Lord Ayyappa was the son of Vishnu & Shiva
Ayyappan is the Hindu god of growth, particularly popular in Kerala and the rest of South India. He is a the son of Shiva and Mohini – the female avatar of Vishnu. Ayyappan is also referred to as Ayyappa, Sastavu, Hariharaputra, Manikanta, Shasta or Dharma Shasta.
The iconography of Ayyappan depicts him as a handsome celibate god doing yoga and as an epitome of Dharma, who wears a bell around his neck. In the Hindu pantheon, his legends are relatively recent but diverse. For some, he is also an incarnation of the Buddha.
He is also revered by Muslims in Kerala due to his friendship with Vavar, who is identified as a Muslim brigand in local versions of the Ayyappan myth. In this mythology, Ayyappan confronts the plunder-driven pirate robber Vavar in the jungle on his way to collect tigress milk. They fight. Ayyappan defeats Vavar, and Vavar changes his way, becomes Ayyappan's trusted lieutenant helping fight other pirates and robbers. In another version, Vavar is stated to be a Muslim saint from Arabia, who works with Ayyappan.
He was born with the powers of Shiva and Vishnu to confront and defeat the shape shifting evil Buffalo demoness Mahishasuri. In the South Indian version, Ayyappan images show him as riding a tiger, but in some places such as Sri Lanka he is shown as riding a white elephant.
Ayyappa is also commonly known as 'Manikandan' because, according to the legend of his birth, his divine parents tied a golden bell (mani) around his neck (kandan) soon after his birth. As the legend goes, when Shiva and Mohini abandoned the baby on the banks of the Pampa river, King Rajashekhara, the childless monarch of Pandalam, found the newborn Ayyappa and accepted him as a divine gift and adopted him as his own son.
The Pandya dynasty, which was ousted by Thirumala Naicker the ruler of the Pandya Empire spanning Madurai, Thiruveneli and Ramanathapuram resided in places such as Valliyur, Tenkasi, Shengottah and Sivagiri. King Rakashekhra, which was the foster-father of Lord Ayyappa belong to this dynasty.
After Goddess Durga killed the demon king Mahishasur, his sister, Mahishi, set out to avenge her brother. She carried Lord Brahma's boon that only the child born of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva could slay her, or, in other words, she was indestructible. To save the world from annihilation, Lord Vishnu, incarnated as Mohini, wed Lord Shiva and out of their union Lord Ayyappa was born and abandoned in the forest.
The Pantalam royal family was childless. One day the king of Pantalam found a baby boy in a forest. The king carried the baby to an ascetic in the forest to inquire about the boy. The ascetic advised the king to take the baby home, raise him like his own son, and that in 12 years he would discover who the baby was. The royal family did so, naming the baby Manikantha.
After King Rajashekhara adopted Ayyappa, his own biological son Raja Rajan was born. Both the boys grew up in a princely manner. Ayyappa or Manikantan was intelligent and excelled in martial arts and the knowledge of various shastras or scriptures. He surprised everyone by his superhuman powers. Upon completing his princely training and studies when he offered gurudakshina or a fee to his guru, the master aware of his divine power asked him for a blessing of sight and speech for his blind and dumb son. Manikantan placed his hand on the boy and the miracle happened.
When it was time to name the heir to the throne, King Rajashekhara wanted Ayyappa but the queen wanted her own son to be the king. She plotted with the minister and her physician to kill Ayyappa. Feigning illness, the queen made her physician ask for an impossible remedy - tigress's milk. When no one could procure it, Manikanthan volunteers, much against his father's will, goes into the forest and returns riding a tigress. On the way, he chanced upon the demon Mahishi and slew her on the banks of the river Azhutha.
The king, realising Manikantha's special ability recognizes the adopted son to be a divine being, resolves to make a shrine for him. For location, Manikantha shoots an arrow that lands thirty kilometers away. The young boy then transforms into Ayyappan. The place where arrow landed is now an Ayyappa shrine, a site of a major pilgrimage that is particularly popular for visits on Makara Sankranti (about January 14).
Sometimes the story is slightly different or extended, such as the younger son of the queen is not disabled, Ayyappan does bring tigress milk for the queen riding on a tiger, but after doing so Ayyappan renounces the kingdom, becomes an ascetic yogi and returns to live as a great warrior in the forested mountain.
Lord Ayyappa is believed to have laid down strict religious adherence to receive his blessings. First, the devotees should observe a 41-day penance before visiting him in the temple. They should maintain abstinence from physical pleasures and family ties and live like a celibate or brahmachari. They should also continuously contemplate on the goodness of life. Moreover, the devotees have to bathe in the holy river Pampa, adorn themselves with three-eyed coconut and aantha garland and then brave the steep climb of the 18 stairs to the Sabarimala temple.
Sabarimala in Kerala is the most famous Ayyappa shrine visited by over 50 million devotees it every year, making it one of the most popular pilgrimages in the world. Pilgrims from around the country brave the dense forests, steep hills and inclement weather to seek the blessings of Ayyappa on the 14h day of January, known as Makar Sankranti or Pongal, when the Lord himself is said to descend in the form of light. The devotees then accept prasada, or the Lord's food offerings, and descend the 18 steps walking backward with their faces turned towards the Lord.
(Compiled by Dr. Joji Valli, Courtesy Wikipedia & other sources)