Sabarimala And Controversies: An Endless Saga 

  • All the disruption and intrusion into the tenets of rituals and discipline of Sabarimala are are just an extension of a six decade long plot to tarnish the sanctity of the shrine and dent the steadfast devotion of the Ayyappa devotees.  Here is a timeline of controversies:
  • Aravind SubramanyamFriday, December 28, 2018 2:49 pm IST
    Members of Ayyappa Dharma Samrakshana Samithi hold placards during a protest against the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa Temple, at Parliament Street, on October 14, 2018 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
    Members of Ayyappa Dharma Samrakshana Samithi hold placards during a protest against the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa Temple, at Parliament Street, on October 14, 2018 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Amal KS/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 

    Controversy around Sabarimala, especially during the mandalam period ( mid-November to mid-January), has become routine and the pronouncement of the Supreme court order that saw a spontaneous rise of Hindus opposing it has aggravated the matter even further this year.

    The objections to the order are gaining strength at every passing day as it prescribes directions against the very tenets of rituals and discipline in vogue for so many centuries. One can sense a diabolical conspiracy in this taking into considerations the incidents that are happening around this matter.

    The present generation may not be aware of an important but devastating incident that took place in Sabarimala around sixty years back. In 1950, this temple in the Travancore state of those days was destroyed by fire. It was damaged beyond repair, and so was the Ayappan vigraha(idol) which was broken into three pieces. The team of police officers that investigated this mishap were also stunned to find it so. Although initially passed off as a fire accident it was then proved otherwise when findings like the strong axe marks on the temple doors proved that it was anything but that. It was planned sabotage.

    There were some who couldn’t digest the rise in the number of pilgrims year after year or the fact that this shrine was flooded by people from across religions. Those were the conclusions that emerged after the probe; that the destruction was aimed at reducing its popularity and wiping out the practice of worshipping Ayappa eventually. Yet, none was brought to book as political intervention provided immunity to those that were responsible for the temple tragedy.

    The trend continues to this day. All the disruption and intrusion into the tenets of rituals and discipline are just an extension of the 1950 sinister plot to tarnish the sanctity of the shrine and dent the steadfast devotion of the Ayyappa bhakts(devotees) relentlessly.

    Fake stories have been spun endlessly too; be it the tale of St.Thomas striking a crossing in Nilakkal, or that the temple is not a Hindu one but a Buddha Vihara, many a tales have been floated but thankfully rebutted with proofs and eventually dismissed.

    But the phenomenal strength and the growing angst among common people who have all joined hands to save Sabarimala, the tale-spinners have struck yet again. This time they aim to divide the hill Arayars- the hill dwellers who live around Sabarimala - into two groups and instigate one of those against Hindus.

    Accordingly, as tutored, P K Sajeev representing the Hill Araya Sabha, in an interview sought to claim that the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple belongs to them. The same was echoed by the chairperson of the Kerala Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha G K Janu. It’s a classic irony that Chief Minister Pinnarai Vijayan who has not opened his mouth about the other burning issues of Sabarimala has jumped the gun saying, “Temple ritual belongs to hill dwellers, Arayars belonging to the Adivasi community as is known to all. Sabarimala temple is not at all a Hindu temple but a secular temple”. This plain exposes his ulterior intentions.

    But the arguments that have been put forth when examined carefully reveal all there is to this yet-another-tale that has been floated. I shall also list a set of facts that I gathered during my research for the book ' Maha Sasthaa Vijayam'.

    Let us first look at the arguments that have been put forward in support of this new claim:

    1. The Sabarimala Ayyappan temple was controlled by the ancestors of the present Malai Arayars, and the Pandalam kings forcefully took over the reins from them in the 1900s.

    2. Ayyappan was born to Kandhan and Karuthamma belonging to this Arayar community after a 41-day penance (vratham). Ayyappan then learnt warfare with his friends from the same sect and established a strong neighbourhood in that community, and helped Pandya kings whenever they were attacked by the Cholas. The Arayars built a temple in his honour, and their women of all age groups visit that temple.

    3. In the 1900s, the Pandhala kings paid a visit to this Sabarimala Ayyappan temple and brought the temple rituals under the control of the Thazhaman (Thanthri) brahmins family.They then had the adivasis living in and around the Sabari hills evicted.

