The Reality of Legends

by Asim Rafiqui

This essay forms a part of my  The Idea of India project began in 2009 and completed some three years later. The project was a personal act of dissent against South Asia’s sectarian and nationalist histories, and a search for what Edward Said had referred to as the “…persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies.” This project was a journey to an India of lived experiences and imaginations not bound by sectarianism, and social spaces that pointed to worlds more complex, beautiful and vital than those offered by the threadbare hate mongering of the sectarians. The complete works can be seen online at The Idea of India.

I did not believe until I saw it with my own eyes. On a cold winter’s morning, standing on a hill overlooking the city of Erumeli in Kerala, and looking down at the mosque of Vavar, I finally saw it; hundreds of half-clad, paint smeared, ecstatic Hindu pilgrims dancing, prancing and singing as they circumambulating the outer walls of the large, pink mosque and then making their way to the Petta Sree Dharmasasta mandir across the street. A seemingly endless stream of men poured into the mosque and another, like an umbilical chord, moved between the gates of the mosque and that of the temple, and transformed the two distinctly separate religious spaces into one. What I was seeing was one of the most unique elements of the pilgrimage to the Sabarimala mandir; the act of obeisance and respect, that the Hindu pilgrims must offer to a Muslim saint before they can proceed onwards towards the Ayyappa shrine. I stand at the hilltop and watch hundreds more arriving at the city and walking towards the mosque, as dozens of frantic policemen tried to manage the crowds, and the traffic. On the other side of the city’s centre, I can see a long row of pilgrims, many carrying cloth bundles on their heads and others with sticks and wooden swords, already making their way out of the city, continuing their pilgrimage towards the Sabarimala shrine some 70 kilometres away. There is a festival like atmosphere, and the air is filled with shouts, chants, ecstatic cries, chatter, music, laughter, and an air of expectation and excitement. Buses, cars, minivans, taxis and rickshaws clog the streets, as thousands pour out of vehicles, adjust their overalls, gather their belongings and make their way towards the mosque.

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I had come to this small town in Western Kerala, where through legend, lore and ritual a community has created a shared spiritual and social space and managed to create a shared spaced, even if for just a moment, between what many see as insurmountably divided communities. The Sabarimala pilgrimage, in the course of about forty days, will bring nearly 50 million Hindu pilgrims to this town, all of whom will pass through Vavar’s mosque and offer their respects, say their prayers, break their coconut shells, receive the blessings of the mosque’s caretakers, and then proceed onwards. And they do so because some centuries ago, the king of Pandalam ordered them to, and today, despite the attempts of the religious fundamentalist to end such practices, millions continue to walk to this town to perform this ritual. By the end of forty days as the pilgrimage comes to its climax around January 14th–in the Hindu month of Markali (approximately between December 15 to January 15) a most inauspicious time–millions will have defied the divisions of caste and creed and completed this most incredible of journeys.

As I start to make my way down the hill towards the centre of town, it starts to rain.

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There are no puranas to tell us the story of the god Ayyappa. The only Sanskrit text, according to Radhika Sekar who wrote her doctoral dissertation on the pilgrimage, that says anything about him is the nineteenth-century text Bhutanathopakhyanam. And as Dr. Sekar describes it in her book The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & The Ayyappan Cultus, the story goes something like this:

After theasuraMahisasura was destroyed by the Goddess Camundi, his sister Mahisi was overcome with grief and anger. She was determined to avenge her brothers destruction and so undertook severe penance and propitiated the god Brahma. Greatly pleased by her tapas Lord Brahma granted her a boon to the effect that she would attain her end only through a human incarnation born to two males.

Blessed by such a boon she thus became invincible and went on a rampage of destruction, overthrowing Indra, the king of the gods, and conquering the three worlds. The helpless devas (gods) were terrified and went to Siva and Visnu for help. Siva and Visnu decided to create a son who would eventually destroy her. Visnu thus assumed the form of Mohini – the Enchantress and bore Siva a son.

