While the Sabarimala temple in Kerala was in the eye of the storm last week as protests raged against allowing women of menstruating age into the sanctum sanctorum, the Vavar mosque remained peaceful as ever.

The mosque is named for the Muslim friend of Sabarimala’s presiding deity Ayyappa. It is a tradition for Ayyappa’s devotees to pay obeisance at the mosque in Erumely, also known as Ninar mosque, before heading to the temple around 40 km away in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The mosque is sandwiched between two Ayyappa shrines, the small Cheriyambalam temple and the big Valiyambalam temple.

As always, pilgrims thronged the mosque when Sabarimala was opened for five days of monthly prayers on October 17. They circumambulated the mosque, broke coconuts on the premises and donated money. Inside, Muslim devotees offered namaaz five times a day.

Vavar is integral to the legend of Sabarimala. The story goes that he helped Ayyappa slay the demon princess Mahishi at Erumely. When, after his victory, Ayyappa left for Sabarimala, he asked Vavar to stay put at Erumely. He then told his devotees that whenever they wanted to go see him at Sabarimala, they should first visit Vavar.

Sabarimala attracts lakhs of pilgrims during the Mandala, Makaravilakku and Vishu seasons. This year, Mandala starts on November 17, Makaravilakku in the second week of January and Vishu on April 14. The temple is also open to the public for the first five days of each month in the Malayalam calendar. Most of the pilgrims to the temple visit the mosque as well – over 80%, according to the mosque’s administrators. Outside of Kerala, most of the visitors come from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Telangana and Odisha.

“This is a shining example of religious harmony,” said TS Abdul Kareem, the imam of the mosque. “We are proud to be part of this unique tradition.”

Kareem, who is 93, was given the responsibility of leading the daily prayers at the mosque after his father’s death in 1952.

PH Shajahan, president of the mosque’s administration committee, said they expect pilgrims to “pour in” during the Mandala and Makaravilakku seasons. “We are providing a lot of additional amenities such as purified drinking water, toilets and parking spaces for the pilgrims this time,” he said.

Prasad Kumar, 35, a teacher from Kerala’s Kochi, is currently observing the mandatory 41-day regimen of austerity in preparation for the Mandala pilgrimage. He said he will certainly visit the mosque. “This will be my fourth visit to Sabarimala,” he added. “On each of the previous occasions, I paid obeisance to Vavarswamy – or Vavar, as he is called by the devotees. It gives me immense satisfaction. The Sabarimla pilgrimage isn’t complete without visiting the Vavar mosque. It also sends out a strong secular message.”

‘Tradition of many years’

The mosque is believed to have been built around 500 years ago, though there are no records to establish this. It apparently started out as a thatched hut and underwent periodic renovations. Today’s imposing concrete structure is the result of the last renovation, in 2001. “It was a tile-roofed structure when my father was the imam,” said Kareem.

Ayyappa devotees do not enter the mosque’s main prayer hall. “There is no tomb to offer prayers,” said Shajahan. “So they go around the prayer hall.”

They never turn their backs to the mosque. “They walk back slowly with prayers on their lips,” Shajahan added. “It shows the intensity of their devotion to Vavar.”

The pilgrims then visit Erumely’s two Ayyappa temples for prayers. “It is a tradition of many years,” said Vishwambharan, a retired employee of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temples.

‘Celebration of communal amity’

Erumely hosts two big festivals during the Mandala and Makaravilakku seasons. The Vavar mosque committee organises the Chandnakkudam procession on the 26th of the Malayalam month Dhanu while the Devaswom Board hosts the Petta Thullal the following day. This time, the first festival falls on January 10, 2019.

On the first day, three caparisoned elephants welcome pilgrims to the mosque. Accompanied by traditional Kerala drums, Chendamelam, and music, the pilgrims take out a procession through Erumely before returning to the mosque at 3 am the next day. “We spend about Rs 4 lakh on the procession every year,” said Shajahan.

Petta Thullal starts later in the day. It involves folk artistes performing a “spiritual dance” to reenact Ayyappa’s victory over Mahisha. They start the performance at Cheriyambalam, then head to the Vavar mosque and, finally, Valiambalam where they are received by the Devaswom Board officials.

“The two festivals are a shining example of communal amity in Erumely,” said Vishwambharan.

‘Business in Erumely thrives’

The pilgrimage seasons end up filling the coffers of both the mosque and the two temples. “We received Rs 35 lakh in cash last year,” said Shajahan. “We also receive offerings such as pepper, rice and clothes which are auctioned at the end of the season and fetch additional revenue.”

Some special offerings, though, are kept as showpieces. “We have kept a bow and arrow made from the sacred five-metal alloy that was offered by a devotee many years ago,” he said.

The Devaswom Board’s officials did not respond to Scroll.in’s queries about the collections at the two temples.

The pilgrimage seasons also benefit local traders. “Business in Erumely thrives during Mandala-Makaravilakku,” PS Hareesh, who runs a shop selling souvenirs in the town.

A bow and arrow made from the sacred five-metal alloy that was offered by a devotee many years ago. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘We won’t buy into divisive agenda’

However, not everyone is happy with the celebration of Vavar alongside Ayyappa. PK Sasikala, leader of Hindu Aikyavedi, an affiliate of the Sangh Parivar, said in an interview last year that she did not believe Ayyappan and Vavar were friends. But if they were, she added, Vavar could not have been Muslim. Sasikala was publicly articulating what Hindutva groups in Kerala have been arguing for long.

Their arguments, however, have not cut much ice with the people of Erumely.

Shajahan said Erumely has a rich history of tolerance. “Hundreds of pilgrims visited the Vavar mosque on the day the Babri Masjid was demolished in 1992,” he added, by way of an example. “Muslims devotees too offered prayers on that day.”

Aneesh Hassasn, who owns a shop in Erumely, said “communal groups” have been trying to denigrate Vavar with the aim of causing social unrest. “People in Erumely will not buy into their divisive agenda,” he added. “We will preserve the communal amity.”

KG Shyju, who runs a restaurant in the town, echoed the sentiment. “Vavar and Ayyappa make Erumely a holy land,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to divide our society and change our traditions.”