21 June, 2021

The Tribal Ayyappan?

The idea of a Puranic deity is being challenged by the Mala Arayan story

Mala Arayan huts and watchtowers from the Rev. Mateer’s 19th c book
The Tribal Ayyappan?

Born of Hari and Hara (Vishnu and Shiva), named Manikanthan for the bell hanging around his neck, raised a prince of the Pandalam royal house, banished to the forests—that’s the Ayyappan we are familiar with. But it could all be a modern fabrication, a latter-day exercise in myth-making, says an account that’s doing the rounds. Leave aside the dispute over women’s entry: in this scenario, the identity of the deity himself is in dispute. It’s a striking, contentious claim. Questions about the historical veracity of myths—as happens so often in India, from Ayodhya to Indraprastha—lead us back to a hazy maze of orality and scanty evidence, a place where historiography comes to die. Here, at least two competing myths trail off into the grey.

In the dissenting version, Ayya­ppan was no Hindu deity of Vedic or Puranic origin, but a hero of the Mala Arayans, a hill tribe who may have been the builders of Sabarimala temple, and were its custodians until fairly recently—perhaps. The community, now some 30,000 strong, retains...

Latest Magazine

June 28, 2021

other articles from the issue

articles from the previous issue

Other magazine section