Two women were 50 metres away from history early on Wednesday, reaching near the 18 steps that lead to the sanctum sanctorum of Kerala’s Sabarimala temple even as thousands of protesters stood guard to stop them from entering the hilltop shrine. In the end, the women had to return — like many others over the past three days — after the temple’s main priest said he would stop the rituals and close the gates if they did not turn back. Kavitha Jakkal, a journalist from Hyderabad, and activist Rehana Fatima, whose house in Kochi was allegedly attacked later in the day, retreated amid a strong police escort, pacifying protesters and priests who came out of the shrine and blocked their way.A third woman, identified as Mary Sweety from Thiruvananthapuram, too, was turned away by protesters who say female devotees of menstruating age cannot enter the shrine because the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is celibate. “We have told women devotees about the situation and they decided to go back,” said inspector general of police S Sreejith, who was escorting the two women to the shrine along with his team.Tension hung in the air for the third straight day after the temple opened its gates for the first time following the Supreme Court’s September 28 order that allowed women of all ages to enter the shrine. Even after the women halted, protesters shouted slogans, rolled on the ground, and asked journalists to go back. “It is a most painful day. If women enter the holy steps, I will close the temple and go back to my house. I am with devotees. I can’t be a part to violation of rituals,” tantri (chief priest) Rajeevaru Kandarau said, adding that he was not against the top court’s order but can’t hurt the sentiments of believers.As protests spilled over to other parts, including Kochi, Pandalam and Palakkad, the Centre asked the southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to tighten security. In an advisory issued this week, the home ministry also asked the three states to closely monitor the dissemination of various “adverse” messages through social media and the internet services.The Congress party and the BJP, who have supported the protesters, hit out at chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s Left government, which says it is committed to implementing the court order and will not let anyone disrupt law and order. “The government wants to convert Sabarimala into a battleground. It is out to hurt sentiments of devotees,” said Congress’s Ramesh Chennithala, asking why the police gave protection to an activist on the way to the shrine.Fatima, a 31-year-old who was associated with a ‘Kiss of Love’ movement to protest moral policing, said, “I am a devotee. I took a 41-day penance before trekking to the temple.” Temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran assured that devotees won’t be forcibly evicted, and told police to avert a showdown. He also pulled up the police for allowing activists proceed towards the temple. “People of all ages will be allowed to go there. But at the same time we won’t allow it to be a place where activists can come and showcase their power. It can’t be a place where they prove certain points of theirs,’’ he said. State secretary of the ruling Communist Party of India (Maoist) Kodiyeri Balakrishnan accused both the Congress and the BJP of misleading devotees, stressing his party was not against Lord Ayyappa devotees.Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which is responsible for the administration of the shrine, said it decided to send a status report to the Supreme Court. “Situation is really grave. We will inform the court about this and seek its advice how to go about it,” said its president, A Padmakumar. He clarified that it will not be a review petition but a status report. Padmakumar also said a similar report will be filed in the high court.