The symbolism of the temple at Shree Ayyappaa Kshetram
The site of a temple is a sacred place and a temple built proportionally is the residence and body of God, a source of solace, inspiration and hope. Some of the names used to denote a temple are, Kshetram, Sannidhi, Kohvil, Aalayam, Mandir, Devagraha, Devaagaara, Devaayatanam, Dehvaalaya, Dehvakulam, Dehvamanira, Dehvabhuvana, Dehvasthaanam, Veshman, Keethanam, Harmyam, Vihaara etc.Each name denotes a unique meaning. The word Dehvaalaya for example is made up of two words, Dehva meaning divinity and Aalaya which means annihilate, destroy or remove. So when the vicious qualities of lust, anger, hatred, jealousy, arrogance, greed, etc are destroyed only the divine,Deva, remains. Kshetram on the other hand means the body or field within, where Karma is worked out or fulfilled.
Unlike other structures or places of worship(e.g. churches, synagogues, etc.) temples are built according to ancient books called Saastra. An example of one is the Aagamaas. Aagamaas can best be explained as ‘rules’ of construction that have great symbolism. A temple architect or stapathi from Kerala in India, Sri Kannipayoor Namboothiripath Krishnan, designed Sri Ayyapaa Kshetram,according to this Saastra,in1997 on the holy night of Maha Shavaraathri.
The architecture of the Swaami Ayyappan temple is unique in its style as it has a traditional South Indian Gohpuram(entrance tower) and a typical Kerala styled main shrine, designed by Kaanipayoor Namboothiripath Krishnan from Kerala, South India. It has been described as Sethu, a bridge between Tamilnadu(where Ayyanaar worship in villages is popular) and Kerala(where Swaami Ayyappan worship is popular). In South Africa the worship of Ayyanaar and Ayyappan had a peculiar relationship and beginning.(see ‘History of Swaami Ayyappan worship in South Africa).
When entering Sri Ayyappaa Kshetram, within the temple perimeter, we first come into contact with the oval which has a radius of 41 metres. This circular oval represents the wheel of life, verily our world, in which we live and play and perform the 41 day austerity for Lord Ayyappaa. From the oval one has a clear vision of the huge Gohpuram(Gohpura Dharishanam) which is at a higher level than the oval. This tells us that while we are in this world our minds should be fixed on the higher reality at all times and we should not forget the real reason for living which is self realization and God realization.
After the devotee removes his shoes and circumambulates the Navagraha, representing the universe, which is placed higher than the steps leading to the amphitheatre and 18 steps, and identifies himself with the universe, he descends the steps into the amphitheatre, which symbolizes the womb of spiritual creation. Here one is greeted by the beautiful sight of sculptured elephants. To the north of the 18 steps is a parent elephant carrying a garland to Lord Ayyappa’s 18 steps and her child is following behind. This symbolizes the effort that parents need to put into serving as role models to their children. This echoes the truth that children may do what you say but they definitely do what you do.
To the left, south of the 18 steps we have an elephant standing on the precursor of the lion family called Yaazhi, which pulled the chariots of the Asuras(demons) namely Soorapadman. This symbolizes the destruction of the vicious tendencies represented by king of the jungle and the means of travel for the Asuras, the lion, by the virtues tendencies represented by devoted, dedicated, loyal elephant, which is the reason for human birth.
This amphitheatre space represents the spiritual womb and after acknowledging the need to ascend the 18 steps of spirituality we bow in reverence at the holy 18 steps, the holy Padinettaam Padi which is unique to Ayyappan temples. The holy Padinettaam Padi(18 steps) lead to the flag post. Please note that this structure is built outside the 60 x 60m square called a mandala(see notes below) as it represents our worldly spiritual efforts(saadhana) and self effort purushaarthas(dharma, karma, artha and mohksha), which is the means to the gateway, the Gohpuram, to God. The first five steps symbolically represent our efforts to control the five senses (body). The next set of eight steps represents our attempts to get rid of the eight demonic qualities of lust, greed, anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, conceit and arrogance (mind). The next three steps represents our do-identification with the three states of nature called Tamas, Rajas and Sattwa (Intellect) , the last two steps represent our transcendence of worldly knowledge and ignorance of our true self(ego). In the holy verse ‘Arinthum ariyaamalum” we recite a line
“ padinettaam padi mehl vaazhum” which means that Lord Ayyappaa resides beyond the 18 steps, so in order to reach him we need to first climb the 18 steps of spiritual evolution and refinement .
