The Idea of India
The Reality Of Legends: The Sabarimala Pilgrimage And The Dance Of Faiths


I would not have believed had I not seen it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, and felt its power and passion within my own body and soul. But on a cold winter’s morning in the city of Erumeli while standing on a hill overlooking the Vavar mosque I saw it with my own eyes, heard it with my own ears, and felt the power of its convictions in my soul. Below me hundreds of half-clad, paint smeared, ecstatic men danced, pranced, and sang their way around the large, pink mosque and then made their way across the street to the Petta Sree Dharmasasta Temple. A continuous line of bodies created an umbilical chord between the temple and the mosque, the sounds of their songs and the rhythms of their dance suggesting a living connection transformed the two distinctly separate spaces into one. Hundreds more were streaming down from the bus stand towards the mosque and the temple that sits across from it. Policemen were futilely trying to control the traffic and the waves of pilgrims, as car horns and human shouts and songs compete for the right of way. On the other side of the city’s center I could  see a long row of pilgrims making their way on foot for the final journey to the Sabarimala mountain shrine. They carried cloth bundles on their heads and some were holding sticks and wooden swords.

Here, in this small town in Western Kerala, members of two communities have managed, through legend, lore and ritual, to create a shared spiritual and social space and bridged what many claim is an insurmountable divide. The Sabarimala pilgrimage, in the course of about forty days, will bring nearly 50 million pilgrims through this town, and to the Vavar mosque. The seventy kilometer trek from Erumeli to the mountain top shrine of the god Ayyappa at Sabarimala cannot be completed without first paying respects to his friend the Muslim pirate/saint Vavar and asking his permission to proceed.

Legend has it that the king of Pandalam said so.

And so it is for the millions who pass through here. And they do despite the attempts of the ‘orthodox’ to stop this unison and reduce a pilgrimage, one that theoretically sees not caste nor creed, into a ‘Hindu’ or a ‘non-Muslim’ one. The fundamentalists have petitioned, complained and attempted to physically stop the pilgrims from their homage to Vavar but to no avail. By the end of forty days as the pilgrimage comes to its climax on around January 14th – in the Hindu month of Markali (December 15th to January 15th) a most inauspicious time, millions will defy the divisions of caste and creed and complete the journey.

As I started to walk down from the hill towards the mosque I am struck by the festival like atmosphere that pervades the streets. I had expect sobriety. The air above the town is filled with the shouts, chants, ecstatic cries and chatter of the thousands that fill the streets, restaurants and shops of this otherwise nondescript town in Western Kerala. Buses continue to pull into the station and men continue to pour out, readjust their belongings and ask for directions to the mosque. As I begin my descent down from the hill and towards the center of town it starts to rain.


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 the asura Mahisasura was destroyed by the Goddess Camundi, his sister Mahisi was overcome with grief and anger. She was determined to avenge her brother’s destruction and so undertook severe penance and propitiated the god Brahma. Greatly pleased by here 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 tiger’s 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 young brahmacharin. 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)

(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 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)

And even more so, local descendants of Vavar tell another different 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 Ayyappa’s 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)

The legends weave the communities together and they have changed and adjusted to reflect changing social and political realities.


The rain has stopped but I remain standing under a store front awning. Gathered around me are young pilgrims, many on their very first pilgrimage to Sabarimala. They, along with their guruswami, had been waiting restlessly to begin their journey. 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 await their guruswami’s call.

The guruswami offers to buy me tea, which I refuse by insisting that I buy him one. 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 and whispers to one of the men to prepare to leave. 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. 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.

The irumuti kettal ceremony will be completed by placing crucial offerings in the cloth bundle each pilgrim must carry with him. The front of the bundle, called the mun muti, holds the offerings to Ayyappa and Vavar – usually camphor, incense, turmeric, pepper (for Vavar). The read of the bundle, the pun muti, is for the swami’s personal belongings to take on the yatra. Once the offerings have been made the bundle is tied. The guruswami places the bundle on the swami’s head and spins him around three times. The man is emotionally moved, his eyes are staring towards the temple, and appear oblivious to the final instructions being shouted at him.

‘You must go to the mosque first! You must seek the permission of Vavar first!’

