This brass statue, typical of South Indian metal-cast – iconography and body posture with knees contained by an ornate band consisting of lotus motif design, represents Ayyappan, also known as Sastavan or Sasta, and sometime as Manikandana or Manikantha for always wearing a Mani – jewel, around his neck. Ayyappan was a Hindu saint elevated to the status of a deity highly worshipped in the country’s southern part. Characteristic to his image conceived as one engaged in Yoga his statue has been cast representing him as seated in a posture characteristic to penancing Yogis - knees turned upwards and knotted by a band that Yogis use for holding their legs in position, besides the gesture of his hands, one indicating ‘abhaya’ – freedom from fear, and other, ‘varada’ – liberation. A yogi, Ayyappan is seen as one in absolute unity with the Supreme – what the term ‘yogi’ literally means, and at the same time, he is seen as one in the world for the weal of mankind imparting ‘abhaya’ and ‘varada’.
With wide-spread worship cult extending over entire South India Ayyappan has dedicated to him hundreds of shrines of different statuses. Besides, a number of myths a section of Brahmins is also known after him. Over thirty million devotees annually visiting his shrine at Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta hill range in Kerala – his best known and most revered shrine anywhere, making it one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world dedicated to any religion or sect, indicates the saint’s massive popularity. In recent decades, obviously the increase in means of transport and other facilities being one of its reasons, this number of pilgrims has unimaginably widened. During the annual festival dedicated to him when people in all parts of South India throng his shrines, this number is multiplied many times. Images of the holy saint are as popularly consecrated in domestic shrines as in public.
The symbol of the unity of Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects in South India Ayyappan, revered as the incarnation of Dharma Sasta, is seen as the offspring of Shiva and Vishnu in Vishnu’s female incarnation as Mohini, a form that Vishnu had taken to for deluding Asuras – demons, during the churning of ocean undertaken for obtaining ambrosia. This unity of the two sects also reflects in the iconographic features of this image, and often in his overall imagery, especially in the ritual mark on the forehead, and in arrangement of his headgear. In the image he has on his forehead a prominent Vaishnava tilak mark, though the rays it radiates on either side have the appearance of a subdued ‘tripunda’ mark, one linking him with Vaishnavism, while the other, with Shaivism. Similarly, on the top of his head he has Shiva-like ‘jata-juta’ – knotted hair, around it he is putting on a crown, a Vaishnava attribute.
Though with a divine birth – offspring of Shiva and Vishnu, Ayyappan is always seen as a saint – a human being, attaining all divine heights by penance pursuing mainly the Yogic line. Hence, in his images, as also in this one, he in invariably cast in Yogic posture – seated squatting with feet flat on the pedestal’s base, legs folded and turned downwards from knee-junction, and eyes closed as when engaged in meditation. The image proper has been installed on a tall two tiered pedestal the base component consisting of lotus motif design. Typical of South Indian iconography, the image has been cast with round face, flattened nose, small but heavy lips and inflated cheeks. A disc behind his head symbolizes halo suggesting his divine emergence. Besides a wide range of ornaments on his neck and arms : various heavily crafted necklaces and ornaments for shoulders, arms and wrists, he is also putting on a large Vaijayanti consisting of lotus flowers.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books. .
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