In a first, Sabarimala priests stop rituals to protest women entering temple

Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram | By
Oct 19, 2018 02:19 PM IST

Sabarimala tantri Rajeevaru Kandarau said he would close the temple doors and quit as head priest if women were allowed to enter the sanctum sactorum, an act that goes against the temple’s practice.

Prayer services in the Sabarimala temple were disrupted for first time in the recent past on Friday with priests boycotting rituals in protest that eventually forced two women – a journalist and an activist – to give up their attempt to enter the temple after they reached within 500 metres of it.

Devotees wait in queues inside the premises of the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, on October 17, 2018.(Reuters)
Devotees wait in queues inside the premises of the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, on October 17, 2018.(Reuters)

“It is a most painful day. I told everyone if women enter the holy steps. I will close temple and I will go back to my house. I am with devotees. I can’t be a part to violation of temple rituals,” Tantri Rajeevaru Kandarau told HT. There are 18 steps that lead to the temple’s sanctum sanctorum.

After the threat of temple closure, police said the two women would be escorted back.

“I have been forced to go back,” said Rehana Fathima, an activist and one of the two women.

As the situation turned grave with devotees and police locked in a tense standoff, protests also erupted in Kochi and Calicut.

In the state capital, police chief Loknath Behra met Governor Palanisamy Sathasivam in the Raj Bhawan. Chief minister Pinyari Vijayan is currently out of the country on a tour of West Asia.

For now, Sabarimala remains off limits for women.

Kavitha Jakkal of Hyderabad based Mojo TV and Rehana Fathima were on Friday stopped a short distance away from the Sabarimala temple while the government tried to allay fears of a crackdown saying it would not use force. The government had earlier insisted that it would do all that is needed to ensure that women are allowed to offer prayers in line with a Supreme Court order.

Temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran also said devotees won’t be forcibly evicted and told the police to avert a showdown.

“Police will not create any issue in Sabarimala and we don’t want a confrontation with devotees. We are only following the law. I will be discussing with the higher authorities and brief them on the situation,” ANI quoted inspector general of police S Sreejith telling devotees at the foot of the steps leading to the main temple.

Police had landed in a quandary after activist Rehana Fathima refused to budge. She insisted that she undertook a 41-day fast and wanted to enter Sabarimala.

Surendran pulled up the police for allowing Fathima to head for the temple which he said was a lapse.

“Activists came, not devotees .... Police should have checked antecedents of women before escorting them,” Surendran said.

Tension rose sharply in the morning with the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, who are the custodians of the Sabarimala temple, asking the Tantri to close the doors of the shrine as two women headed for the temple under police protection. Protesters squatted on the path leading to the hilltop temple.

The opposition Congress said the government was playing with fire. “The government is giving enough fuel to the Sangh Parivar,” said opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. “It is committed to protect interest of devotees.”

The state unit of the BJP which is backing the devotees has sought action against police officials who “enacted a drama hurting religious feelings of devotees which led to disruption of temple rituals”.

On the ground, the police have maintained utmost restraint against the devotees who insist that women should not be allowed into the temple.

Earlier, Kavitha and Fathima started their journey at 6.50 am in heavy rain under police protection from Pambha, the base of the hilltop temple, police said.

Police threw a ring around the two women with Sreejith leading the group after the journalist asked for protection to enable her to visit the temple.

“The highest court has given the green signal. My trip is to uphold women rights” she said. On September 28, the Supreme Court had ruled that the ban on women visiting the Sabarimala temple was unconstitutional and permitted women of all age groups to enter the shrine.

Around 8 am, protesters who began to assemble near the temple, laid down on the ground and dared the police to walk over their bodies. A large number of devotees assembled at the base of the 18 holy steps that are considered sacrosanct as far as Sabarimala pilgrimage is concerned.

On Thursday, two other women had tried to enter unsuccessfully – NYT reporter Suhasini Raj and a woman from Andhra Pradesh named Madhavi.

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    Ramesh Babu is HT’s bureau chief in Kerala, with about three decades of experience in journalism.

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