After we have developed spiritually we are ready for “re- birth” through the canal leading to the bell tower where we come out “crying” , symbolized by the ringing of the temple bell. This narrow pathway to the bell tower reflects the similarity of the true narrow birth canal through which the unborn fetus has to pass in order to be born. Here we sound our entrance into the world of spirituality having taken a new birth by ringing the bell at the bell tower, just like a child being born cries out loud announcing its arrival into the world of pain and pleasure, ready to work out its one life time allotted Karma called Prarabdhaa Karma. To the left of the bell tower is a place for lighting a piece of camphor which symbolizes the fact that only spiritual awakening leads to true enlightenment and that this birth needs to be utilized, burnt up and sacrificed like the camphor representing the body , for spiritual upliftment through spiritual enlightenment effort. Next to this structure is the kundam used to burn the coconuts from the Irumudi offering after completing the yearly 41 day vritham for Lord Ayyappan. This symbolizes the burning of the body of ignorance of the person carrying out the 41 day fast. The destruction of the old personality gives way for the birth of the new refined person after the 41 day poojaa has been completed.
The placement of all temple structures which represent the human body, except for the Navagraha which represents the physical universe, must be within a square called a mandala. The square symbolizes perfection, as all sides of the square are equal. The 4 sides of the square also represent the 4 cardinal directions. Therefore, the square symbolizes the divine, flawless reality that spreads out in all directions and pervades everything perfectly. This temple is built on a 60 by 60 meter square. The main temple structures are strategically housed within this perfect square called the Vaasthu Purushaa Mandala (wherein the cosmic energy is trapped and bound to the site rendering the area sacred and a source of immense divine energy called the vaasthu puprusha mandalam) . This area is divided into 81 smaller squares and each structure is purposely and strategically placed according to the laws of Vaasthu Saastra,the science of harmonious living.
The temple represents the human body, and just as the parts of the body are in proportion, so should the temple structures be built in proportion to each other. All this information is contained in Saastra (scriptural injunctions).
The sacred tower or Gohpuram at the entrance is said to be a great symbol of reality. This tower depicts the activities of human beings both divine and evil, sublime and absurd, the divine persons and the grace of the Lord towards them. It is a division between chaos and confusion of the outside ,material world and the sublime and serene divine temple surroundings, spiritual world, on the inside. The sacred entrance within the Gohpuram serves as the passage to go in and out of the temple. The Gohpuram represents the feet of the human body. This is considered to be the most important of all the parts of the temple as it can be seen from a distance (Gohpura Darishanam) and we should offer our gratitude for turning towards divinity at the Gohpuram. To the left of the Gohpuram is 18 steps leading to the entrance representing spiritual endevour which elevates us to the entrance to the Gohpuram. To the right (north) there is a gradual sloped entrance to the Gohpuram representing the grace of God that leads to sudden spiritual conversion or enlightenment . The Gohpuram is adorned with five kalasams(kalasas) at the top which represents the highest truth declared in our scriptures. It symbolizes the formless ultimate reality or universal or cosmic essence which has manifested itself in the five elements, namely earth, water, fire, air and ether. (Through devoted worship of the idol in the sanctum, the devotee’s mind gets attuned to the ideal and gets uplifted to receive the showering grace(represented by the water = amritam ) from the Kalasam.
After passing through the gohpuram we have vision of the flag post. The sacred flag post or ‘dwajastambam’ is a symbol of victory of the higher self over the lower self. This flag post also represents the 6 chakras (or spiritual energy centers – mooladhaaraa, swadishthaanaa, manipoorakaa, anaahathaa, visoodhi, ajnaa, ) in the body along which the ‘kundalini shakthi’ or spiritual energy rises. The balipeedam, in front of the flag post, is known as the altar of sacrifice as devotees renounce egoism when prostrating at this altar. Here the ‘I’ and ‘mine’ wither away and the kindness of the Lord removes the pride in us and we rise up in humility and understanding of our finite, imperfect material existence. Our prostration at the altar represents a sincere request to God to severe all our negative tendencies so that our ignorance could disappear, and that the realization that truth comes with the submission to the utmost sacrifice, as we stand up again and offer prayer. The flag post, together with the balipeedam, represents the legs of the human body and lies along the horizontal axis in relation to the Main Deity in the Garbha Graha (Sanctum sanctorum).
The area, in which devotees sit, meditate and render beautiful, harmonious bhajans, is known as the arthamandapam. This represents the stomach of the body. Just as the stomach digests the various foods, so should we digest away the astha raagaas i.e. the 8 bad qualities of lust, greed, anger, hatred, conceit, arrogance, delusion and inability to see the good others do. It is here that the varied experiences of life , both good and bad , is digested away through spiritual reflection , contemplation and enlightenment.
