During the month of November till January every year, millions of devotees dressed in black, blue and saffron are seen carrying the Irumudikattu on their head, heading towards the Western Ghat (Kerala) of India. The pilgrims, regardless of their race, caste and creed and with their heart surged with pure devotion used to trek in long distances in groups to reach the Holy shrine of Lord Dharma Shasta. Lord Dharma Shasta is also known as Ayyapaan, Manikantha, Goptre, Arya, Sasta, Vettokorumakan, Harihara Suthan, Natrayan, Bhootanathan. The whole of pilgrims rings with the chanting “SWAMIYE SARANAM AYYAPPA” (O Lord Ayyappa, your are our soul refuge”)
Dharma Shasta is a popular deity in Kerala. Five main temples which is known as Sastha Pancha Stalas are enshrined and dedicated to Lord Ayyappan. They are Kulattupuzha, which the Lord are seen in the form of a child (Bala Shasta), Aryankavu, the Lord are enshrined as a young lad (Kumara Shasta), Achankovil, the Lord incarnates as a householder with his consorts Poorna and Pooshkala (Graha Shasta), Sabarimala, where the lord are worshipped as Vanaprastasramam (Vana Shasta) and at Ponnambala Medu the Lord enshrines him as the highest yogi (Yoga Shasta).
Lord Dharma Shasta is born out of the union of Supreme Lord Shiva and Mohini( Vishnu Maya) thus carries both the power of Shiva (destruction) and Vishnu (sustenance). The Lord was born on Uttram Nakshatram in the month of Dhanu on last Saturday and resides in Kailash. The purpose of his Avatar is to kill the demon Mahishi and save the Devas from her atrocities. Lord Dharma Shasta then took the avatar of Manikantha with the blessings from Shiva and Vishnu and left Kailash. The Lord took the form of a child and lie on the banks of Pampa and later was found by the King of Pandalam. When Ayappan turned into 12 years old, the Queen of Pandalam pretended to have a severe headache and instructed the physician to prescribe tigress’s milk as the remedy. Manikantha, upon hearing the news agreed to go the jungle and get the milk. During the Lord’s expedition in jungle, he killed the demon Mahishi and returned to Pandalam with herd of tigers. After seeing the actual form of Manikanda (Vishwarupa), the King of Pandalam realized the Supreme Lord’s vision to the earth and requested to construct a temple for the Lord. The Lord shot an arrow that fell at the top of Sabarimala. Ayyappan also explained how the Sabarimala pilgrimage shall be undertaken, emphasizing the importance of Penance vratham and what the devotees can attain by His 'darshan'.(Moksha). The king of Pandalam then cosntructed a small temple with the holy 18 steps. The consecration and installation of the idol was done by Sage Parashurama.
The main objective and purpose of the avatar of Lord Dharma Shasta is to protect the world from Mahishi and upholds righteous. The word “Dharma” itself means righteous duty thus the Lord is known as one who leads the devotees into right path of life. One could see the word “Tat Twam Asi” upon the reaching the holy shrine in Sabarimala. The word “Tat Twam Asi” means “I am the reflection of you” which is explained in Sama Veda. All the devotees of Ayyappa are seen as the Lord Himself when he garlands the sacred rosary and undertakes the severe penance and austerities, The pilgrimage represents the union of embodied soul (Jeevatma) towards salvation (Paramatma).