Myths and Legends in the Making of Cultural Symbiosis 

and Social Unity: The Case of Ayyappan and Vavar Myth
 in Sabarimala, Kerala

Sakhariya T

Fables, traditional lore and myths can be traced back to experiences that proclaim the greatness of the human mind. These stories, perpetuated in our society from time to time as legends, famous rituals and folk arts, have resulted from some cultural interventions. They were transformed into myths that have been in vogue for generations. Some myths are quasi – history. Many of them are prevalent legends among the natives and perpetuated cultural symbiosis. Thus, based on such a view, the story of Vavar, the popular myth, can be examined. The expansion of Sufism culminated in the nurturing of religious syncretism.  Its finest blooming could be seen in the case of Lord Ayyappa and Vavar myth in Sabarimala. The myth enabled Sabarimala to transform into a cosmopolitan religious and spiritual centre for all people irrespective of caste or creed. It remains a centre of religious harmony even today. 

Keywords: Myth, lore, Symbiosis, Syncretism, Hybrid.

The mythical and the mysteries stories attracted many people, irrespective of castes or religions. Myths are isolated stories or beliefs or suspicious family stories or events, or false traditions of unlikely events. (Fiske,15) The term ‘myth’ is derived from the Greek word ‘mythos’, which means ‘to converse’. The Vandale Dutch Dictionary describes ‘the myth as a continuation of the tradition of describing the worldview of a people’s religious or tribal world, which is inherently tied to the stories of people that are not based on humanity or God.’ (Cruz and Frijhoft, 2) It is not possible to include all the stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, in the category of myth or the chronicle. In other words, many myths become part of the realm of mythology after imbibing some religious or theological insights. Myth is the sacred narrative that describes how a person or his world came to be. (Atwood , 8).  If this is true, then the myths are stories behind the creation of the present world order. In this sense, myths have broader meanings. 

All cultures are made to accommodate hybrids. Mixing or hybrids often contribute to the formation of myths and their differences. Historically, these hybrids in the form of myth such as the Sufis or Hindu incarnations or both emerged with religious perception, in different parts of south India.1 Therefore, the locally transmitted ideas of brotherhood and friendship could be attributed to the central theme of the popular myths. These mystifications can be seen in the Muslim Sufis and the testimonies of the Muslim personalities in Hindu myths.2 The most famous mythical characterization in Malabar Coast is Vavaru Swamy,3 the associate of Lord Ayyappa, the supreme deity of Sabarimala, one of the world famous Hindu pilgrim centers of Kerala.  He is said to be a Muslim from outside the Coast, especially the Tamil region. According to the local tradition, Vavar came to Malabar Coast mainly engaged in plundering raids. He was defeated and befriended by Lord Ayyappa. The traditional lore songs mention the myth of Vavar. It is natural for people to believe in such legends as they gradually become parts of the familiar lore. Felix Wilfred, famous sociologist, remarks, “The world of spirits, the rise of the sacraments of life from all walks of life, and the superimposition of religious principles from noblemen were the main features of the subaltern religious beliefs.” (Mathews, 203) However, some observed that the myth of Vavar is a rare one in Kerala that the divine concept of the Muslim saint should be placed in association with the Hindu deity. 

