Two days after the Supreme Court questioned the ban on women of procreative age at Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), which manages temple affairs, put up a brave face saying age-old customs and traditions can’t be changed overnight.
The TDB will file a fresh affidavit in apex court saying it favored continuation of ban on women in the age group of 10 and 50. Since the presiding deity is a ‘naishtika brahmchari’ (eternal celibate) women of menstruating age have been barred at the hill shrine from time immemorial and there is no plan to dilute this now, said TDB.
While hearing a 10-year old petition filed by Young Lawyers’ Association the court had observed that the practice of barring women at the temple could not have a constitutional validity. The observation has triggered a raging debate in the state.
TDB president Prayar Gopalakrishan has blamed the affidavit filed by the previous LDF government for raking up the whole issue. “Each temple has its own custom and tradition. In Attukkal Devi temple in Thiruvananthapuram men are not allowed to do ‘pongala’ (a special offering). It is not a gender issue but tradition of each shrine,” he said adding the observation was made without examining rituals of the temple and presiding deity. The board will soon implead in the case.
The state government has also supported the TDB. ““The government wants status quo. We don’t want to meddle with the age-old custom of the temple,” said temple affairs minister V S Sivakumar. The supreme priest of the temple (tantri), who is considered a last word on temple rituals, also echoed the same saying it can’t be treated as a mere gender issue. “Complying with the ongoing practice of the each temple is a must for healthy survival of religious places,” said supreme priest of the temple Kandararu Rajivaru. The Viswa Hindu Pairshad also backed the TDB saying rituals and tradition should be left to respective shrines.
Though the left front has welcomed the observation it is cautious enough in the election year saying it wanted a healthy discussion not an immediate solution to the vexed issue. “There is no basis in the argument that no women in 10-50 age-group ever visited the temple. There is enough proofs that women members of erstwhile Travancore royal family visited the temple,” said former Devasom Minister G Sudhakaran of the CPI (M).
However the petitioner (Young lawyers’ association of India) argued that it was a ‘social malady’ perpetuated by the state government through its statutory board (TDB) and it couldn’t be given a legal entity. “It is pity to say that the Lord can’t keep his ‘brahmcharya’ if women entered the temple,” said a woman activist adding priests and authorities often find excuses in coincidences and contradictions to buttress their point.
Pilgrimage to Sabarimala is unique in many ways. A devotee has to take 41 days fast (vrat) abstaining from all worldly pleasures followed by a rigorous trek through forests. In black attire, for the pilgrim it is a ritual to cleanse his body and mind. Once he dons black attire he’s known as ‘swami’. Unlike Guruvayur Sree Kirshna temple where non-Hindus are barred here all believers can worship. Interestingly Lord Ayyappa’s favorite disciple is a Muslim ‘Vavar Swami’ and devotees have to worship first at his mosque before proceeding to the hilltop shrine.
Ban on women came to limelight in 2006 when Kannada actor Jaimala claimed that she had entered the sanctum sanctorum of the temple while she was young (28years ago). Later the temple had filed a case against her saying she hurt religious belief of millions of devotees. Many women activists came to her rescue and in 2006 Young Lawyers’ Association had moved the apex court questioning the decision of the temple.
Sabarimala (situated in the western ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta district about 1600 feet above sea level) is considered second largest seasonal pilgrimage after Mecca. Last year more than 3.2 crore pilgrims visited the hill shrine (state’s population is 3.25 crore) during the three-month season (November to January) _ most the pilgrims are from neighboring states Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. In 60 years the shrine had also witnessed three major mishaps_ in 1952 65 pilgrims charred to death after a cracker unit caught fire, 1999 54 trampled to death when a pathway caved in and 2011, 110 killed in a similar stampede in Pullumedu.