The guruswami is concerned that the man is not paying attention and struggles to catch his eye. The young pilgrim nods his head signaling that he understands. He must now wait until each member of his group has completed the same ritual. He stares ahead, as if lost in a trance.

He is in the sacred zone.


It is near impossible to find the single historical origin of the god Ayyappa and different sources tell different stories. Regardless his legend remains an essential part of Keralan folk lore and, as Dominique-Sila Khan points out, these should not be underestimated:

Some would object to saying that oral traditions have little or no ‘scientific’ value 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 reality…Their language is different and follows a different pattern and has little concern for Cartesian logic or chronology.

(Khan, Dominique-Sila Sacred Kerala, page 62)

In fact, I would go one step further; legends and folk stories may not be ‘official history’ but they reflect and reveal the ideals and aspirations of a people and a community. They are a reflection of the imaginative, the experienced, and the felt sensations that cannot be documented in ‘scientific’ texts. The capture, represent and express values and ideas that holds a community together, define its morality, express it’s accommodations, give flight to it’s ideals, and underpin its sense of its collective, diverse self.

In some ways hence they are even more crucial than academic history. The story of the warrior Vavar and his god friend Ayyappa achieves this in a powerful, emotional and expressive way. It is something the fundamentalists, trapped in their textual analysis and literal interpretations, fail to understand and appreciate. This tradition needs to be preserved because the diverse, mixed community it emerges from needs to be preserved.


I am pushed against the outer walls of the Petta Sree Dharmasasta Temple that stands a mere ten meter in front of the Vavar mosque. Men rush in and out and find myself pushed towards what appears to be a small shrine in the outer wall. But bars protect it on all sides and i can only peer in. A green cloth is placed inside – reminiscent of cloths in Sufi shrines, and an inscription that reads “Vavaru Swami”. I notice that there is a similar one on the other side of the gates. It takes me another ten minutes to struggle across the sea of men to the ‘shrine’ on the other side and note that it has a red cloth placed inside with the inscription “Kadutta Swami”. Small candle lights and incense sticks have been lit within each, though strangely I cannot smell the aroma.

I will learn later what they mean – that the entrance of the temple is ‘defended’ by a shrine to the Muslim Vavar and another to Kadutta – ‘lord of the forest’. A statue of Ayyappa riding a tiger sits at atop of the gate, but am Om marks the center of each gate itself.

All the traditions come together here, all the stories are inter-woven at this point.


Vavar’s mosque was designed and constructed by a Hindu.

R. Gopalakrishnan who is one of the most famous mosque architects in Kerala. His design of mosque domes frequently incorporate the lotus flower, which 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 redesign of the Vavar mosque posed a unique challenge – he had to design it so that the Hindu pilgrims did not disturb the Muslim worshippers inside. His solution – the one that I stand on now and watch the pilgrims stream past with their offerings, was a roofed veranda around the outside of the mosque.

The caretakers of the mosque stand at a table at the entrance and hand out vibhooti (ash) that the pilgrims smear on their foreheads before starting their circumambulation of the mosque. The men are running through the veranda chant Swami Ayyappan though an occasion shout of Allah O’Akbar and Ya Allah can also be heard over the chanting. They continue their dance – the Petta tullal. It is part of an initiation ceremony compulsory for those making their first yatra. Smeared in color, stripped off most of their clothes, the men dance to reduce and erase their ego and reserve and surrender themselves in humility to the god. Towards the rear a few men are selling coconuts to the pilgrims. I lean against the outer wall and watch as the men, local Muslims from Erumeli as I later learn, take turns to enter the mosque’s inner sanctum and offer their afternoon prayers making sure that someone is always available to oversee the sales. The dancers dance on around us.


Will you accompany us to Sabarimala? The guruswami and his group are beginning their walk across the mountains north of Erumeli towards the sacred shrine. I am surprised by his question and cautiously tell him that I am not Hindu. 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! 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. How could I make the journey? Where would it end for me? How would I, a non-Hindu, be part of this pilgrimage? I fail to comprehend his request, his generosity, 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 event…caste and class rules are waived and equality is emphasized 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 hope he does.

Further Readings:

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

Sekar, Radhika The Sabarimala Pilgrimage & Ayyappan Cultus, Motilal Banarsidass Pub; 1st edition (December 1, 1992)

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

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