The child was left on the banks of the River Pampa in South India where he was found by the childless king Rajasekhara of Pantalam. The king took the child and adopted him as his heir. He wore a little bell around his neck when he was found so he was named Manikantham. Manikantham grew up to be a remarkable child and was loved by all.

Meanwhile the Queen conceived and bore a son of her own. Wishing her own son to succeed to the thrown she grew envious of Manikantham and plotted to get rid of him. Feigning illness, she ordered the court physician to say that she would be cured only if she drank tigers milk. As expected, Manikantham who was a dutiful son, set off into the forest to fetch the milk for her. He was only twelve years old at that time a youngbrahmacharin. He took with him only a coconut, representing his family deity Siva and some food which he wrapped in a small cloth bundle.

In the forest he confronted and destroyed Mahisi in a fierce battle. The gods who had come to witness the destruction of Mahisi were overjoyed. They revealed to him his divine origin and mission that had now been fulfilled and Indra took the form of a tiger which the victorious Manikanthan rode back to the kingdom.

Seeing him thus on tiger back the king and his subjects realized his divinity. The terrified queen confessed her plot and was forgiven. He then instructed the king to build a temple to him and returned to devaloka (the abode of the gods)

From Sekar, R The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & The Ayyappan Cultus, Page 23-24

But, as Dr. Sekar continues, it is in folk songs like Vavar Mahatmayam, Pantalasevam and Pulipalasevam that extend this story, and the life of the god, into realms fascinating:

A princess of the Pantalam lineage was abducted by a dacoit called Udayanan who was terrorizing the region, looting and desecrating even the temples. She was rescued by a brahmin and taken to a sanctuary near Aryankavu where there is a Sasta temple. A son was born to them who grew up to be an able warrior and firm devotee of the deity Sasta. He was soon patronized by the weak Pantalam king and recognized as his grandson. Ayyappan for that was his name, was made Commander of the Pantalam forces and set out to restore order in the kingdom. One of his first adversaries was a Muslim pirate called Vavar. Vavar was defeated but was so impressed by the young Ayyappan that he became his friend and follower. The two formed a strong army in which men of all castes and creeds served and then set out to subdue and defeat Udayanan. After having restored order in the kingdom, Ayyappan began the restoration of the Sasta temple at Sabarimala. Once the temple had been completed Ayyappan instructed his men to leave their weapons at a peepul tree two kilometers from the shrine. From there they marched to Sabarimala changing Swami Saranam (seeking refuge in God). Ayyappan then delivered a sermon on equality and brotherhood and is then believed to have become transformed into a bolt of lightening and merged into the image of the deity.

Sekar, R The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & The Ayyappan Cultus, Page 25

However, things are made even more complex because local descendants of Vavar tell another story. Dominique-Sila Khan, in her book Sacred Kerala: A Spiritual Pilgrimage , documents a dialogue with the local Musaliar (Muslim religious leader), a descendent of Vavar, as follows:

Some people portray him as a fierce warrior, and even worse, a pirate who, after being defeated by Ayyappa and repenting for his part sins, becomes Ayyappas ally and protector. This is not at all what my forefathers told me. I do not believe this. After all, why is Vavar called “Swami” by the Hindus? He was a holy man, a Sayyid or a Thangal, as we say in Kerala. At that time the Pandalam raja was ruing in this area, Ayyappa was a local chieftain…’

A chieftain? Not a prince? But still a divine incarnation?

Oh no! Both Vavar and Ayyappa, who were very close friends, followed the same teaching, both practiced yoga and meditation. Yes, they were great yogis. Through yoga they had obtained extraordinary powers, which the populace interpreted as miracles. They aim, however, was to establish peace in a troubled area. The battles they fought were mostly spiritual battles.

Khan, Dominique-Sila, Sacred Kerala, Page 65

Both legends, different and complex, share one thing in common: they weave the communities together and they have changed and adjusted to reflect changing social and political realities. These are merely legends they say, just myths and false beliefs. Or so many argue. But these legends and myths are an essential part of Keralan conception of the self, and of society and, as Dominique-Sila Khan points out, they should not be underestimated:

Some would object to saying that oral traditions have little or no scientificvalue and should consequently be treated as matters of faith or folklore, or altogether dismissed. But legends should by no means be put on the same footing as historical records. It is not because they have nothing to do with reality, but because they express a different kind of realityTheir language is different and follows a different pattern and has little concern for Cartesian logic or chronology.

