The Bombay high court decision opening the sanctum of Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah to women has brought the focus back on the famous Kerala Sabarimala temple that bars entry to women.
Those in support of women of reproductive age being kept away from the hilltop shrine cite tradition, scriptures and court judgments, those against describe the ban as regressive and discriminatory.
One of the holiest Hindu shrines, the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple visited by millions of devotees every year doesn’t allow entry to women aged between 10 and 50 years.
The ban has been challenged in the Supreme Court, which is hearing a public interest litigation that says the bar violates a woman’s right to practice her religion.
Devotees are upset with attempts to dilute age-old custom while activists are upbeat that their demand to open the temple, which even allows non-Hindus, to all will be met soon.
Activists see the Bombay HC judgment as a positive development but the management and traditionalists argue that the Sabarimala case is different.
“We are confident that custom of the temple will be protected. Women are not banned here. There are some restrictions on women between 10-50 age because they can’t undergo 41-day fast due to biological reasons. It is wrong to interpret it as gender discrimination,” said Prayar Gopalakrishnanan, president of Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) that manages the temple.
It was unfair to compare Sabarimala with other shrines, he said.
True, unlike other shrines there is no mass movement against the Sabarimala ban. Many of those opposing it are from outside the state.
Gender equality activist Trupti Desai, who has emerged as the face of the campaign against women being kept away from places of worship, has failed to draw support here.
A majority of women see the ban as a custom and not a gender issue. They favour status quo, saying women can’t hope for salvation if they break a custom and force their way into the temple.
“Women have better things to do. It is not an issue at all,” said homemaker Renuka Devi. She won’t enter the shrine if not allowed.
Women like her blame Left intellectuals and “non-believers” for fanning a non-issue and giving it a gender twist to it.
“It is all about preserving the unique tradition of a temple. In India every temple has its own customs and traditions and they vary with each other,” said Rahul Easwar, a TV commentator and grandson of Sabarimala supreme priest.
Women of reproductive age were not allowed because the temple’s idol is based on the concept of naisthik brahmachari (eternal celibate), a fact well documented in the British records and a 1991 Kerala high court verdict, he said.
Only a section among priests and others are clinging on to the 25-year-old court verdict to deny women their due, argue others.
“You have to change with the time. You can’t go back to ancient customs to differentiate women. If the seasonal pilgrimage is not possible due to 41 days fast (vrat), they should be given another time to worship,” said Swami Sandeepananda Giri, director of School of Bhagavad Gita, arguing women were allowed in all other Ayyappa temples.
Congress leader Bindu Krishna agrees. “It is sad women are kept away from the temple. There is a general perception that women are weak and inferior it should change,” Krishna said.
Customs couldn’t be changed overnight, TDB chairman Gopalakrishnanan said. “Each temple has its own custom and tradition. In Attukkal Devi temple in Thiruvananthapuram men are not allowed to do pongala (an offering to the goddess). It is not a gender issue but tradition of each shrine,” he said.
Pilgrimage to Sabarimala, nestled in Western Ghats ranges in Pathanamthitta district, is unique in many ways.
A pilgrim has to undergo 41-day fast (vrat) and abstinence before undertaking a rigorous trek through forests to reach the temple.
Before paying obeisance to Lord Ayyappa, devotees offer prayers at a mosque dedicated to the deity’s favourite disciple Vavar Swami, a Muslim.
Women of reproductive age are allowed only till Pambha, the base camp for the five-km trek to the shrine. Policewomen are deployed in large numbers. They screen devotees closely and can ask for age proof if they get suspicious of a woman pilgrim.
Controversies in the past
2002: Outrage after shrew tail and beedi stubs are found in Sabarimala prasad (offering) or the aravana payasam. Prasad plant is modernised.
2006: Kannada actor Jayamala claims that 20 years ago, she entered the temple and touched the feet of Lord Ayyappa. A case is registered against her
2006: A tantri, a priest who perform tantric rites, is barred from the temple after his name crops up in a sex scandal. Later, six people who blackmailed him are sentenced to seven years in jail.
2008: State human rights commission pulls up the temple for not allowing employees of the money-counting centre to wear inner garments fearing theft. X-ray machines and scanners are installed.
2015: The chairman of Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, says women would be allowed in the temple if there was a machine that could tell if they were menstruating. He disowned the comments later.
2016: Hearing a PIL filed by the Young Lawyers’ Forum, the Supreme Court says there can’t be legal or constitutional validity for keeping women away from shrine. The case is pending before the court.