The area in which the main deity of the temple is housed, sanctum sanctorum, is known as the Strikovil or Garba Graha, the innermost and main shrine and this is placed higher than all the other structures of the temple as it represents the “supremacy” or importance given to the main deity over the other deities in the temple as well as that the God realization is along way higher than mere ritual and saadhana represented by the 18 steps. The Garbha Graha represents the heart of the body. It is in the heart of the individual that the Supreme is enshrined, similar to the embryo in the womb = garbhagraha. The heart here is the innermost subtle part of an individual in which the consciousness or enlivening principle is found.
The roof above the Strikovil is known as the Vimaanam and represents the head of man. The Shikaraa, the tapered towered structure on the vimaanam represents the hair. This lies in a vertical axis in relation to the main deity in the Garbha Graha. The structures in a horizontal plane represent the physical endeavor or ritualistic worship that lead you to the Doors of the deity (karma and bhakthi yoga) and the structures in the vertical plane represent the changes that take place in our mind, intellect and soul that lead us to self realization and God Realization.
All other extended structures are secondary and subservient to the Main Shrine. Therefore they are placed at a lower level than the main deity and they form a garland of Shrines (Parivara mandapa) around the main deity or moorthy. Lord Ayyappaa faces his Mythological parents Lord Shiva (north eastern) and Lord Vishnu (south eastern). To Lord Ayyappa’s left is Mother Shakthi (Maaligaipurathamman) and to His right is Lord Hanuman/Anjeneya. Lord Ganesha is in a mandapam situated in the south –western corner and Lord Muruga in the north- western corner behind the Main Ayyappaa Shrine, facing East. The Navagraha is in the north eastern corner behind the Shiva Mandapam which faces west. It is important to note that in the Ayyappan temples that do not have a Lord Murugan shrine the deity Naagaraajaa, a deity closely associated in Ayyappan worship, is found. Therefore in this temple Lord Murugan takes the place of Lord Naagaraajaa.
There are “5 enclosures” within which a devotee does the circumambulation (Pradashinam) that surround the main shrine. These are known as prakaaras and they symbolically represent the 5 sheaths or khosaas that surround or envelope the soul. The first enclosure, anna maya khosam the food sheath is around the Gohpuram and shrines of Lord Muruga and Lord Ganesha. The second enclosure, pranamaya khosam – the vital air sheath surrounds the inner sides of the Ganehsha and Murugaa shrines and the Gohpuram. The third enclosure, manomaya khosam – the mind sheath surrounds the parivara shrines that is the garland of shrines around lord Ayyppaa , here the devotee individually circumambulates each shrine. The fourth enclosure, vignjaana maya khosam – the intellect sheath, the devotee circumambulates the main temple under the veranda of the outer structure housing the Sri Kovil , and lastly, the fifth sheath, annanda maya khosam – the bliss sheath, the devotee circumambulates the garba graha or strikoiyil inside the main temple structure. After this the devotee stands in his or hers true self ready to recognize that the individual self is identical to the supreme self, that is aatma is identical to Paramaathmaa, when he stands facing Lord Ayyappaa in the darkness of the main Shrine..
As a devotee enters a temple he steps onto a sacred place exposing himself to the divine vibrations of the Yantra or the Vaasthupurusha Mandala proper. When a devotee approaches a temple he is not really going into a temple but he is mentally “entering” into himself. As we enter the temple or a shrine, we verily enter ourselves. Therefore , the attitude with which one moves into a temple is very important in deriving the maximum benefit . The symbolism of a Hindu temple is directed towards the development of the devotee so that he could realize the truth that the Purusha ( cosmic consciousness) resides and shines in the devotees heart. This truth is reflected in the line “Devo Devaalaya Proktah, Jeevo Devah Sanaatanaah” which states that the body is the temple and the Jeeva or soul is the Truth Eternal . All the shrines are dark inside and the total darkness of the sanctum welcomes him and he is able to discern the symbol of God within the enveloping darkness and this allows him to behold the God within himself radiating beauty, grace and blessing. The darkness inside each shrine is representative of the ignorance of our hearts and minds. Only when the camphor is lit are we able to see the deity in a shrine, and just as the camphor lights up the shrine, so does enlightenment enable us to see the Lord within. The camphor represents the knowledge or enlightenment we need to acquire in order to have vision of the Lord – this is true dharshan. As the devotee beholds God, his eyes are closed and he perceives the truth within himself. In that silence which is both dark and quiet, words are transcended, the temple is forgotten and only the TRUTH REMAINS.
In Pretoria Bhajanai Mandram devotees are taught that true Darshan is having left the temple with the feeling that God has seen you.
All Temple structures symbolize great philosophical principles and this makes every part of the temple worthy of worship.