says Kurumalur Narayana Pillai about 1940s in the book Sreebhoothanadha Sarvaswam.

Another important change that took place was the incorporation of ‘Harivarasanam’ (Sanskrit official lullaby of Ayyappa) as the official song of Ayyappa and Sabarimala. This song was incorporated as the official song after the firing of the temple in 1950.

Makaravilakku (ritual festival of Sabarimala) is one of the most important attractions in Sabarimala. It is during this period that the most number of pilgrims reach Sabarimala. This is because of the ‘magical’ and ‘divine’ happening called Makarajyothi (celestial star appear in the month of Makaram). Facts categorically establish that the divine Jyothi that gives Sabarimala pilgrimage a magnetic attraction among the millions of Hindus is man-made. Even the newspapers like the Malayala Rajyam and The Hindu, which reported the Sabarimala temple arson in detail in the months of June and July of 1950, didn’t carry any specific report on Makaravilakku phenomenon.

Former president of Tranvancore Devaswom Board Raman Nair has admitted that “the Makaravilakku is also done with the help of the police and other people”. In a letter the ombudsman for the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards, Nalinakshan Nair said that Makarajyothi has a history of 45 years only.

Nilakkal movement and Hindu mobilisation

The Hindu mobilisation generally called Nilakkal movement in the year of 1983 was an important episode in the Hinduisation process associated with Sabarimala. The Christian-oriented newspaper Deepika Daily, on March 25, 1983 reported that a granite cross was discovered by some workers from the government owned farming corporation land at Nilakkal. The place was 21 kilometres away from Sabarimala. Stories spread that the discovered cross was that of St. Thomas’s period. Devotees poured into the place. Religious practices began to be conducted. It irked the Hindu organisations and community leaders.

Subsequently Nilakkal became a site of religious confrontation for months. The movement saw an unprecedented Hindu mobilisation in Kerala. The uniqueness of this mobilisation was that it was not based upon ‘protecting’ Nilakkal Mahadevar temple from ‘Christian threat’ as a church was going to be built near it. Instead, the attempt to build the church was portrayed as a threat against Sabarimala, which was 21 km away. The convention of different Hindu organisations urged Hindus to observe April 30 as ‘Nilakkal day’ demanding the removal of the temporary construction at the Nilakkal premise.

The Hindu mobilisation generally called Nilakkal movement in the year of 1983 was an important episode in the Hinduisation process associated with Sabarimala.

On April 28, 1983, the Kerala government made public its decision to remove the cross and temporary shed from the close vicinity of Nilakkal Mahadevar temple. It was also decided to allot land in some other place for building the church at Nilakkal. Hindu organizations rejected this decision.

Posturing the issue as an attack against Sabarimala greatly helped unite large number of Ayyappa devotees and Hindu devotees. The place allotted for Nilakkal church by the government was 325 metres away from the Nilakkal temple. On the evening of May 28, 1983, at around 4 pm, a black color cross with a crucified Christ was installed in a newly built stone altar.

Also Read: Denying Women Entry to the Sabarimala Temple Amounts to Untouchability

This opened up the next stage of the Hindu mobilisation. On June 4, a protest rally of swamis and others marched towards the church site. It resulted in a violent clash between police and the protesters. As the situation was getting worse and direct communal confrontation was ready to begin, the church authorities made it clear that “they don’t have any intention to build the Church forcefully at the cost of religious fraternity that is as precious as the Apple of the eye”. Sarvodaya leader M.P. Manmadan’s mediation proposals were accepted by both Christian Church Action council and Nilakkal Action Council and the religious tension solved.

Pilgrimage and the process of Hinduisation

The pilgrimage to Sabarimala plays a crucial role in the phenomenon and process of Hinduisation. The Sabarimala pilgrimage could be easily fitted into eminent anthropologist Victor Turner’s category of Communitas. In the entire process of pilgrimage a new community or communitas of swami or Ayyappans emerge. The pilgrims transcend their caste, class and other hierarchies and tend to assume a new egalitarian identity of swami or Ayyappan.

Pilgrimage brings a feeling of unity and fraternity as Hindus among the pilgrims transcending the boundaries of caste. Here, Sabarimala pilgrimage and the image of Ayyappa act as the unifying force of an otherwise caste divided society. Though the communitas of swamis or Ayyappans is a temporary phenomenon, it has long term repercussions and constituent role in the larger and long term process of Hinduisation. The communitas give birth to a collectivity that is active in other religious activities too. This does not stop with the Sabarimala pilgrimage season. Instead, at a micro level, the members of this pilgrimage communitas are the main actors associated with other Hindu religious activities.

In all the stages of pilgrimage, we witness a clear cut Hindu collectivity. In the growth and popularity of the Ayyappa cult and Sabarimala pilgrimage, the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham (ABASS), a voluntary organisation plays a crucial role. It has succeeded in orchestrating a targeted pilgrimage of Hindus to Sabarimala from all parts of the world. Hence, more than a spiritual urge the pilgrimage assumes a targeted character of Hindu mobilisation.

All these things points that organised Hindutva efforts have played a crucial role in the transformation of Sabarimala as a exclusive Hindu masculine space. The present agitation also clearly shows the organised efforts of Hindu mobilisation in the name of Sabarimala.

Jitheesh P.M. is a fellow at Tricontinental Institute for Social Research.