Literary evidence is conspicuously absent in this area, so folklore and folksongs are the only dependable source. Historically, folklore is often seen as an epitome of history, and it does not chronicle the history of a community. Perhaps, they amount to the popular response to actual, imagined incidents in the community. (Variyar, 48) Puthezhathu Raman Menon comments that, “…the story of Vavar must have been taken from the memory of an event, when the past was forgotten, and something was added, it became the myth of Vavar.” (Raman Menon, 47) The Vavar myth is not essentially an Islamic myth but a part of Hinduism. It has strengthened and added colour to a Hindu mythical story. Moreover, they are turned into tales that conjure up the minds of the people, imaging or challenging a position of power by suppressing the terror that the people fear. Therefore, the slaying of Udayana and the elimination of Mahishi are the story associated with Ayyappan and Vavar.  The knowledge about the early life and activities, involvement and encounters of Vavar has been derived from the Malayalam folk songs. Many songs include Ayyappanppattu or Sasthamppattu, Udukkuppattu, Ayyappanthiyattu, Vavrau Swamy- ppattu, Vavarangam, Vavarumahathmya, Parasuramakalpam, Bhuthanathopakyanam, etc., which refer to the birth of Vavar. According to traditional lore songs, Vavar was born in Mecca in an Arabic clan. Some folk songs depict that he was born to Pathuma, the daughter of Kathi and Khader, with the blessing of Lord Siva. (Damodaran,101) Some songs argue that Vavar was born to Ali and Fathima at Thakrithithan. According to the folk songs, ‘Thakirthikan’ is the derivate form of Turkey. Therefore, he was a Tulukan (Tamil Muslims) by birth, came to Tamil region along with the rusty troops of Turkish soldiers during the Madurai Sultans. (Damodaran, 39) According to Kesari Balakrishna Pillai, “Vavaru was a Shi’a and born at Babylon as the son of Ali and Pathumma. Later, he shifted to Kerala as the associate of Konduvetty  Thangals, a Shi’a group settled at Malabar”. (Kesari, 208)  But, the Kondotty Thangal’s family migrated to Malabar from Western India only after the seventeenth century, and they never claim as Shi’a.

Various songs reveal Vavar as a specialist in different fields such as piracy, seafaring, Sufism, horse-trading, Ayurvedic / Unani medicine, salt and pepper trade, war tactics, magic, etc.4 However, it is remarked by Filippo and Catherine Osella, that Vavar was a deified Muslim brigand. (Filippo and Caroline Osella, 752) There are no such references to Vavar in the Muslim / Islamic literature.5  In addition, it is clear that he has been addressed by various names such as Baber, Badaruddin, Sikandar Shah, Madar Shah, Aliyar, Haliar, Abubeker, and so on. (Thekkumbhagom, 35) 

According to some scholars, Lord Ayyappa is a historical figure who lived in the middle ages.6 Therefore, the character of Vavar and his descendants can be included in the historical context to some extent. They were mainly from the Tamil regions. As per the copper plate issued by the Pandalam royal family, the descendants of Vavar were mostly Tamil Muslims who migrated from Puliyankudi in the Tamil region to Kanjirappally. It is believed that the arrival of the Tulukkar sects into Venad dates back to the fourteenth century, i.e., after the invasion of south India by Malik Kafoor and the founding of the Madurai Sultanate. It is assumed that during the South Indian invasion of Malik Kafoor, the scattered Pandya royal families moved to Venad and were escorted by the cavalry of the loyal Rawthers Muslim soldiers. They settled at Pandalam, the ancestral home of Lord Ayyappa. In the latter days, the escorting Muslim family from Madurai was accepted by the provision of giving a decree to be the ancestors of Vavar. It was on the 15th May 884 ME (1709 CE), a copper grant was issued by Ramasundara Krishnan, the chief of Chembazhannoor of Pandalam royal family: “...this is an extension of the permission granted to the family to do things including sacrificial fire and guruthi as mentioned in the Chembattayam including Erumakolli and the seat of Vavar at Sabarimala.” (Thekkumbhagom, 3) .This grant was given to the ancestral family of Vavar. However, there is no reference to whether the family is an obvious descendant of Vavar. Moreover, the self-governing temple structure has been the centre of worship for many people irrespective of caste or class. In 1780 CE, another grant was given to the Labba (Muslim clergy) family at Vaipur, namely Mullamiya Maqdum, including a sum of money and provisions, for conducting rituals at Sabarimala during the festival season.7 The Vaipur Musaliyar family has held the ceremonial rites at Sabarimala even today. 

