Sabarimala temple turned into fortress for new gender battle
More than 3,400 police, many in riot gear, lined routes to Sabarimala temple in Kerala on Friday to ensure women can safely access the hilltop shrine. The temple became a flashpoint after battles erupted the first time women attempted to enter it following the historic Supreme Court ruling allowing women of all ages to enter the shrine.
On September 28, a five-judge constitution bench headed by then chief justice Dipak Misra ruled that a ban on women aged between 10 and 50 entering the temple was illegal. Sabarimala has since become a showdown issue for gender activists and those protesting the ruling.
About 700 women have registered to visit the shrine, which opens on Friday evening for the two-month long pilgrim season. Hundreds of thousands of devotees were expected to make the four hour trek up to Sabarimala during the festival which lasts until mid-January.
On Friday morning, hundreds of demonstrators at Kerala’s Kochi airport tried to stop women’s rights activist Trupti Desai from leaving for Sabarimala.
There was high drama at the Nedumbassery Airport in Kochi when Desai, who has vowed to offer prayers at the hill shrine, along with six other young women associates, was blocked from leaving for Sabarimala by a large group of protesters.
“We reached Cochin Airport at 4:30 am. Protests were being held outside. We booked taxi 2-3 times but drivers have been threatened that their vehicle will be vandalised if they offer us a drive. Police have said that we can’t go outside now,” said Trupti Desai.
“Police tried to evacuate us from another gate but protesters were there as well. Protests being held here. Does this mean protesters are scared that we’ll reach Sabarimala once we reach Nilakkal, or, are they trying to scare us?” she said while asserting, “We won’t return until we have darshan.”
On the roads around the temple, 150 kilometres (80 miles) south of Kochi, police meanwhile set up barricades to check cars.
In mid-October, when the temple opened for the first time since the court ruling, lord Ayyappa’s devotees clashed with police and prevented women from accessing the site.
They threw stones at the police, assaulted female journalists and attacked their cars. Some 2,000 people were later arrested.
Police in riot gear had escorted two women to within 500 metres (yards) of the temple but were forced to turn around.
Activists say that the ban at Sabarimala reflects an old view that connects menstruation with impurity.
The traditionalists argue that women are allowed in most Hindu temples and the practice at Sabarimala is part of their tradition, and not anti-women.
Late Thursday the state government called a meeting of all political parties in a bid to reach an agreement on letting women into the temple on certain days.
But the talks ended late Thursday in an acrimonious failure.
“We are at a standstill and now the situation is becoming even worse,” said Sasikumar Varma, a top representative of the Pandalam royal family that has been traditionally involved in the temple’s management.
“The government stuck to its stance of allowing women’s entry and we are opposed to it.”