The Supreme Court’s observation on Monday questioning the practice of barring women between 10 to 50 years of age in Sabarimala’s Ayyappa temple has triggered a debate in the state.
While the state government played safe and favoured status quo, the opposition Left Democratic Front – which gave an affidavit seven years ago supporting the entry of women of all ages -- said it wanted a healthy discussion and not an immediate solution to the vexed issue.
The BJP that is trying hard to get a foothold in the state downplayed the development, saying it was a mere observation and not an order from the court.
The supreme priest of the temple (tantri), who is considered the last word on temple rituals, said age-old customs and rituals can’t be changed overnight. The Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), which manages the temple affairs, said it would oppose the idea of permitting women of all ages to the shrine. And many women devotees also echoed the same, saying it can’t be treated as a mere gender issue.
“The state government wants status quo to be maintained. We don’t want to interfere with the age-old custom of the temple,” said temple affairs minister V S Sivakumar.
“Complying with the ongoing practice of the each temple is a must for healthy survival of religious places,” agreed supreme priest of the temple Kandararu Rajivaru.
As the presiding deity Lord Ayyappa is celibate, women of menstruating age (10-50 age group) are barred from time immemorial, he added.
However the petitioner (Young lawyers’ association of India) argued it was a ‘social malady’ perpetuated by the state government through its statutory board (TDB) and it couldn’t be given a legal entity.
“There is no basis in the argument that no women in 10-50 age group ever visited the temple. There is enough proof that women members of erstwhile Travancore royal family visited the temple,” said former Devasom Minister G Sudhakaran. “It is pity to say that the Lord can’t keep his ‘brahmacharya’ if women entered the temple,” said a woman activist, adding that priests and authorities often find excuses in coincidences 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 (1600 feet above sea level) In black attire, the journey is a ritual for the pilgrim to cleanse his body and mind. Once he dons black attire he’s known as ‘swami’. Since the presiding deity is a ‘nitya brahmachari’ (celibate), women of menstruating age are barred but unlike Guruvayur Sree Krishna temple, non-Hindus are allowed here.
Interestingly, the restriction on women came into the limelight in 2006 when Kannada actor Jaimala claimed she had entered the sanctum sanctorum of the temple while she was young (28 years 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 moved the apex court questioning the decision of the temple.
Situated in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta district , Sabarimala is considered second largest seasonal pilgrimage after Mecca.
Last year more than 3.2 crore pilgrims visited the hill shrine 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 also witnessed three major mishaps. In 1952, 65 pilgrims were charred to death after a cracker unit caught fire.
In 1999, 54 people were trampled to death when a pathway caved in and 2011, 110 were killed in a similar stampede in Pullumedu.