    Some amongst us also started feeling these above arguments may even be true, with a few even nodding in agreement saying 'there must be some truth in these points and hence the arguments now'. These arguments have been very convincingly fabricated by a few 'intellectuals' to go on to say that the Vanvasi Devata (forest dweller deity) Sabarimala Ayyappan temple has been forcibly Sanskritised.

    Ancientness of Sabarimala

    The Brahmanda Puranam mentions the existence of a Dharma Sasthaa temple in Sabarimala.

    An image of Sabarimala from the early 1900s
    An image of Sabarimala from the early 1900s

    Historically speaking, this Sabarigiri temple (Giri or malai in Tamil/Malayalam which means hill) has seen many fire attacks in the past, and the vigrahams were re-installed many times (as per Vedic rituals). A stone inscription dating back to 978 AD mentions the re-installation of the idol of the deity by one Shri Prabhakaracharya (Certainly, Shri Prabhakaracharyar of the 1900s should not be confused here with this gentleman just because of name match)

    Sameena baswa nayana prayaadeena prabhaavathi bhagyavaschaya krupaaLaya:

    Prabhakaracharya kara prathishtitho maaganaya vakshathu poori mangalam

    The year 978 is inferred through a system of finding the related year as mentioned in the shloka (verse) popularly known as “Katapayathi” in those days. This stone inscription was seen in the precincts of the temple till recently. It was removed from the permanent structure and placed in the Dewoswam Board office.

    This clearly establishes, incontrovertibly, that the temple was under the ritualistic care of the Namboodiris. Sasthaa sanidhi pooja rituals are done by thanthris from the Kuzhikkaatillam, Pudhumana and ThazhamaN madam since the 10th century AD. Melshantis were appointed from the Kakkedath Illam till the 1940s.

    The temple was opened only for Magara Vilakku Pooja in those ancient times to begin with. Later it was kept open for the Mandala pooja also. This then led to poojas taking place once in two months which then went on to be a monthly affair as it currently is. The route used to be only through the traditional long route till the 1960s.

    Hence it is very clear that Keraleeya Tantric pooja rituals were in practice since the inception of the temple.

    Tantric ritual by Tantri Kandararu Mahesh Mohanaru before opening the Shrine
    Tantric ritual by Tantri Kandararu Mahesh Mohanaru before opening the Shrine

    Records show that in 1830 a Brahmin by the name Ramayyan Embranthri performed the Pooja when Chathachathayam or coconut milk payasam (sweet dish) had to be prepared and offered on behalf of the Travancore Maharani Sethulakshmi Bhai.

    Pandhala family and Sabarimalai

    While puranas talk of the shrine for Sastha being built to commemorate his victory over demoness Mahishi, history dates this shrine back to the 9th century when Tamil Pandya kings migrated to Kerala and established a small kingdom at Pandhalam and talks of their contribution to the restructuring of this shrine and their annual visits here.

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    A book titled “Aithihyamala” written by Kottaraththil Sangunni in 1909 describes vividly at length the visit of the Pandya kings and their families to the Sabarimala temple for worship. After a war in their kingdom, they were forced to flee to Poonjaar and Pandhalam where they established their royal throne but continued to worship Sabarimalai Ayyappan. He also mentions the Thazhaman Thanthri family that performed the Pooja rituals at the Sabarimalai temple.

    Arya Varman and Ayappa:

    I have elaborated on Prince Arya ‘Kerala’ Varman and how he is often confused with the deity Ayappan in my previous piece here. Born to the temple priest and the princess of the royal family, Arya Varman undertook the activity of reconstruction of the Sabarimala Sasthaa temple with the help of the Pandhalam King, soldiers of the Pandya kingdom, and the Ambalapuzha and Aalangaadu soldiers. This Arya Kerala Varman was fondly called Ayyappan by these people. Many others also helped in the reconstruction of this temple. In this context, it cannot be denied that the Malai Arayars would have also extended their help for the reconstruction of the temple.

    Prince Ayyappan not only helped in reconstructing the temple, but attained a state of oneness with the Lord Dharma Sastha in the shrine precincts(of present day), at a place designated as the 'Manimandapam', which is worshipped to this day. The complete history of this Aryaa Kerala Varman can be seen here in the article written by the author.

