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The pilgrimage is complete only after the faithful worship also at Malikappuram, the temple of the Lord's virgin consort, and at the shrines of the Muslim Saint Vavar and Saint Katuthaswamy who guard the entrance to the temple as sentinels. After this the pilgrims descend the Eighteen Steps with their faces directed toward the Lord. Next, they go to the Brahmin priests to receive the sacrament of sweet prasadam which they take home, after consuming some, for friends and relatives. Immediately afterwards most of the pilgrims begin the return journey back to their homes; they walk back to the banks of Pampa. They eat their meals and board buses and cars to different destina-tions, as is the custom today.
Who is the historical Ayyappan? Some say he is the Buddha, for the Buddha is also known as Sasta and the prayer of saranam is Buddhistic and some icons of Ayyappan bear strong resemblances to the Buddha-statues. The popular Brahminical theology of the latter days present Ayyappan as the son of Shiva and Vishnu-Mohini; he is Dharma Sasta. Many anthropologists from Kerala think that Ayyappan is a tribal god of ancient Kerala; interestingly, not all the tribes of Kerala worship Ayyappan as Lord, especially in Northern Kerala.
The key to the identification of Ayyappan lies in the fact that devotion to Ayyappan is a relatively modern cult even in South India. The puranas^ of the sixth and seventh centuries do not mention Ayyappan's name. There is no evidence that there was an Ayyappan cult associated with Sabarimalai before the ninth century. But in the ninth century the name of Ayyan appears for the first time in the history of Kerala along with the name of Rajasekhara.
The period between 800 and 1000 is the Golden Age in the history of Kerala. It was the age of the Second Chera Empire of the Kulasekharas. The founder of this empire is Kulasekhara Alwar (800-820), the Vaishnavite saint who is celebrated as the author of the Tamil Thiruniozhi and the Sanskrit Mukundarnala. His successor Rajasekharavarman (821-844) is identified with the Saivite saint Cheraman Perumal Nayanar whose story is told in the Tamil Periyapuranam. This king who proclaimed the Malayalam Era of Kollavarsham is the darling of the myth-making imagination of the people of Kerala.
The great Sankaracharya (788-820) was a contemporary of Rajasekhara. It was in the same ninth century that there lived the Chera King Ayyan Adigal Thiruvatigal of Venad, who gave the celebrated land-grant to the Christian church of Tarisa (c. 824) of Isodat Virai of Curakkeni Kollam. The Arab merchant Sulaiman visited Kerala during the reign of Ayyan Adigal. During the same period Kerala was attacked from the east by the Chola kings and Pandya kings. Kerjiolpathi (ch. 5) talks about the Pandya king's invasion of Kerala during the reign of Cheraman Perumal (Rajasekhara) as well as about a military leader Udayavarman; the Ayyappa legends talk about Ayyappan's victory over a certain Udayanan. Keralolpathi provides us also with information on the presence and influence of Buddhism in Kerala, which is reflected in the Ayyappa cult. Further, according to Muslim traditions, the last Perumal became a Muslim, changed his name to Abdul Rahman Samiri, married the Muslim woman Rahabieth, and retired to Shahr on the Arabian coast. Therefore, King Ayyan of Venad lived during a period of military campaigns, under Buddhist and Muslim influences, and with a certain King Rajasekhara as his suzerain lord.
When we reflect upon the Ayyappa tradition against the historical back-ground sketched above, it becomes clear that Lord Ayyappan is the apotheosis of Ayyan Adigal, the Chera king of Venad and his stepfather Rajasekhara of Pantalam is the favorite Perumal of Kerala, Rajasekharavarman or Cheraman Perumal. King Ayyan apparently was successful in checking the inroads of the Chola and Pandya kings who staged their invasions from the east across the western Ghats; oral traditions indeed refer to the martial victories of Ayyappan and his commander Katuthaswami; according to tradition, Ayyappan laid down his victorious arms on the Sacred Eighteen Steps. Further, Ayyappan, unlike the Hindu deity Sasta, is very human in form with just two hands carrying bows and arrows.
In my reading of the Ayyappa tradition, Mahishi represents the Chola and Pandya forces of the east whom he defeated in the High Ranges of the western Ghats. There are seven battlefields on the pilgrimage route which commemorate the victorious campaigns of Ayyappan: Kottappuram, Kalaketti, Utuniparamalai, Karimala, Sabaripeetham, Saramkuttial, and Thrippaty — evidently, the pilgrims have to enact the campaigns of Ayyan by touching base at these battle sites. Utumparamalai is also known as Inchipparakkotta, where the hero won a significant victory over his enemies; it is commemorated there by the temple dedicated to the Lord. At another place, Thalapparakkotta, the commander of Ayyappan's army, Kochukatutha, destroyed the army of Udayanan, obviously, an Aryan or Brahmin king.
The association of Ayyappan with the Muslim Vavar and the Christian Katuthaswami indicates that Muslims and Christians fought side by side against the invaders of Venad. The conclusion is that Lord Ayyappan is the deified hero-king Ayyan Adigal of Venad. In him martial glory, virtuous life, benevolent kingship, and blameless leadership merged to form the great Lord Ayyappan, the local god-saint of Travancore.