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Even now in Kerala, there are Velichappads in almost all the important Devi temples, who on certain occasions, come out and roam in the streets in trance, blessing and cursing the people and forecasting. Their dress will be red, smeared all over the body with red sandal paste, some ringing bells tied around the waist and red vermillion (sindoor) on forehead. They will have in their right hand a sword and in the left a plate containing the Prasad of the temple to bless the devotees. The God-fearing and innocent devotees put some coins in the plate and receive blessings of the Velichappad as that of Devi herself. As a matter of fact, the Velichappads as a class being poor, taking advantage of the religious innocence of the mass, make money, some people interpret. This article is not at all meant to wound the feelings of anybody or to question the powers of Velichappads, but to ventilate certain events happened in Sabarimalai.
Though there are regular Velichappads in most of the Devi temples, it is not clear whether there were any such regular Velichappads in the Dharma Sastha temples; but the Dharma Sastha temple at Sabarimalai was once the abode or Velichappads for about half a century since 1874.
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The important item in the Sastha Preethi is a sumptuous feast replete with all delicacies. Arrangements for the feast would be made and then the Pooja would start with all reverence according to the Tamilian customs. There will be a Bhajan accompanied by various musical instruments. During the Bhajan, a man gets himself immersed in trance, dances to the tune of music, issues orders, gives blessings and distributes Prasad to the devotees present. The Prasad is received and preserved by the recipient with utmost devotion and the orders are carried out immediately, though with difficulties. The man in trance will be garlanded and given all felicitations as those given to the Lord Himself. His words are taken as the words of the Lord and till his trance is over, the atmosphere becomes filled with devotion to Him, whether the man’s power is true or false. In fact, it has become an unavoidable part of the function, and without a “Swami Thullal” (a man coming in trance), the Pooja is not complete. The man then hands over the bundle of plantain leaves on which the feast is to be served to the conductor of the Pooja and everybody is convinced that the Lord Himself has come in the body of the particular person and has given His consent to have the feast. A leaf is specially served in front of the alter of the deity and then the feast takes place, which is the concluding function. Though some of these happenings may not appeal to reason, it is nevertheless a sight to be seen.
Such trances during the Poojas have cleared the path for some people, who have become at a later stage, the Velichappads.
Anybody who would have visited Sabarimalai before 1905/06 would definitely have known “Kalakkad Appu Ayyar”, the first and famous Velichappad of Sabarimalai, usually known as the “Valia Velichappad”. Kalarkode is a small place in Alleppey District in Kerala. Appu Ayyar was really a dynamic personality, with a lovely and sound physique, impressive and graceful facial expressions, fair complexion, grave look and voice and above all, a staunch devotee of Lord Dharma Saastha. During the Sastha Preethies conducted by Kalarkode Brahmana Samooham, Appu Ayyar used to get into trance and dance in such a magnificent and enchanting manner, that people even from far off places used to come to see the Lord through Appu Ayyar and hear His words and prophecies. It is said that while in trance, Appu Ayyar could read the minds of everybody and could tell the past, present and future. Even now, people at Kalarkode believe that Appu Ayyar was the incarnation of the Lord Himself and even today, there are many stories told about his religious achievements. Appu Ayyar had in fact no particular decorations whatsoever of a Velichappad, but his own dynamic and pleasant personality earned him respect from all corners. He tracked to Sabarimalai every year, and used to take a group of devotees with him. During the saastha preethi poojas at Kalarkode and Ambalapuzha, Appu Ayyar used to get into trance and dance and give Prasad and blessings to a very huge crowd. Even the then Maharaja of Travancore was an admirer of Appu Ayyar and specially felicitated him in his palace.
During the Sabarimalai season at Erumeli temple and at Sabarimalai Sannidhanam, Appu Ayyar used to get into trance and dance, which were, it is said, very conspicuous and graceful. It is said that even a Nasthika used to become an Asthika after seeing Appu Ayyar in trance.
