In addition to Temple at Puri, Pandharpur, and Badrinath in three different corners of India, even the extreme south, viz. Kerala, was also under the influence of Buddhism and among others, the famous deity Lord Ayyappa was originally a Buddhist shrine.
Buddhism prospered in ancient Kerala
K.R. Vaidyanathan observes:
"Like Jainism, Buddhism also held sway in ancient Kerala during the reign of Asoka in the 3rd century B.C. Coming by sea, Buddhism was popular in coastal districts, Karumati, Mavelikkara, Bharanikkavu, Pallikkal, Karunagappalli, Idappalli, Dharmapattabnam, Matayi and Pallikkunny being its chief centers... Many prominent Hindu Temples of today like the Vadakkunnathan temple, Trichur and the Kurumga Bhagwati Temple, Kondugallur, and even the famous Ayyappa shrine atop Sabarimala are believed to have been at one time Buddhist shrines. ... While Jainism did hardly leave any impress on Kerala society, Buddhism was absorbed in Hinduism in respect of some of its ceremonies and forms of worship. The images, processions and utsavam, etc. associated with popular worship in present day Hindu temples in Kerala are said to be a legacy of Buddhism. Even the chakiyar kuttu conducted in temples is said to be an adaptation of the Buddhist monk's religious expositions." [Vaidyanathan: 1982: 4]
Ayyappa is Dharma Sasta
Coming specifically to Lord Ayyappa, it would be interesting to know that Lord Ayyappa is also generally, and popularly known as Dharma Sasta. Vaidyanathan observes:
"There are temples dedicated to Dharma Sasta as Ayyappa is generally known all over the State of Kerala - and now of course, in other states also. Even in temples dedicated to other deities in Kerala there will be generally a Sasta shrine. ..." [Vaidyanathan: 1982: 70]
As is well known that word 'Dharma' is deeply rooted in Buddhist literature. Eg. 'sadhamma' as meaning Teachings of Buddha. Sasta is a well known epithet applied to Buddha. Even today Buddha is referred to as Sasta in daily prayer of Buddhists, e.g. ' Sattha dev manussanam '. Amarkosha mentions this as one of the names of Buddha. It appears that though the nature of deity changed, the name still persists. The present nature of the Lord is considered to be a son of Siva on Vishnu. Vaidyanathan observes:
"The story is that, Siva was captivated by the charms of Mohini in which form Vishnu appeared at the time of churning of the Ocean of Milk in order to entice the asuras so that the devas could divide the nectar among themselves. Siva succumbed to the beauty of Mohini and Sasta is believed to have been born out of the union." [Vaidyanathan: 1982: 71]
Caste barriers are weak
Another notable feature is the caste barriers are comparatively weak in this temple, which is a common feature of all those shrines which were previously of Buddhist faith. This became necessary for the Brahmins to concede to, so that masses could be wooed away from Buddhism. Vaidyanathan observes:
"...the temple doors of Sabarimala are open to all, irrespective of caste, creed, religion and social status. Here the high and low, the rich and poor, meet on equal terms; all are alike - Ayyappas as the devotees are called after the deity itself." [Vaidyanathan: 1982: 75]
The pilgrimage to Sabari, in itself thought to be an act of tremendous virtue by the Ayyappas, involves a lot of austerities to be followed by them. It is well known that there are 18 steps that are to be climbed only by those who observe these austerities. But it is little known that these austerities are similar to the vows, known as ashta-shilas, taken by Buddhists. This point should also demonstrate how the traditions persist though the labels change.
Early Hindu literature has no mention of Ayyappa
About references in ancient literature, T.A.Gopinath Rao observes: [Gopinath Rao: 1985: 486]
"This deity which is very peculiar to the Dravida country does not appear to have been known to the region north of Godavari. In no early Sanskrit work is the deity mentioned. Even the dictionaries do not record this name and give its origin..."
In the Vishnu Purana, we hear about Mohini, but
"...It is in the Shri Bhagwata that we learn for the first time that Hara fell in love with Vishnu in his form of Mohini. From the union between Hara and Hari, Arya, Shasta or Hariharputra is said to have been born..."
"...The Suprabhedagama very distinctly mentions that Sasta was distributing the ?amrita? among the gods when it was churned from the milk ocean, by the union with her of Hara..."
Ayyappa is a Deity of lower castes
Shri Rao further observes:
"...That this deity is peculiarly Dravidian and has been taken into fold of the Aryan pantheon at a later period goes without contradiction. At present Hariharputra is treated in the Tamil country as a village deity and is mostly worshiped by the lower classes and the puja in the temple of Hariharputra of Ayyanar (or Ayyanarappan) is performed by a Shudra. The Padmasamhita states that the puja in the temple of Arya should be performed by the Parashava; We know from other sources that a Parashava is an anuloma born of a Brahmana father and a Shudra mother. But somehow Ayyanar, like the more tamasic form of Devi, such as Kali, which are worshiped by lower classes in Tamil country, is made puja to by the Brahmanas in Malabar."
Ayyappa was Buddhist
About the origin of the name Shasta, Shri Rao has to say:
"This deity is called Shasta because he is able to control and rule over the whole world; etymologically therefore, the word means a ruler of a country; and is sometimes applied to teachers and fathers. The Amarkosha applies the name to Buddha also. The Tamil Nighantus call him by the additional names Satavahana, the rider of the white elephant, kari, the wielder of the weapon known as sendu, the consort of purana and pushkala, the protector of Dharma and Yogi; they also state that the vehicle of Sasta is the elephant and the crest of his banner a cock. The names rider of the white elephant, Yogi, protector of Dharma coupled with the significance of Buddha applied to Sasta in the Amarkosha incline one to conclude that Buddha as conceived and worshiped in the Tamil country was ultimately included in the Hindu pantheon and a Puranic story invented for his origin at a later period of the history of Hindu Iconology..." [Gopinath Rao: 1985: 487]
Ayyappa has weapons of Bodhisattva
Rao gives description of image as per texts, The Amshumabhedagama, Suprabhedegama and Karanangama, notable among the description is that Lord is seated on a pitha..." with his left leg hanging down the seat and the right one folded and rested upon the seat vertically. On the knee of this latter leg should rest the elbow of the stretched left arm. In the right hand there should be a vajradanda, which is crooked stick (note the vajra a characteristic weapon of the Boudha Bodhisattva)..."
Buddha is worshipped in many forms
Lastly we may quote the opinions of Thiru. N. Vanamalai
"Though Buddhism disappeared from Tamilnadu, it became Tamil by integrating into Tamil. Buddha had become reincarnation of Tirumal. The worship of Sathanar, Ayyanar, Dharma Raja and Bodhi Raj are old Buddha worship." [Arachi: 1969: 160]