    We can find references to this Arya Kerala Varman fondly called as Ayyappan in the songs in vogue in Kerala. These songs refer to the incidents relating to the conquest of Ayyappan over the dacoit UdhayaNan with the help of Vaavar as a friend. We also get some interesting information from one of these songs:

    At the occurrence of the Makara Sankaranthi every year,
    If the King of Pandhalam makes a promise to visit and pay obeisance to Sabarimalai Ayyappan with his forces every year
    There will not be any problem in wiping out the enemies of your kingdom

    The above facts entrenched in history prove that the Pandhala kings have taken care of this Sabarimalai Ayyapan temple since the 10th century. And that the promise of visiting Ayyappan at his shrine every year is one that is not to be missed.

    Thiruvabharanam -the sacred ornaments of Ayyappan, are kept at Srambickal Palace, inside the Pandalam palace premises. On the occasion of Makara Sankramana Kalam, the ornaments, which can easily be dated back to 300-400 years, are taken to Sabarimala in a procession and poojas are performed to the idol adorned with the ornaments.


    There are records for the reconstruction of this temple again in the 16th century. In the 1780s, the then Pandhala king had to pledge all his assets including the Sabarimalai temple as collateral with the then Travancore Maharaja, Dharmaraja Karthigai Thirunaal Varma to contain the ballooning war expenditure for the Pandhalam kingdom which is also verifiable from the available records as of date.

    This puts the argument of the usurping of control of the temple by the Pandhalam kings and Thazhaman thanthri families from the Arayars in the 1900s to rest.

    Another key fact is that the Arayars have no history of naming any of their children with the names of Gods.

    Ancient practices

    On the day of closure of the temple post the Makara Mahothsavam, the Melshanti(Chief Priest) stands near the sacred 18 steps and hands over the temple key and a cloth bag containing money as receipts by the temple. The representative of the Pandhalam Kingdom who receives it, returns the key and hands over a part of the money received and requests him to conduct the rituals as per the prescribed procedures in a grand manner until next year.

    And this ritual continues to this day, even though all the proceeds from the temple now go to the government. Although it is now just a ceremonial procedure, it is still a beautiful portrayal of the role and relationship of the Pandhalam Kingdom with the temple.

    There have been times where Melshantis were not available and umpteen stories that accorded their absence to the difficulties of the trek and that the temple was in the middle of a thick jungle which forced the Melshantis to run away from the scene after handing over the keys. But contrary to this, I remember, in the 1920s, my great grandfather late Shri C V Krishnaiyyar and many senior devotees used to trek with a sickle to cut the over grown bushes on the long route creating a path for themselves.

    Worship rituals and related rights

    The rights to certain activities relating to worship, practice by certain communities/groups are established over centuries. A glance at the survey for the Kerala Government titled, "Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States", published in two volumes by the then Madras government, reveals that women of menstruating age were denied entry into the Sabarimala temple even two centuries ago. This survey by lieutenants Benjamin Swain Ward and Peter Eyre Conner of the Madras Infantry was completed by the end of the year 1820. It clearly mentions that the temple was governed by a Brahmin and two members from the Nair community. It also mentions that around 15,000 devotees from various regions would visit the temple every year.

    The Nair family is entrusted with the duty of carrying the “Thiruvabaranam petti” (Casket containing the jewellery of Lord Sastha)from the Pandhalam palace to the temple for Makara Vilakku and back post the Makara Mahothsavam. The rights for the Petra Thullal(Traditional dance at Erumeli) is vested with Ambalapuzha and Alangadu Pettai families with the Menon, Nair and Pillai communities. The temple “Vellichappadu” (Oracle) rights were vested with the Tamil Brahmins known as “Pattar”. Records pertaining to these names and the rights they held are available for the period starting 1835 upto 1989.

    Likewise, the right to “Vedi Vazhipadu” (lighting the crakers) lies with CheerappanChira (Eazhava) Pannickar family while conducting Guruthi Pooja at Malikapuram Sannidhi is entrusted to the Kurup communities.

    The Arayas have always worshipped the deity wherever they dwelled. Interestingly, Shri Venkateeswara Ayyar from Nagarkoil would be invited to be the Velichapad (Oracle) during the pooja conducted by the Arayas. Ayyar performed the oracle service, a week long affair following the Makara Vilakku festival, from 1895 until his death in 1970.

    Some of these rights are not in vogue today as the communities that were vested with the rights did not register and establish their rights during the time period announced by Dewaswom Board.