Though such trances and dancing of Appu Ayyar created a feeling of devotion in the minds of many, there were also many others who watched his movements with scorn. Especially a very staunch and sincere Nair devotee of the Lord from Alangad thought that this sort of gimmicks of Appu Ayyar may lead the devotees ina wrong way and may hamper the sanctity and sacredness of the pilgrimage itself. He, therefore, decided to test the divine powers supposed to be present in Appu Ayyar during his trance at the Sabarimalai Sannidhanam itself. For this, he very secretly kept apart the money which he received as Dakshina and donations from disciples and devotees, and saved the amount. After three years, he made a gold neck chain with bells, weighing seven sovereigns. As the chain was made in a very secret manner, nobody knew about it and the purpose for which it is made. During the next Sabarimalai trip, he carried the chain in a velvet bag tied to the left side of his dhoti. It was his intention that Appu Ayyar, during his trance, should ask him about the neck chain which he has so secretly made, in which case, he will garland Appu Ayyar and beg his excuse for doubting his power. Otherwise, he will throw Appu Ayyar out of Sabarimalai immediately.
All went to Sannidhanam, during the Deeparadhana, Appu Ayyar, who was sitting on the Mandapam of Sabarimalai Temple, got into a trance and immediately called for the Alangad devotee. When the Alangad devotee came, Appu Ayyar in his trance explained to him all about the neck chain, how he got the money, the name of the gold smith who made it, the cost, how many bells it had and the actual weight, and the particular place where the devotee had kept the neck chain. Appu Ayyar also told him about the Alangad devotee had in mind and asked to garland him if the doubt is cleared. The Alangad devotee was really astonished and set aback, and he respectfully garlanded Appu Ayyar with the neck chain, prostrated in front of him with cordial confessions for doubting him. The people who were all around were astonished seeing this and jointly called aloud “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa”.
Since then Appu Ayyar’s fame rose to the top, and he became very famous as the “Valia Velichappad of Sabarimalai”. In fact, Appu Ayyar was the first Velichappad of Sabarimalai, and there is no record of there being a Velichappad in Sabarimalai before Appu Ayyar Everyone viewed him with utmost respect and devotion, and he was granted a special purse by His Highness the Maharaja of Travancore to take certain Tamil Brahmin devotees to Sabarimalai every year. Appu Ayyar used to wear the neck chain earned by him from the Alangad devotee till his end. There are many such stories told even today about the powers and achievements of the Velichappad, but the above is the one which made him famous as the Sabarimalai Velichappad.
The Velichappad’s last days, however, were very miserable and pitiable? He had no issues and his only brother had also no issues. It is said that the status and power of Velichappad which he used for the service of the devotees initially, were made by him as means for earning money and he became greedy. The Velichappad had many unwritten powers and influence over the devotees which were, it is said, utilized by Appu Ayyar to earn wealth. He had an attack of cancer on his back and his last days were spent in distress and severe pains. He called out the Lord in pain and severed his worldly connections in 1907. It is most unfortunate that his family come to a naught after his death.
After Appu Ayyar, many a Tamil Brahmin tried for the lucrative and respectable position of Velichappad, but the position came to a retired school teacher, a Tamil Brahmin Ambalapuzha Ananthakrishna Iyer. He was a very staunch devotee of the Lord and very sincere in his activities, especially moving with devotees. He had no intention at all to use his Velichappad position to earn money and served the devotees whole-heartedly and sincerely till his end. He was the father of Shri M. Sivaram, the eminent journalist and freedom fighter. He, as a very ordinary priest, used to perform Poojas in any devotee’s house, whenever he it requested. After serving the devotees for about thirteen years as Velichappad, he took rest in his wife’s house at Thottappalli and severed his worldly connections in 1920.
The third Velichappad of Sabarimalai was one Kottarakara Harihara Iyer. He was also a true friend in need to all devotees and after about five years, serving the devotees as the Velichappad, he merged in Him in 1925. There is nothing very particular to mention about him, except that he was a true guide and helper to all the devotees.