The Ayyappa cult is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction and nowhere is it manifested in more magical ways than at Erumeli, a small town on the way to Sabarimala.
A Vellala family, which had migrated from Tamil Nadu centuries ago, still preserves a small mud hut called 'Puthenveedu' where 15-year-old Ayyappa is said to have stayed the night he slayed Mahishi. The hut is said to be nearly 1000 years old.
A basket-hilted sword that Ayyappa is believed to have used to kill Mahishi is placed inside a small puja room of the low-ceilinged hut. A similar sword can also be found in the ancestral house of Ayyappa's 'kalari' guru, Poonkudi's house, in Cheerapanchira, Alappuzha. It is said to have been left there when Ayyappa went to seek his Guru's blessings before starting out on his mission to destroy the cruel Udayanan. Those in Erumeli will also take you to the pond, Rudirakulam or 'blood pond', where Ayyappa had washed the sword of Mahishi's blood.
Stunning reality of Vavar's fiction
But more enchanting than the most fascinating tale is the fact of Nainar Juma Masjid, more popular as Vavar mosque. The mosque is bang opposite the small Sree Dharma Sastha Temple at Erumeli, along the Erumeli-Ernakulam road. Ayyappa devotees who come out of the Sastha temple performing the Petta Thullal (the warrior dance) make a round of the Vavar mosque before dancing towards the big Sree Dharma Sastha Temple some 100 metres away.
Petta Thullal is done to celebrate Ayyappa's victory over Mahishi, the half-beast half-woman demoness. The wild dance, with devotees painted in lurid colours and swatting themselves with leaf bunches, is an attempt to recreate the happiness evoked among the people of Erumeli on seeing the slain body of Mahishi.
“Then, they had tied her hands and legs on a pole and carried her like a dead beast all over the place,” said Perissery Pillai, the oldest descendant of the old lady who was in Puthenveedu when Ayyappa stayed the night he slayed Mahishi. “The paint on the dancers' body symbolizes the blood dripping from Mahishi's corpse. Hitting themselves with leaf bunches is a way of enacting how the then revellers used to strike hard at the large flies that swarmed their bodies after feasting on Mahishi's cut open flesh,” Pillai said.
Why the Vavar mosque is located at Erumeli is vague. Many accounts say that Ayyappa had killed Mahishi alone and that Vavar was involved only in the Udayanan exploits, which was not fought at Erumeli but in a far away forest. Some say Vavar was a ruthless pirate who was reformed by Ayyappa. There are also tales that say Vavar was a wrongly imprisoned general who escaped from a prison in Afghanistan and became Ayyappa's chief strategist. The distillation of all these narratives that bang awkwardly into each other is a Muslim mosque that has no parallel in the world.
“Nowhere in the world can you see a place of worship where people of two faiths offer prayers at the same time,” said advocate P Shajahan, the president of Erumeli Mahalla Muslim Jama-ath. “During Makaravilakku season, Ayyappa devotees pour in all through the day. As they circle the mosque, all our five prayers of the day will go on inside without any interruption,” he said.