In the name of ayyappa, devotees take to the streets in god’s own country
Devotees are holding protests in Kerala, even threatening to physically stop women who come to Sabarimala.
Kerala, which is still struggling to recover from the ravages of the deluge in August, is facing a sort of socio-political turmoil over the entry of women of all ages to the renowned Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta district. As per a 1991 judgement of the Kerala High Court, women of menstrual age, 10-50, are barred from entering the temple as its presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is considered to be a “Naishtika Brahmachari” ( perennial celibate). However, a fivejudge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court late last month overruled the HC and allowed all women irrespective of their age entry into the shrine. Calling the custom “almost like untouchability”, the top court in a four- one judgement said “restrictions cannot be treated as essential religious practice”. The only dissenting voice was that of Justice Indu Malhotra, who said the “court should not interfere in religious practices”. The Supreme Court took up the issue in January 2016 after a PIL by Indian Lawyers’ Association challenging the Kerala High Court’s judgement. The Travancore Devaswom Board ( TDB), which controls the affairs of over a 1,000 temples in the state, Sabarimala being the most important since over 50 million make the pilgrimage every year, had argued in the apex court that the ban on entry of women aged 10 and 50 years was because they could not maintain “purity” on account of menstruation. The board’s political masters, successive governments in Kerala led by the Congress (United Democratic Front) and CPM (Left Democratic Front), had taken different positions in support and against the ban on allowing women to enter the Sabarimala temple.
Now it is the current LDF government’s stand in support of entry of all women that has led to mass protests, bordering violence and provocative speeches, which has cast a shadow over the impending reopening of the temple scheduled for Wednesday, 17 October, the first day in the Malayalam month of Thulam. The monthly puja is for five days. Ironically, both the Congress and the BJP in the state had initially welcomed the SC judgement. Only the priests of the temple from the Thazhamon Madam and the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, of which Ayyappa belongs to, objected, saying entry of women between the age group of 10 and 50 was against the tenets of the temple. What prompted the state BJP to start an agitation is perhaps due to the initial confusion within the government regarding the implementation of the verdict. It first started with the CPM. Its MLA and current president of the TDB, A. Padmakumar, first announced that the board would move a review petition in the apex court challenging the verdict. He did not stop there. Vowing that none of the women from his family would venture out for the pilgrimage, Padmakumar became eloquent when he talked about the “impracticality of dialectical materialism within the temple”. Just a day before this, former president of the board and Congress leader Prayar Gopalakrishnan too had said no women from his family would go to Sabarimala. For that matter, no women believer would dare to climb the hills, he had said, triggering a controversy. However, overnight Padmakumar changed his stance, saying the board would not move a review petition. This was seen as giving into CPM pressure, which was of the opinion that the government was constitutionally bound to make women’s entry into the temple possible. But the fact of the matter is that the TDB is an autonomous body and hence its unwillingness to move court was seen as playing politics, a “question of atheist communist versus
When some Hindu bodies rallied in support of the priests and royals opposing the judgement and the government move to implement it, state BJP too, as against its national leadership, decided to join the fray. In view of the general election, Congress too joined the protestors.
When some Hindu bodies, prominently the Nair Service Society, rallied in support of the priests and royals opposing the judgement and the government move to implement it, state BJP too, as against its national leadership, decided to join the fray. Not to be left behind in view of the general election, Congress too joined the bandwagon of protestors. It is at this point that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan invited the priests and the royals for a roundtable in an effort to find an amicable solution. However, this fell through since the agitators wanted first the government to move court or at least allow the TDB to do so. This was not agreeable to the government. As accusations and counter accusations grew, the protest started to gather momentum. While the priests and the royals tried to stay above politics, the presence of BJP and Congress leaders among their ranks gave the impression that the agitation is more political than devotional. The CPM was quick to paint the agitation as “a deliberate attempt to hamper the unity of Kerala”. It also pointed out that the BJP government in Maharashtra did not wait for any conciliatory moves, when the state high court trashed a 700-year- old tradition by allowing women to enter the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district last year. Even as various Hindu bodies pitch in by the day, the CPM and its various organisations have started taking out counter protests. The atmosphere is volatile with the BJP rally scheduled to reach Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday. Simultaneously, devotees are holding protest in various parts of the state, even threatening to physically stop any woman who dares to come to Sabarimala. In the cacophony, genuine voice of women devotees is drowned. Many may not want to break the tradition themselves, but they are mostly against anyone stopping women devotees from going to Sabarimala. Strangely, no one knows who in God’s own country cares for Lord Ayyappa and his devotees. But one thing is certain. It needs only one woman to break this impasse. It will be the young woman devotee, above 10 and below 50, who enters Sabarimala on 17 October.
Women hold placards as they attend a protest march called by various organisations against the lifting of ban by the Supreme Court, which allowed entry of women of menstruating age to the Sabarimala temple, in Kochi, on Saturday.