The name Ayyappa evokes many things- the bare chested devotees chanting the bhajans of Ayyappa, going on pilgrimage to Sabarimale and many others of its kind. Now that the frenzy of the season is over, it is for us to take a rational look at the phenomena associated with it.
From some angles the Ayyappa rituals look good- abstinence from all intoxicants, egalitarian rites like common meals, cold water baths, secular nature of the initiation etc. But along with it are deep rooted prejudices like barring women of the reproductive age group and the many superstitions associated with the observance of the rituals. The guru swamis are also claimants of supernatural powers particularly with respect to fire and heat.
About a decade ago, a school boy in a village near Chitradurga started acting funny as if he was possessed by some spirit. The teacher was unable to control the boy who claimed that he was possessed by the spirit of Ayyappa. Totally at a loss to take any further action, the teacher brought this matter to the attention of the school correspondent. The latter summoned the boy put camphor on his palm and lit it. His logic was that if the boy was really possessed the camphor would not burn his skin. But, alas it did! It was immediately taken as irrefutable evidence that the boy was faking the possession part. It was the argument of the correspondent that if the boy was really possessed by Ayyappa, the god would have protected his skin from burning. The boy had to be hospitalized with severe burns and the correspondent ended up in police custody as the boy’s father lodged a complaint for causing injuries to his son!
Well, Ayyappa and camphor have a very close relationship. The swamis going on tour to Sabarimalai perform arati with camphor on their palms to show their devotion and the power of their god. On the 14th of January the makara vilakku or the divine flame is seen from a hill opposite Sabarimalai called Ponnambala Medu. This is claimed to be a flame lit by gods residing there as a tribute to Ayyappa. Though this was exposed by the activists of Kerala Yuktiwadi Sangham nearly 3 decades back, the gullible still believe the story. The reality is that the flame is from a vessel full of camphor lit by the employees of the Kerala State Electricity board on that day. Despite of all the exposures the gullible still believe the cock and bull story. The last nail in the coffin was when one of the top officials of the temple admitted that the so called miracle was a man made phenomenon. After that the reportage has been subdued. The Kerala government. regardless of which combination be in the ruling has supported this activity in the guise of the Ayyappa festival being a tourist attraction and an industry worth billions of rupees.
It is not that Ayyappa has close relationship with camphor related burning. He seems to have the power to guard against all types of fire. The swamis on the way to sabarimalai routinely do many things to show their immunity to fire. One would be fire walking or rather walking on embers. This is an activity which is said to be due to the power of Ayyappa to cool fire. But, this is actually due to the short time taken for one to walk across the embers, the Liedenfrost effect causing an insulating layer between the skin and the fire and the well prepared embers. We, rationalists perform fire walking quite regularly to show that no divine powers are needed for that. That has been done by children as young as eight or nine, women and in fact people of all ages. However, this so called miracle of fire walking is not the monopoly of any religion or cult. Muslims perform it during Moharram, some tribes do that in Papua New Guinea, some of the so called ‘self improvement’ courses promise that at the end of the training one can get immunity from fire. I was told by quite a few friends from Europe that I could mint money by making people walk on fire! Till date there have been no serious injuries reported by thousands who have done that in our programs.
Another feat of the Ayyappa devotees is to keep fire on the head and prepare tea with that. The trick lies behind the towel kept on the head of the performer. Either it is a wet thick towel or a thin one which contains a lump of wet dough. This offers protection from the heat for the time duration needed to brew tea. That is no miracle at all and any one with capacity to stand the heat for a short time can do that.
The Ayyappa miracle that hit the headlines most recently was that of dunking a baby into “boiling oil”. This photograph as well as the video footage was given wide publicity by the media of Karnataka. It showed a baby being dipped into a cauldron of apparently boiling oil. That was being done by a Guru swami of the Ayyappa cult. It was claimed as a proof for many things from the power of Ayyappa to existence of God. This stirred the print media of Karnataka into frenzy and I got calls from many news papers asking my opinion of the same. I explained that the oil was only apparently boiling and how the juice of several lemons could be added to oil in a frying pan and heated from below. The liquids of different specific gravities would cause two layers and when heated the convection currents would make it appear that the liquid was boiling when the temperature of the top layer of oil would not be more than a comfortable 40º C for quite some time. More than anything it was the fear that though what was being shown was a trick, some gullible devotee having the confidence in his faith may actually heat oil and dip a baby into that and end up burning the baby’s feet. That has prompted me into action and the press supported us by publishing the statement in the front pages. After a couple of days, I came to know that the practice had been stopped.
Actually when I got the phone call on the 4th January, I was in a meeting at Dalith village in Andhra Pradesh and in this village we were demonstrating another Ayyappa miracle. That was removing fried things from oil with bare hands. Not only that we were doing it, we were also encouraging the audience to try it out and many of them were doing it. That was the demolition of yet another Ayyappa myth that only those who were following the prescribed rituals could have the power of removing fried things from hot oil without burning their hands due to the immunity conferred by their devotion. We were demonstrating that how one could surreptitiously dip the hand into a container of cold oil kept out of sight and then remove things from hot oil. This feat was done by women and some teenagers too. This has a perfectly normal scientific explanation that the cold oil on the hands prevents the hot oil from sticking for the short time needed to remove things from it. When one dips hands into hot oil, it is not the immediate heat that matters, but the hot oil sticking to the skin that caused the burns. If that could be blocked by the cold oil already on the skin, the miracle of removing fried things from oil could be done by any one! This so called miracle is not exclusive to the Ayyappa devotees. Quite a few places have it including some temples in Uttara Kannada district. In Gujarat we are told that there is a roadside restaurant in which fried things are removed by hand and the customer is charged extra for the ‘hand’ removed stuff!
In Kannada there is a saying- jana marulo jathre marulo– which when loosely translated means we cannot say whether the people are crazy or the gathering, but such miracle mongering goes on in one name or the other, particularly in gatherings of the devotees. One only fears the consequences of such could cause permanent injuries to innocent people put to the test or experimented upon. If one were to stand on embers or dip their hands into really boiling oil believing that Ayyappa could protect them it could cause severe injuries and no power in the world could save them. It is such fanatic devotion that is the most dangerous.