Memos from Asia

A Hindu Deity’s Christian-Muslim Friendships: Kerala’s Unique Example of Religious Harmony

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This kind of a beautiful tradition may seem to be a myth as far as religious harmony is concerned. Hindu devotees circumambulate a mosque in their ritual attire chanting hymns of their deity and visit a church on return as part of their annual pilgrimage.

This tradition is a reality but hard to believe

The Sabarimala hill shrine and dedicated to Lord Ayyappa in the South Indian state of Kerala is famous for its uniqueness in rituals, traditions and religious harmony.

The Erumeli Nainar Juma Masjid in Kerala’s Kottayam district and the Arthunkal St Andrew’s Basilica in the neighboring Alappuzha district keep on welcoming Sabarimala pilgrims for decades together.

The Ayyappa devotees, as they are known, coming from various states of the country visit the mosque at Erumeli town en route to Sabarimala and on return, pay respect at the church as part of their annual Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrimage.

Both the Erumeli mosque, which is also known as Vavar Palli (mosque), and Arthunkal St Andrew’s Basilica are thrown open to the Sabarimala pilgrims during the season.

Erumeli, Kerala, India – January 12, 2012: Unidentified devotees performing a dance during a religious procession’ Pettah Thullal. Petta Thullal is a frenzied dance performed by the devotees of Ayyappa.

The Sabarimala pilgrimage season commences in mid-November and concludes by mid-January. During this two-month period, millions of devotees visit Sabarimala. Apart from this, thousands of devotees visit Sabarimala, which is situated in the middle of a forest, for worship during the first seven days of every Malayalam month as well.

Interestingly, a small temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa and Vavar mosque are situated on both the sides of the main road in the heart of Erumeli town. Ayyappa devotees first offer prayers at the temple and then visit the mosque to pay respect to Vavar before leading to the main temple in Erumeli town for other rituals.

Clad in the traditional black dress and bead-chain sporting ‘bhasmam’, the holy ash, on forehead, chest and arms, the Hindu pilgrims visit the mosque and the church during every season to offer prayers, reviving the local belief of the Lord Ayyappa’s friendship with a Muslim man and a Christian priest.

The tolerance is such that the Hindu pilgrims holding the bundle carrying coconuts filled with clarified butter and other articles for offering step in the mosque and church chanting ‘Swamiye Sharanam Ayyappa’ hymns praising their deity.

Legend behind the unique friendship

According to the myth, Ayyappa was the adopted son of the erstwhile Pandalam king, who found him on the bank of the Pampa, the holy river of Kerala.

However, there is another version to this.

Rahul Eshwar, a Hindu activist and philosophy author in Kerala, claims that Ayyappa is not a folk tale and he had really lived in Kerala around 1050 AD.

Sabarimala, India – December 17, 2014: Unidentified pilgrims walk through the jungle to Ayyappa temple. Ayyappa temple is located in the western ghats of Kerala.

His original name was Manikandan and was the nephew of Pandalam king, who brought up him. Manikandan resolved the prolonged conflict between Shaivars (devotees of Lord Shiva) and Vaishnavas (devotees of Lord Vishnu). Vaishnavars and Shaivars were known as Ayyans and Appans. So he got the name Ayyappan or Ayyappa after he ended the long dispute between these two Hindu groups and united them, he claims.

“It is not folklore and court records of the year 1780 are evidence for this. It has not been recorded in the history and that is why this is interpreted as folk lore. Besides this, these things have been recorded in the books written by Rama Raja Varma of the erstwhile Poonjar royal family in 1948 and Dr SK Nair, former head of the Malayalam Department at Madras University,” says Eshwar.

Vavar is believed to be a chieftain and was defeated in a battle with Ayyappa. Amazed by the valor of the boy, Vavar became the friend of Lord Ayyappa. As per the promise given by Ayyappa to Vavar, the devotees visiting him should worship the latter also and without this, their 41-day fast would not be fulfilled.

The Ayyappa devotees follow this tradition and they preserve this concept of religious harmony and brotherhood.

Sabarimala sri ayyappa temple- Sabarimala, India

The authorities at Erumieli’s Jama-at, which handles the administration of the mosque, ensure adequate facilities for the devotees on the premises of the mosque during the pilgrimage season every year.