Vavar Sannithi – A Centre of Religious Harmony

There are two centres of cultural and religious harmony concerning Vavar, one at Erumeli and the other at Sabarimala. Firstly, Erumakolli, now Erumeli in Kottayam District, where Mahishi was assassinated, exist a mosque of Vavar, the centre of worship by the followers of Lord Ayyappa. The Chandanakudam at Erumeli mosque is considered the pre-ritual to the Erumeli Petta, one of the harmonious blending of Hindu – Muslim unity. 

The Vavarunada, another seat of Vavar Swamy at Sabarimala, is the centre of religious harmony on the premises of the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple. How and when the Vavarunada came into being at Sabarimala? The survey of Ward and Corner held in 1820’s, was not mentioned the Vavar Sannithi.8 Therefore, it is clear that the importance of the seat of Vavar was received later. However, it received much acclaim in the modern period. Moreover, on 20th May 1905 CE (1080 ME), the chief priest (Tanthri) of Sabarimala received a letter from the Huzur (Secretariat), Trivandrum, regarding the renovation of the seat of Vavar at Sabarimala and also the government inquired about the matter from the Tanthri whether there was a Vavaru Sannidhi near the Ayyappa temple. (Thekkumbhagom, 40). The Tantri’s reply was in favour of the Sannidhi and it more coloured the myth. 

As far as the Vavar shrine of Sabarimala is concerned, it is like a cenotaph located in the north – eastern corner of the Ayyappa temple. While considering the Vavar Sannithi, like a commemorative plaque, “ is along structure shaped like a grave built under a tin roof, draped with a green cloth embossed with the Islamic emblem of the crescent and star, and a rusted sword placed across it. It may be a cenotaph shrine where the devotees of Lord Ayyappa pay their respect and put their offerings at the shrine. The caretaker of the shrine would give holy ash and recite Fatiha, the first chapter of the Holy Quran and pray God to grant his blessings to Vavar and the faithful in general”. (Nasar,143). The offerings to the shrine include salt, pepper, sandalwood, flowers, rice flakes, etc. The descendant of Vavar, especially the Vaipur Musaliyar family is the trustee of the shrine and looked after the Vavaru Sannithi at Sabarimala.  Moreover, the Muslims in small groups conducted pilgrimage in Sabarimala and spent a few days in the forest during the festival season. They stayed in the areas till the day of Makaravilakku.(Thekkumbhagom,38) Following a government decree dated 3rd December 1904, the Forest Department did not detain anybody in the reserve forest between Erumali and Sabarimala. (Thekkumbhagom, 35) It was primarily for the devotees of Vavar. 

However, some of the ardent Hindu devotees of Sabarimala and Ayyappa Swamy have made conscious efforts to make Vavar, a person of the Hindu faith. Many of them are reluctant even to consider Vavar as a Muslim.9 PK Gopalakrishan opinions that, ‘Babari, an associate of Buddha mentioned in the Suthanipada, a Buddhist text.’(Sugathan, 270). Moreover, many scholars believe that Vavar was also a Buddhist monk.10 According to Kesari A Balakrishna Pillai, Vavar was a Sabayan Arab (pre - Muslim Arab) who died at Erumeli while visiting the Buddhist pilgrim centres.11 With the expansion of these famous stories, the Hindus and the Muslims have some relations attributed to Sabarimala worship. So the devotees believed that Vavar edifices at Sabarimala and Erumeli were the centers of harmony and cultural syncretism. Therefore, they followed the footsteps of brotherhood and solidarity validated by Lord Ayyappa and Vavar. 


Kerala has a long and chequered history of religious toleration. The land of Kerala is the confluence of so many religions from different parts of the world. The myths and legends associated with all religions of Kerala testify to the religious toleration and harmony in the land. This kind of mythical tradition strengthens the values of religious tolerance in a pluralistic society like Kerala. As a symbol of cultural symbiosis and religious harmony, the ordinary people transmitted the oral testimonies of Lord Ayyappa and Varar tradition from generation to generation. As a continuation of the tradition, these mythical stories describe the cultural ethos of the people of Kerala. But recently, some fundamentalist forces have been striving hard to destroy the secular foundation of Kerala society. They have petty political interests, and the general public should be conscious of it to prevent its expansion. The culture and plurality of Kerala are strong enough to avoid this kind of divisive fundamentalist forces.


