There has been a controversy over Sabarimala, a pilgrimage centre in Kerala, being anti-women and against gender equality. A legal battle is underway in the Supreme Court and events have reignited a debate on the place of women in society, patriarchy and Indian culture.
The name ‘Sabarimala’ is derived from Sabari, a vanvasi devotee of Sri Ram. The earlier name of the place was Mathangamala, named after the sage Mathanga, and after Sri Ram and Sabari met there, the place came to be called Sabari’s mala, and thus Sabarimala.
One of the most important temples here, along with the main deity of Ayyappa, is of Malikapurathamma,whose birth name was Lalitha and she was a warrior from the Ezhava Cheerapanchira Kalari. She was the lover of Manikanta.
Ayyappa is Manikanta, who was born around 1,000 years ago and defeated the Dacoit king Udayanan with the help of Vavar and his Muslim army. Kerala takes pride in the secular heritage of Sabarimala where millions of Hindus first offer their prayers at the Vavar Mosque and the Arthunkal Church (whose priest Father Veluthachan assisted Manikanta for education) before praying to Ayyappa. Kerala’s pluralistic and secular history owes a lot to this temple.
Sabarimala is a space designed for common people to experience sannyasa. That’s the reason why pilgrims are required to observe strict abstinence from physical and worldly pleasures for 41 days before visiting the temple.
The notion that Sabarimala is anti-women is a false one. Every year thousands of women visit the temple. The regulation is only for women between the age group of 10 and 50. Girls below the age of 10 and women above 50 have no restrictions.
There are many temples that have restrictions, some on men: The Attukal temple in Thiruvananthapuram, where every year more than three million women offer prayers, is known as the women’s Sabarimala. In the Chakkulathukavu temple at Alapuzha, men cannot perform the ‘nari pooja’. In short, every temple is unique in its own sense and right. Every temple has a unique ‘pratishta sankalpa’ or idol concept, or, every temple has its own philosophy.
One of the strengths of our civilisation is that it has explored spirituality in detail, but we should be honest and acknowledge the weaknesses too. One such weakness is the lack of documentation of history. The reasons for the Sabarimala pilgrimage and history of the temple should have been better documented. Had this been done, we would not have had the current controversy.
While discussing this, we also have to take into account the cultural sensitivity and constitutionality of modern India. Article 14 of the Constitution, or the Right of Equality, is not a standalone article. We also have Article 25 and Article 26 that ensure the Right to Faith. There should be a balance between the two. As a devotee I believe cultural sensitivity would be shown and the Right to Faith will be granted by the apex court.
It is time we gave importance to facts along with history. It is often said that ‘just because something is going on for centuries, it need not be right’. Similarly, it must not be forgotten that ‘just because something is going on for centuries it need not be wrong either.’
Rahul Easwar is an author and activist. The views expressed are personal.