The Nainar Juma Masjid or the Vavar mosque also conducts an annual festival Chandanakudam ahead of the Pettathullal, the ceremonial mass dance by Ayyappa devotees marking the conclusion of the pilgrimage season.

The priests as well as the authorities of both the temple and mosque together take part in the rituals of the Chandanakkudam festival. The procession features decorated elephants and leads to the mosque and then visits the nearby temples before its culmination.

Inside the Ayyappa temple opposite the Vavar mosque at Erumeli, there is a small structure namely Vavar Nada, dedicated to his Muslim friend. The devotees pay respect here first and later worship the Hindu deity.

Sabarimala pilgrims play Holi in a ritualistic festival called ‘Pettah Thullal’ at Erumeli, a stopover place, en route to the Sabarimala shrine.

Eshwar says that there is no idol inside the Vavar Nada as per the Muslim belief and it has been maintained for decades together.=

“Our predecessors wanted Vavar be respected the way he wished as per his religious belief as well as his community and that’s why there is no idol of Vavar inside the structure which is situated just front of the temple,” he said.

There are mentions of Vavar Swamy, as the Ayyappa devotees address him, in the devotional songs of Ayyappa which indicates the strong bond between the two, points out Eshwar.

It is said that the Ayyappa pilgrims’ visit to the mosque is a tradition which is more than centuries old. Though there are different opinions about this, there is no dispute in the religious harmony and the friendship of Ayyappa and Vavar, whose nativity is yet to be known. Some say he reached Kerala after sailing through the sea while some others say he was a local adventurist.

Ismail Hassan, son of former president of the Erumeli mosque committee Haji Hassan Rawther, said that Erumeli is known for its religious harmony.

Sabarimala, India – December 17, 2014: Unidentified pilgrims walk through the jungle to Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala, Kerala,

“Ayyappa devotees used to stay at my house during very season and we welcomed them with pleasure as this is the culture of Erumeli,” he said.

He said the pilgrimage season is the main earning time for the local people as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims halt at Erumeli on their way to Sabarimala, which is located on the western ghats.

Rawther’s family is among the first two families that settled in Erumeli centuries ago. Rawther died about a decade ago and he had been the president of the mosque committee for over three decades.

Hassan said that they even stopped buying non-vegetarian food in their house with the beginning of the Sabarimala season in solidarity with the Sabarimala pilgrims.

The religious harmony of this small town never affected despite the riots in the country following the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1991. December is the peak time of Sabarimala pilgrimage season and the mosque remained open for the Hindu devotees even as the Muslims offered their prayers as usual.

The connect with Arthunkal Basillica

After offering prayers at Sabarimala, a large number of Ayyappa devotees visit the Arthunkal Basilica, renovated by the Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, to conclude their pilgrimage.

It is said that Ayyappa studied at a Kalari (school) in the present Alappuzha district and a priest (Veluchachhan) of the church at Arthunkal brought him to the Kalari at Cheerappanchira.

“This is also a documented fact by Varma in his book published in 1948. Veluthachhan brought Ayyappa’s to the school and that’s how their friendship developed,” Eshwar said.

Alappuzha, Kerala, India – January 27, 2011: View of Arthunkal Church in kerala.

The pilgrims visit the Arthunkal church to remove the traditional bead-chain marking the conclusion of their 41-day fasting or Vratam.

After removing the chain and paying respect before the idol of Saint Sebastian, the devotees take dip in a pond on the church premises.

“This is the soul of India and that is our legacy. We follow our faith and at the same time pay respect to others’ faith as well. We can build bridges connecting communities and this is the message that is visible in this friendship,” he said.

Not only Erumeli, there are a couple of places where Vavar is paid respect by the devotees on the way to Sabarimala hill shrine as well.

The Hindu deity’s friendship with a Muslim chieftain and a Christian priest is undoubtedly an uncommon one and his devotees safeguard the sanctity of this companionship through the pilgrimage every year. But there are criticisms from all the three communities that the new generation pays not much attention to preserve this this age-old tradition of religious harmony and brotherhood.

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