(Khan, Dominique-SilaSacred Kerala, page 62)

Today, when ‘actual’ history has become a weapon in the hands of those who want to divide and separate, it is legends, complete with their fantastic imaginations and fabulous pluralism, that still hold us together.

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I shelter under the awning of a cafeteria, and watch the rain fall pour from an angry sky and turn into a raging torrent tearing across the town’s roads. A few young pilgrims, accompanied by their guruswami, shelter around me. They seem to be on their first pilgrimage to Sabarimala. They, along with their guruswami, had been waiting restlessly to begin their journey. They are anxious, restless and raring to get started. At Erumeli they are at the threshold of the sacred, but the ceremony of irumuti kettal (tying of the bundle) must be performed before they can proceed further. The ceremony signals their entry into the sacred zone, the final stage of the yatra to the shrine. They all look towards their guruswami and wait for his instructions. The rain however, creates an obstacle no one is quite prepared to face.

The guruswami, seeing me observing his flock of young devotees, offers to buy me a cup of tea, which I graciously refuse and instead insist that I buy him one. We soon get to talking. The ritual that begins the final, most sacred stage of the journey will be completed by him, he tells me. There are twenty young men traveling together and he has accompanied them all the way from Tamil Nadu. We finish our tea and he turns his eyes towards the sky. The sky is clearning, and he turns and whispers to one of the men to prepare the others to begin. A murmur spreads through the group as they start to gather their bundles. One of them begins a low toned chant – Swamiyee Saranam Ayyappan the guruswami says to me. He asks if I will repeat it with him. I repeat the phrase and stand aside to make room for the men who are now gathering in front of him. He signals that he is ready, and the first of the young men, chanting Swamiyee Saranam Ayyappan, prostrates himself before the guruswami and the irumuti kettal ceremony begin.

The guruswami places offerings in the cloth bundle each pilgrim must carry with him. The front of the bundle, called the mun muti, he placed offerings for Ayyappa and Vavar, usually camphor, incense, turmeric, and pepper (for Vavar). The rear of the bundle, the pun muti, is for the pilgrims personal belongings to take on the yatra. Once the offerings have been made the bundle is tied. The guruswami places the bundle on the pilgrims’s head and spins him around three times. The man is emotionally moved, his eyes, tear-filled, are staring towards the temple, and appear oblivious to the final instructions being shouted at him. “You must go to the mosque first!” The guruswami shouts in order to be heard over the noise of the streets, the still falling rain, the roaring torrents of water, and the crowds all around. “You must seek the permission of Vavar first!” The guruswami is concerned that the man is not paying attention and struggles to catch his attention. The young pilgrim nods his head signalling that he understands, and he heads off into the rain. In turn, they each receive the offerings, gather their bundles, accept the blessings, lower their heads against the rain and head towards the mosque.

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Vavar’s mosque was designed by a Hindu. R. Gopalakrishnan is one of the most famous mosque architects in Kerala. His design of mosque domes frequently incorporate the lotus flower, a practice he defends by pointing out that it “…is our national flower and placing the dome inside it is a mark of respect, a symbol of religious harmony.” The design of the Vavar mosque however posed a unique challenge; he had to design it so that the Hindu pilgrims could perform their rituals without disturbing the worshippers inside. His solution was to construct a roofed veranda that goes around the outside of the mosque.

I have followed the young pilgrims to the mosque. The rain has stopped, and the air feels damp and surprisingly cool. A breeze gently blows across the terrace, spraying faces with rain and leaves. Thousands of pilgrims are entering the mosque, carrying offerings, chanting and singing. Men from the mosque congregation stand in the main doorway and hand out vibhooti (ash) which the pilgrims smear on their foreheads before they start their circumambulation of the mosque. The pilgrims run through the veranda chanting Swami Ayyappan, and occasionally Allah O’Akbar and Ya Allah. Those who are on their first yatra perform the Petta tullal dance, an initiation ceremony meant to erase their ego and help them surrender themselves in humility to the god. Towards the rear of the mosque compound, men are selling coconuts to the pilgrims. The sounds of the evening call to prayer–the azaan–is drowned out by the chanting, and the dancing, but no one seems to mind. I see men quietly and nonchalantly enter the mosque, and gather to offer prayers, and just as quietly, and nonchalantly, leave. The dancers continue their dance.

