Sabarimala temple open but angry protesters, not rule, keep women out

Updated on Oct 17, 2018 10:52 PM IST

On a day marked by protests,scuffles and stone-throwing, troublemakers ignored police warnings and ran riot in Nilakkal and Pamba, two important sites where devotees gather before trekking to Sabarimala temple in the Western Ghats.

Police escort Madhavi and her family after they were heckled by protesters, who stopped them from entering the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala, Kerala, on Wednesday.(Vivek Nair/HT Photo)
Police escort Madhavi and her family after they were heckled by protesters, who stopped them from entering the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala, Kerala, on Wednesday.(Vivek Nair/HT Photo)
Pamba (Sabarimala) | By

The doors to Kerala’s Sabarimala temple opened on Wednesday for the first time since the Supreme Court three weeks ago allowed women of all ages to enter the hilltop shrine, but female devotees were halted by a wall of resistance mounted by traditionalists who tuned them away, intimidated journalists and clashed with the police.

On a day marked by protests,scuffles and stone-throwing, troublemakers ignored police warnings and ran riot in Nilakkal and Pamba, two important sites where devotees gather before trekking to the temple in the Western Ghats. Protesters turned away at least two female devotees who tried to enter the shrine, maintaining a centuries-old tradition that women of menstruating age cannot enter the temple because the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is celibate.

Chaos erupted hours before the 800-year-old temple, nestled in the greenery of Pathanamthitta district, opened at 5 pm with the chanting of hymns for a five-day ritual. Several television channels reported that hardliners targeted women journalists and attacked the vehicles of their crews. Women reporters of two national TV channels were stopped in Pamba by a violent crowd, which was seen banging on their cars. Television footage showed policemen chasing protesters away through dense forests near Nilakkal.

“Police were forced to intervene when some protesters started attacking media personnel,” said district collector PB Nooh, stressing that the administration will make sure the pilgrimage was not affected. State industry minister EP Jayarajan said those who attacked journalists will be arrested.

 

Policemen deployed in strategic areas did not seem to be a deterrent to the hundreds of protesters, who damaged at least 10 buses. Twelve people were arrested and 15 hospitalised with injuries suffered during the clashes, the police said. Fearing a flare-up, the district administration imposed restrictions prohibiting the gathering of more than four people under Section 144 of CrPC in trouble-hit areas, including Nilakkal and Pamba.

The police had to jostle with protesters to take a 45-year-old devotee from Andhra Pradesh, identified as Madhavi, to safety after she was intercepted by a group of men. She was forced to return to Pamba. A young woman from Kerala’s Alappuzha,identified as Liby, was stopped at the Pathanamthitta bus terminal.

“When democracy and the Supreme Court order are being defied by protesters, I have come with the firm intent of visiting Sabarimala,” Libi, who uses only one name, told the media.

The apex court had opened the doors of Sabarimala to women of all ages in a 4-1 judgment on September 28, annulling the age-old tradition of the temple to deny the right of worship to women aged between 10 and 50 years.

Rahul Eswar, who is leading a campaign against the entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala, and some of his family members were arrested in Pamba after they staged a demonstration. “The government is trying to stifle a peaceful protest,” said Eswar, the grandson of the main priest of Sabarimala.

Sabarimala Samrakshana Samity, an umbrella organisation of several outfits protesting against the court order, called a day-long shutdown across the state on Thursday to protest against Wednesday’s police action.

No one will be allowed to take the law into their hands and strict action will be initiated gainst troublemakers, state police chief Loknath Behra said, reiterating Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s stand that the state was committed to implementing the Supreme Court’s order.

Devotees wait for opening of the Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala on Wednesday. (PTI Photo)
Devotees wait for opening of the Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala on Wednesday. (PTI Photo)

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, as well as some fringe groups, have taken strong exception to the Kerala government’s approach to the emotive and religiously sensitive Sabarimala issue. Several review pleas have been filed in the Supreme Court, which has ruled that divinity and devotion cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender.

While CM Vijayan has assured that his government does not want a showdown with devotees and blamed “Sangh Parivar” outfits for orchestrating the protests, the BJP has maintained that the government is responsible for the “sorry state” in Kerala.

Tension was palpable in the southern state since Tuesday, when crucial talks held in the capital Thiruvananthapuram among the tantri (supreme priest of Sabarimala), the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam (considered the custodians of the temple) and Travancore Devaswom Board, or TDB ,(responsible for the administration of the temple), could not reach a solution.

According to TDB, which manages over 1,200 temples in the state, 35 million visited the temple last year during a three-month season beginning November.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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

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