When a family from Madhya Pradesh arrived in Sabarimala on Wednesday, they expected to undertake a journey through the heart of nature to a spiritual experience that can be expected only at the age-old Lord Ayyappa's temple. But lying in wait for them was a veritable nightmare, with dozens of protesting devotees allegedly trying to target a 22-year-old female member who happened to accompany them.
Manoj, the woman's father, said the mob tried to pull her out of the bus they were travelling in. "Two to three of us protected my daughter by forming a human shield around her. Thankfully, the police intervened and shut the door of the bus. With their help, we managed to back the vehicle and take it to a nearby bus stand," he added.
The male members of the family returned to the temple only after leaving the woman and her septuagenarian mother-in-law behind.
A visibly shaken Mr Manoj vowed to never "make the mistake" of returning to Sabarimala or recommending a pilgrimage to the hill shrine to anybody. "This temple does not seem like a place of worship to us. Hooliganism reigns in this place," he said. "We have never seen women being treated with such hostility. It's almost as if these people view women as terrorists."
Last month, the Supreme Court had ended a centuries-old ban on women of menstruating age -- between 10 and 50 years -- entering the shrine. The ban was based on an archaic belief that menstruating women cannot be allowed near the celibate deity Ayyappa as they are "impure".
On Wednesday, agitators threw stones at the police even as the latter pursued them through the forests with batons. Although the Pinarayi Vijayan government deployed heavy security along the route, many could be seen screening buses and warning women against entering the shrine.
Two reporters -- one from The News Minute and another from Republic TV -- were attacked by mobs while covering the protests near Sabarimala. NDTV reporter Sneha Mary Koshy and cameraperson SP Babu were prevented from covering the protests midway. Members of the mob snatched their photographic equipment and jostled the cameraman. News crews from CNN-News 18 and Aaj Tak were also attacked.
Get the latest election news, live updates and election schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on ndtv.com/elections. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter and Instagram for updates from each of the 543 parliamentary seats for the 2019 Indian general elections.