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I make my way into the Petta Sree Dharmasasta mandir that stands a mere 10 meters in front of the mosque of Vavar. Thousands of devotees are pushing and shoving their way into and out of the gates of the mandir. I soon find myself pushed up against the walls of the entrance way and unable to move. I decide not to fight the crowd, and simply wait for a moment when I can finally continue on. I notice what looks like a small shrine carved into an opening on the left side of the entrance. Metal bars protect it and a green cloth, reminiscent of cloths in Sufi shrines, is placed over it, with the inscription “Vavaru Swami” etched over it. I notice that there is a similar shrine on this side of the gates as well, but this one has a red cloth placed inside and the inscription “Kadutta Swami” scratched over it. Small candle lights and incense sticks have been lit within each. I stop one of the men going past and ask him who the shrines belong to. He tells me that the Petta Sree Dharmasasta mandir is ‘defended’ by a shrine to the Muslim Vavar and another to Kadutta–“Lord of the forest”. A sculpture above the gates depicts Ayyappa astride a tiger, and the symbol Om marks the centre of each metal door. All the traditions come together here, all the stories are inter-woven.

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Soon it is the guruswami’s turn to leave, but before he does, he turns to me and asks,“Will you accompany us to Sabarimala?” I am surprised by his question and cautiously tell him that I am not Hindu. He looks surprised, or dismayed, I am not quite sure which. “But this is not just for Hindus!” He exclaims, giving me a look of disbelief. “I can’t believe you came all the way here from Europe and did not know even this!” He laughs as he says this. My look of confusion has clearly dismayed him. Inner sanctums to Hindu temples are closed to non-Hindus, and even women are not allowed to participate in the Sabarimala, so how could I make the pilgrimage? I fail to comprehend his request, convinced that his question was merely rhetorical. But I was wrong. Dr. Sekar points out that:

Soon it is the guruswami’s turn to leave, but before he does, he turns to me and asks,“Will you accompany us to Sabarimala?” I am surprised by his question and cautiously tell him that I am not Hindu. He looks surprised, or dismayed, I am not quite sure which. “But this is not just for Hindus!” He exclaims, giving me a look of disbelief. “I can’t believe you came all the way here from Europe and did not know even this!” He laughs as he says this. My look of confusion has clearly dismayed him. Inner sanctums to Hindu temples are closed to non-Hindus, and even women are not allowed to participate in the Sabarimala, so how could I make the pilgrimage? I fail to comprehend his request, convinced that his question was merely rhetorical. But I was wrong. Dr. Sekar points out that:

the emphasis at Sabarimala is equality and theoretically this even extends to non-Hindus participating in the eventcaste and class rules are waived and equality is emphasised not only across caste barriers but also amongst people of all creeds. Thus Muslims and Christians who are otherwise barred from entering the sanctums of Hindu temples, are permitted to participate and allowed safe access to the shrines at Sabarimala.

Sekar, R The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & The Ayyappan Cultus, Page 25

I wish I had known that earlier. As he leads his group away from the city and towards the mountain shrine of Ayyappa he waves and says, “Maybe Ayyappan did not call you yet. When he is ready, he will ask you to come!” I watch him cautiously step into the flooded street, throw his bundle across his shoulders, and disappear into the crowds. I hope that I get called.

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Further Readings:

Khan, Dominique-Sila (2009) Sacred Kerala: A Spiritual Journey, Penguin Books India

Mathew, A. F. & Roy Burman, J. J. (2001) “Sabarimala: Symbol of Inclusive Syncretism” Indian Journal of Secularism 4(4) 2001

Sekar, Radhika (1992) The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & Ayyappan Cultus, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers


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