On Sabarimala stands the temple of Ayyappan, He is perhaps the most popular of all the gods worshipped in Kerala. Every year, on the festival of Makar Sankranti, thousands of pilgrims go to this temple to worship Ayyappan. At one time the forest on Sabarimala was full of wild animals, but this did not keep away the worshippers. Here is an account of the years that Ayyappan spent on earth.
A long, long time ago there lived a female demon called Mahishi. So wicked and cruel was she that everyone dreaded her. She killed people for no reason and destroyed their homes and crops. Anyone who came to slay her got killed instead. In time even the lesser gods began to fear Mahishi. So they prayed to the two mightiest gods Hari and Hara (Vishnu and Shiva) to save the world from her clutches. And the two gods promised that they would create a child who would grow up and slay Mahishi.
Some time later King Rajashekhara of Panthalam went out on a hunt. He rode deep into the forest in search of game. There, to his utter surprise, he found a baby boy lying on the ground. The king could see that this was no ordinary baby. His little body seemed to glow with a soft light and around his neck he wore a golden bell. Now the king had no children of his own and had often prayed for a son. He thought this baby was an answer to his prayers. Delighted, he picked up the child and brought it home.
The king and queen both loved the child dearly. They named him Manikanthan (he is better known as Ayyappan.) The baby grew up in the palace and was the pride and joy of his foster parents.
But Ayyappan's good days did not last. A few years later the queen gave birth to a boy. And soon after that, her feelings for her adopted son began to change. She no longer loved Ayyappan as before. In fact she grew jealous of the king's love for the boy. She hated to think that one day Ayyappan would sit on the throne and not her own son. Her dislike for Ayyappan grew so strong that she could no longer stand the sight of him. So she decided to have him killed.
Some of the ministers at court did not like Ayyappan either. Even they were jealous of the king's affection for the boy. Now the queen and these ministers hatched a plot to send Ayyappan to his death. So clever was the plot that nobody could even suspect the queen to have a hand in it.
In keeping with the wicked plan, the queen suddenly began to pretend that she was very ill. The physician who came to treat her was one of the plotters too. He had been bribed to tell a lie. So he examined the queen and declared that she was suffering from a terrible disease. The king was shocked. He loved his wife very much and asked for a way out.
At last the reply came and he informed the king that the only remedy for the queen's ailment is the milk of a tigress. The king's hopes were dashed to the ground. 'Impossible!' he sighed as there was nobody in his kingdom brave enough to bring it. From her bed the wicked queen moaned.
The king was desperate. He announced that anyone who could bring the milk of a tigress would get a reward far beyond his wildest dreams. A few brave men tried and lost their lives. It did seem there was no hope for the queen when one day Ayyappan told the king that he would try to get the remedy needed by his mother. The king was not ready to lose his precious son. But Ayyappan had made up his mind. He also insisted on going alone, without a bodyguard.
Armed with nothing but a bow and arrow, Ayyappan went into the forest. The terrible demon Mahishi saw him and came charging at him. But one arrow from Ayyappan's bow and she lay dead. Ayyappan pressed on, in search of a tigress.
That evening, around sunset, the people of Panthalam heard a sound the like of which they had never heard before. Hundreds of tigers were roaring all at once. Men and women rushed out of their homes. The king and his courtiers rushed to the roof of the palace. Even the queen forgot her pretended illness and ran to her balcony. What they saw was terrifying. Ayyappan was riding into town on the back of a tigress. And following behind were hundreds of other tigers.
The people were awestruck. The king's heart was bursting with pride and joy. Seeing his father proud Ayyappan smiled. At the king's request he waved his hand and the roaring stopped. And then, to the utter amazement of the people, all the tigers turned and quietly disappeared into the forest. The queen and all the courtiers who had plotted against Ayyappan now fell at his feet. They begged forgiveness and repeatedly requested him to stay and be their king. But he refused to stay. He told them that he had come down to earth only to rid the world of Mahishi. Since he had accomplished that, it was time to return to heaven.
The king made one last request of building a temple dedicated to his son. At this Ayyappan took out an arrow from his quiver and told his father to build the temple wherever the arrow fell. He shot the arrow and it fell right on top of Sabarimala.
Ayyappan went to live on Sabarimala and in time a beautiful temple was built there. It is believed that the great sage ParasuRama himself came down to earth disguised as a sculptor and gave the king an image of Ayyappan to place in the temple. The image was exquisitely carved. The moment the king set eyes on it, he knew it was not the work of an ordinary man. He fell at the sculptor's feet. Parasurama then revealed to the king who he really was. He also told the king to open the temple for worship on the day -of Makar Sankranti.
The king did as he was told. On the appointed day Ayyappan was asked to light the lamp in the temple. As he did so, a strange and wonderful thing happened. The flame moved towards the image and finally entered it. There was a burst of light. The whole world lit up for a moment as Ayyappan entered the image and was lost to view. Ayyappan was never seen again. But to this day it is believed that on Makar Sankranti day, he himself lights the lamp in the temple. And that is the day when hundreds of devotees flock to the temple to worship him.