    Vavar family established a place at the hill temple precincts with records filed by the family at the announcement period by the Dewaswom Board. Likewise the Kurup community established their rights over Mani Mandapa Pooja and Guruthi Pooja and ezhunallippu procession at the concluding day of Makara Mahothsavam.

    The Cheerappanchira family who enjoyed the vedi vazhipadu rights did not claim the rights in 1950 when called for with records. After taking to communism(and turning atheists) these families have not responded to the Dewaswom board’s call. The rights to conduct Pooja to Kochu Kaduthan Swami were not established by the concerned Nair families with records at the time they were called for and hence they lost those rights. The velichappadu rights enjoyed by Tamil Pattars have been dispensed with by the board post the demise of late Shri Palai Baskara Ayyar in 1989.

    The information listed above as to the rights of worship rituals clearly demarcates the rights of communities over specified activities of worship besides the rights by the Pandhalam Palace and the Namboothiri brahmins. Even hypothetically considering/conceding that the Pandhalam kingdom has usurped the temple control from Arayas (for argument sake) why would they allow the Kurup community to perform Kuruthi Poojas and Mani Mandapa Poojas.

    There is no necessity that all vana devathas are worshipped by Vanvasis. It’s a fact that Namboothiri Brahmin community has a vanadevta, Kiratha Saasthaa as their kuladevta. Kiratha Sastha or Kirtha Soonu is also known as “Vettaikkorumakan”.

    Yes, the Arayas did have certain rights in the shrine for certain poojas. There used to be an altar made of stone near the Malikappuram Sannidhi and there was a statue of a goat opposite to that altar, the pooja rights to which rested with Malai Arayas. This was removed by the government officials of the Dewaswom Board in the 1980s. The Arayas were also entrusted with bringing honey(in bamboo) for the abhishekam (ritual of pouring water and other substances on a deity) of Sasthaa, offering poojas to vanadevathas (forest deities) and lighting the deepam(ceremonial lamp) for Makara Vilakku. But all these rights were taken away from them by the board and not the Pandhalam kingdom.

    Christianity and the Arayas

    It is sad how the Arayas lost their identities and rights to the pastors/fathers of Christian missionaries. Two books, one titled “Native life in Travancore” written in 1883 by Father Samuel Mateer and the other titled“The Hill Arrians” written by Father H Baker in 1862 describe very elaborately about the Arayas. Fr.H Baker adds that these Malai Arayas worshipped the jungle demons. He also mentions that (in 1762) these Arayas believed that their God would speak through their Oracle named Thalanaani. He would get drunk and tell the vanavasis who start their pilgrimage to Sabarimala that “he will not come this time” but would reach the shrine well before his community people.

    That makes it clear that even in the 1700s these Arayas used to trek to Sabarimala for darshan as pilgrimage only and not for administering the temple or performing any pooja to the idol. The Thalanaani referred to here was killed by another Vanavasi group, called as Chogars, and his son acquired his status. It is to be noted that the 1840 book claims thus “All the descendants of Talanaani are now Christians. Thanks to Fr. Henry Baker’s effort”.

    The author, in the book, takes pride in stating that ‘Fr Baker was privileged to have saved many hundreds of Arayas, instructing them to form a congregation. This good work has been carried on by other missionaries and is likely to extend. With converting 2000 Arayans in those days, they have also built a church in a place called MelKaavu. Rev W J Richard has converted the remaining Arayans.’

    These Arayas have never been velichapaadu or oracles at Sabarimala, and Fr.W J Richard has spared no one from the community who could be a Vellichapadu at least for their own community and their place of worship. He proudly claims that he has converted everyone to Christianity and has also snatched the pooja articles and the idols they worshipped.

    How much more proof does one need to realise that these Arayas are plain pawns of the grand design by those behind the scene actors who are leaving no stone unturned to instigate people in this Sabarimala issue?

    Sabarimala has won many a battle in grand destructive acts enacted by the evils. During the puranic era, Manikandan won over the evil plot by the ministers and thus came the temple. During the historical episode, Arya Kerala Varman, alias Ayyappan conquered the dacoit king Udayanan and rebuilt the Sabarimala temple. During the 1950 Fire by the miscreants, the temple withstood the destruction and rose strong. We are sure that the Sabarimala Saastha temple will reach more heights and come out successfully from the morass of misjudgments and these false claims, yet again.

    Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa!

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