1. In the Indian cultural context, hundreds of such syncretism can be pointed out. Yoginder Sikand, Professor of the National Law School, Bangalore and famous sociologist, have studied and analyzed such traditions in the south Indian context. 
2. Myths are not mere stories; they are traditional lore that allows people to satisfy themselves by imaging or erasing reality and believe that such stories could only be imagined as myths. 
3. The word ‘Vavar’ may be derived from ‘Baba / Vava’, meaning ancestor and father in the Semitic languages. According to Kesari A Balakrishnana Pillai, Vavaru / Baberu, a conventional name in Babylon, was born in Babili in Babylonia the present day Iraq.
4. Naduvattom Gopalakrishnan argues that Vavar became an associate of Lord Ayyappa mainly to engage pepper trade with the land. 
5. Kevaki Vitutiya, Arabic text has an indication about a physician who is supposed to be Vavar. It mentioned in the Charithra Nighandu of SK Vasanthan.
6. Based on Tiruvalla Copper Plate, some argued that Ayyappan is an historical figure and lived in the medieval period. 
7. The Vavar rites of the Sabarimala temple and Erumeli mosque were given to a family of Tamil Muslims coming from Aviramkudi and Puliyankudi in Tamil Nadu. The Palli Veetil family, claimed as the descendants of Vavar and the trustees of Vavarnada, live in Vaippur near Thiruvalla.
8. In the 1820s, Ward and Conner surveyed Travancore and mentioned eighteen charcoal steps on the Sabarimala and the temple’s copper pole. They also said about the arrival of fifteen thousand devotees a year, but there is no mention of the seat of Vavar. 
9. According to Hindu mythology especially Mahasastrapoojakalpam of Vilvamangalathu Swamyiyar, the name Vavar was originally Vapuran, an incarnation of Lord Siva and he is said to be the protector of Lord Ayyappa at the time of the war with Mahishi. Lord Shiva sends him to help Lord Ayyappa along with ‘Kadusabdan’, ‘Veerabhadran’, ‘Kupanidran’, ‘Koopakarnan’ and ‘Kandakaran’. 
10. The Buddhists believed that the Avalokiteswara was incarnated in Tibet and Sabarimala(Pothalakam). The Mahayana Buddhist text  Amitayurdyanasutr- a indicates that two Bodhisatwas, Avalokiteswara and Mahastaman, were sitting near the meditating Buddha (Amitayan or Amitabha). In a divine world called Sukhavati...The Avalokiteswara had the name Abgyudararajan, so the Salendra Raja of Sukhavati and the Avalokiteswara were the same person. Salindrapa Raja was derived from the term Salumo Lake, so the Sukhavati is in Arabia. 
11. As per an available Buddhist text, the Sukhavati (Soudi) is the corrupted term of Sekotro Island (Sukhadwaram) in Arabia, and in this regard, the pre - Islamic Arabs who worshipped Al Maka resembled Avalokhiteswara. There was frequent trade with India by the Sibayan Arabs in the early centuries of the Christian era. This frequent trade contact helped Arabs acquaint themselves with the concept of Avalokiteswara. Before the advent of Islam, the Arabs frequently visited the Adam’s Peak (Samantakuda) at Ceylon (Sarandweep) for pilgrimage. Similarly, they also might have visited the seat of Avalokiteswara at Sabarimala (Pothalakam). After the pilgrimage, one of the Sabayan Arabs, while returning to Arabia, died and was buried at Erumeli. The natives later worshipped this person as a Muslim due to his Arab descent.


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Sakhariya T
Assistant Professor
Department of History
University College
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