The temple of Lord Ayyappa, believed to be born through the union of Lord Shiva and Vishnu (in the avatar of Mohini), is located atop a hill that the devout say only strong-spirited pilgrims can scale. However, women of menstruating age were hitherto barred from entering its premises because they were viewed as "impure".
That changed on September 28, when a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra ruled in a 4:1 verdict that not allowing women between 10 and 50 years of age into the temple contradicts their rights under Article 21 of the Constitution (protection of life and personal liberty), and instructed the authorities to ensure that nobody was discriminated against. While the verdict was hailed by many on social media, conservative Hindus and certain political groups complained that the judicial move had disregarded their religious beliefs. The Congress and the BJP were equally critical of the judgment.
The Pinarayi Vijayan-led Communist government in Kerala, however, assured women devotees that the Supreme Court verdict would be implemented with immediate effect and instructed the Travancore Devaswom Board -- which manages the affairs of the Lord Ayyappa temple -- to ensure that nobody is banned from entering its premises. The government also clarified that it has no plan to file a review petition against the Supreme Court order, as demanded by Hindu groups.
Several bandhs or shutdowns were called in the days that followed, and hours before the gates of the Sabarimala temple shrine was to open on October 17, numerous protesters camped outside Nilakkal -- the point where pilgrims disembark -- in an attempt to prevent women from entering. Local television channels reported that some college students and women reporters were stopped at the base camp, even as the police tried to maintain peace.
Protests intensified as the day wore on, with clashes erupting between the police and agitators. Despite heavy security, women journalists -- including those from Republic TV and NDTV -- were attacked and threatened. The Kerala government alleged that the attacks were orchestrated by the Congress as well as right-wing parties eager to expand their footprint in the southern state. A pilgrim from Madhya Pradesh alleged that protesters tried to pull his 22-year-old daughter from the bus they were travelling in, and it was only due to police intervention that they managed to escape their wrath.
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat backed the protesters on Thursday, stating that there was a widespread feeling that the Supreme Court had not taken into consideration several long-held traditions that are accepted even by women. "The version of heads of religious denominations and faith of crores of devotees was not taken into account," he said in his traditional Vijaya Dashami speech.
Right-wing activist Rahul Easwar was arrested the same day, and an FIR filed against him under non-bailable sections of Indian Penal Code. Even as a court sent him to 14 days' judicial custody, Mr Easwar furiously argued his innocence. "I didn't hit any woman... I was moving to the other direction. This is nothing but a vendetta against me," he said.
On Friday, attempts by women activists to reach the hill shrine were thwarted by protesting activists. Two of them, including a journalist, were stopped 500 metres from the 18 golden steps that lead to the shrine's sanctum sanctorum when they were halted by a virtual wall of protesters. Sitting on the steps were a dozen priests, chanting and clapping at the women to prevent the activists from making the final half-kilometre. A police officer accompanying them dubbed the exercise as a "ritualistic disaster". A third woman -- 46-year-old Mary Sweety -- was bluntly told by police that she was free to go to the hill shrine if she wished, but without security.
Later, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) announced that it would ask the Supreme Court to reconsider its verdict. "We have decided to appeal against the Supreme Court verdict that allowed women of all age groups to enter the Sabarimala Temple," said association president A Padmakumar. Head priest Kandaru Rajeevaru dismissed reports on his plans to close down the temple, but requested women devotees to respect their traditions and rituals by not attempting to visit the temple.
Even as the day ended amid protests and sporadic clashes, the centre asked the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to tighten security and monitor the dissemination of "adverse" messages through the social media. "All necessary precautionary measures may be taken to maintain law and order and appropriate security arrangements may be made to prevent any untoward incident," the advisory, sent by the internal security division of the home ministry, said.
Thiruvananthapuram: A religious stricture banning women between 10 and 50 years from entering the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Kerala has always raised eyebrows in the past, but never did it spark violent protests that shocked an entire nation. Two days after the hill-shrine opened its doors to the public, Hindu devotees continued to lay seige to the holy hill on Friday - vandalising vehicles in open defiance of the police and threatening to force back any woman who dares visit the temple.