|TaktSang Monastery, Paro, Bhutan|
This article is not intended to question the faith or harm the sentiments of any devotee nor is it to disprove a popular view. It contains a bunch of arguments which appeared logical to me, majorly collected from internet and partly based on my observation, which gives an alternate perspective on the Dravidian God ‘Ayyappa’.
I recently went on a 4 day trip to Bhutan. I had heard in advance from a senior as well from the Tourist Guide that a trip to Bhutan is incomplete without a visit to the Taktsang monastery in the outskirts of Paro city.
So on one Friday early morning, we set out for our trek to Taktsang. It took us about 6 hours to complete the entire trek. It is a really tiring journey uphill, with slippery and steep portions, but the experience that we get at the top is worth the entire trouble. A view of the beautiful waterfall which sprinkles icy water as we cross a wooden bridge over the stream and the beautiful Taktsang Monastery - an awe inspiring structure, built on a vertical cliff, appearing to defy gravity is a once-in-lifetime experience.
I was amazed at the similarities between the monastery I saw and Sabarimala temple in Kerala that I have been to, many times.
The journey to the monastery involves a 3 hour trek from the road through the forest, similar to the trek to Sabarimala temple. Buddhist monasteries are generally located deep inside the forest, on mountain tops etc where they can lead an austere life peacefully and far from civilization, unlike Hindu temples which are mostly located in populated areas. Sabarimala is also located far inside the forest, in the middle of 18 hills in Western Ghats, the area coming under the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Just before the monastery, there are a series of steep steps, which reminded me of the “Pathinettam padi” or “18 steps” which takes us to the Sabarimala shrine. The legend related to Taktsang says that Guru Padmasambhava, who propagated Buddhism in Bhutan came to this place riding on a Tigress. Taktsang literally means “Tigers Nest”. Ayyappa’s legend also has a mention of him riding back home, on a tigress.
Even before going to Taktsang, I had read about the less popular view on Sabarimala and Ayyappa. There are quite a number of scholars who have given evidences to the fact that Sabarimala was actually a Buddhist shrine and Ayyappa was actually Buddha, rechristened during the revival of Hinduism and the subsequent exile of Buddhism.
“Dharma Sastha”, the alternate name by which Ayyappa is known, suggests in similar lines. “Dharma” is a word which is of utmost importance to Buddhists. The 'Saranathrayam' of Buddhist disciples “Budham Saranam Gachami; Dharmam Saranam Gachami; Sangham Saranam Gachami” meaning “To the Buddha I go for refuge; To the Dharma (Teachings) I go for refuge; To the Sangha (Monks) I go for refuge” portrays Buddha and Dharma as destinations for ones refuge. Also “Sastha” is a widely used synonym for Buddha.
The chanting of Ayyappa devotees wherein they repeat the word Saranam is also interesting. There is no other Hindu God who is associated with the chanting of Saranam whereas it is an integral part of the Buddhist chants.
Ayyappa devotees making a pilgrimage are expected to lead an austere life for 41 days - follow celibacy and refrain from tobacco and alcohol and all carnal pleasures as well - unlikely of other Hindu pilgrimages. This is very much similar to the Buddhist principles which advocate renunciation and mental discipline.
Another interesting aspect to notice is the egalitarian nature of the Sabarimala temple. Devotees here are never differentiated on the basis of religion, caste or color. Everyone wears the same dress and addresses each other as “Ayyappa” or in other words each devotee considers each other as the God himself. This again isn’t in line with the Hindu system of differentiating people, but more similar towards the Buddhist principle of equality.
Ayyappa does not show his presence in any of the mainline Hindu scriptures, which are of Aryan origin. This is obvious as Ayyappa was a Dravidian God, who was absorbed into the Hindu mythology. Later Hindu works added him as Hariharaputra (Son of Vishnu and Shiva) who was born out of the love between Mohini(Vishnu) and Shiva.
The folk story of Ayyappa portrays him as the prince of Pandalam dynasty, the Pandalam King having adopted him on finding him as a baby in the shores of river Pampa. It is probable that the folk story was absorbed into the later Hindu scriptures, adding the missing link of the birth (story of Mohini and Shiva).
Ayyappa’s legends speaks about him having a Muslim friend called Vavar who has helped Ayyappa. This also underlines the above fact, as Islam religion originated in mid AD 600s whereas most of the Hindu scriptures were composed in the BC era. The legend of Ayyappa must have originated at a time of religious harmony between Muslims and Hindus. The era of Pandalam Dynasty (1200-1500AD) of which Ayyappa’s legend is based on, also suggests the same.
It is interesting to note that Ayyappa is just one among the several Dravidian Gods including Tirupati Balaji, who convincingly seem to be rechristened forms of Buddha.
There is also convincing evidence that Buddhism had strong following in Kerala during early days. Lot of idols have been discovered across Kerala; the black granite statue of Buddha discovered in Alapuzha(Karumadikkuttan) being the most prominent. A 4 foot statue of Buddha has been discovered in Neyyattinkara as well. Karunagappally, Idappalli, Mavelikkara etc. have been pointed out as chief centers of Buddhism in early days.
Whatever be the truth behind it, with the limited knowledge that we have (and as history and mythology are never written by God himself), it is impossible to conclude on any of the presented views. It is actually immaterial to the millions of devotees of Ayyappa, to whom the egalitarian nature, the unique experience of controlling ones senses for an extended period, the toughness of the journey, the ambience and the energy felt among the devotees in the entire trip contributes to the ultimate satisfaction of the unique pilgrimage to Sabarimala.
Ayyappa and Sabarimala draw millions of devotees from across South India every year, making it the second largest annual religious gathering in the world after the Hajj.
On a lighter note, I feel this is an ideal topic for Dan Brown. He can start in his typical style – a Melshanti (priest) in Sabarimala getting killed on mysterious grounds, forcing the Travancore Devaswam board to bring Robert Langdon. He would then uncover lots of clues hidden across Kerala, Tirupati and some parts of North India, take some cues from Tibet and Bhutan and finally conclude that Ayyappa is actually Buddha. He can probably fall in love with the Meshanti’s beautiful daughter also, if he has enough time ;)