- A video shows the two women entering shrine, escorted by police
- Women reached the temple at around 3:45 am, left after praying: sources
- Women below 50 couldn't enter temple until today, despite top court order
Two women below 50 walked into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala before daybreak on Wednesday, becoming the first to do so since the Supreme Court ordered the end of a decades-old ban on women of menstrual age entering the shrine. The temple shut down for ritual "purification" briefly before reopening to devotees.
Bindu and Kanaka Durga, both in their early 40s, entered the hilltop shrine around 3.45 am. In a video accessed by NDTV, the women are seen hurrying into the shrine, dressed in all-black and escorted by the police. A group of protesters also appears to be at the spot.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan confirmed the visit and said: "It is a fact that the women entered the shrine. Police are bound to offer protection to anyone wanting to worship at the shrine."
As news of the women's entry travelled, the shrine was controversially shut down for an hour and a half for "purification". Kerala minister EP Jayarajan called it contempt of court, saying: "untouchability is against the law."
The women started the uphill trek to the temple around midnight on Tuesday, reached a little before 4 am and left after praying to Lord Ayyappa. There was no media glare and very few devotees were around at the time, which probably facilitated the"sneak" visit.
"We did not enter the shrine by climbing the 18 holy steps but went through the staff gate," one of the women was quoted by AFP as saying.
The women were protected by small group of policemen, both in uniform and plainclothes.
"They might have done that in absolute secrecy. Once we know details, we will take appropriate action," said Rahul Easwar, activist and leader of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena.
Bindu, 44, is a college lecturer and CPI(ML) activist, according to the Press Trust of India. Kanakadurga, 42, is a civil supplies employee who had come to Sabarimala on December 24 after 11 women activists of a Chennai-based outfit trying to reach the shrine were chased away by devotees chanting Ayyappa mantras.
Protests broke out in various parts of state after the entry of the two women. BJP workers waved black flags at Kerala's minister for temple bodies, Kadakampally Surendran, in Guruvayur and the party's youth wing workers waved black flags at Health Minister KK Shylaja. BJP workers also took out a protest march in capital Thiruvananthapuram. In Kasaragod, they blocked traffic on the national highway.
Both women had tried to visit Sabarimala in the last week of December, but had been blocked by massive protests. The temple reopened on December 30 for the Makaravilakku festival and there has been a heavy rush of pilgrims since then.
Priests and many devotees strongly believe that the ban on women between 10 and 50 years should stay as the deity Lord Ayyappa is celibate.
In October, devotees clashed with police leading to the arrest of more than 2,000 people.
On Tuesday, there was more trouble when tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across Kerala to back the demand for women's access to the temple. The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge to its ruling on January 22.
Since the top court overturned the ban on September 28, upholding the constitutional right of every individual to practice their faith, protesters had ensured that women below 50 were unable to enter the shrine. Over a dozen women tried but were stopped by a wall of protesters less than a km from the temple's entrance.