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Wednesday, Dec 11, 2019

Tension at hilltop temple Sabarimala as pilgrim season begins

On September 28, 2018, the Supreme Court opened the Sabarimala temple’s doors to women of all ages and overturned a decades-old ban, in a move that sparked protests by traditionalists who say women of menstruating age cannot enter the temple because the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is considered celibate.

india Updated: Nov 15, 2019 05:53 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapuram
Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga are escorted by police after they attempted to enter the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala.
Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga are escorted by police after they attempted to enter the Sabarimala temple in Pathanamthitta district in Kerala.(Reuters)
         

When shops flanking two base camps and the hilltop temple of Sabarimala nestled in the picturesque Western Ghats were auctioned last month, traders who took part in the bidding requested Kerala temple affairs minister Kadakampally Surendran for an assurance: that women will not be allowed to enter the shrine with the police’s help.

Surendran rebuked them instead, asking traders not to intimidate the government which was committed to implementing last year’s Supreme Court order allowing the entry of women of all ages into the shrine of Lord Ayyappa.

Memories of violent protests across Kerala are still fresh among traders, who set up their shops near the famed temple, and residents of the worst-affected Pathanamthitta district, where the shrine is located.

In 2018, two people were killed in the southern state in a wave of violent protests against the entry of women of child-bearing age. Traditionalists blocked attempts of younger women to visit the temple; many were threatened and pelted with stones.

While the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress supported the traditionalists, Kerala’s Left government said it would facilitate the entry of women into the shrine.

Traders say last year the police accused them of sheltering troublemakers even as they suffered huge losses due to violence and fewer customers. This year, there is tension in the air ahead of the pilgrimage season that will begin on November 16 and continue till the second week of January.

“In 2018, the Devasom board [Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous body that runs the temple] auctioned shops and business establishments along the trekking path and on the hilltop, and got ₹60 crore. But this time, it could manage sales of just ₹18 crore,” said K Prasad, a spokesperson for traders.

The government says it will ask agencies controlled by it to open their shops along the trekking route.

“No doubt, if women try to enter the temple violence will erupt. Many volunteers of the Karma Samiti [a Hindu group] are camping in forests and foothills,” said Gopinathan Nair, a resident of Nilakkal, one of the base camps.

On September 28, 2018, the Supreme Court opened the Sabarimala temple’s doors to women of all ages and overturned a decades-old ban, in a move that sparked protests by traditionalists who say women of menstruating age cannot enter the temple because the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is considered celibate.

On Thursday, the top court referred pleas seeking a review of its order on Sabarimala temple to a larger seven-judge bench, saying in a majority 3-2 verdict that gender-based restrictions on the entry of women were not limited to the hilltop shrine in Kerala, but were also prevalent in places of worship belonging to other religions. The five-judge Constitution bench headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi stopped short of staying the September 2018 judgment, meaning that women of all ages can still offer prayers at the temple.

Some of the women who aborted their trips last year say they want to return to Sabarimala. Activists such as Chennai-based Maniti Sangam and Pune’s Bhumata Brigade have already announced that they will trek to the temple in the peak pilgrimage season. There are reports that temple authorities have received 45 online applications for darshan from women.

Traditionalists, too, are ready. “I have four cases against me. I will go this time again and stop women if they try to enter the temple. It is my duty to protect my favourite deity, ” said P Abilash, an engineering student who says he spent 40 days at a tea shop disguised as a helper last year to participate in the protests. He has been booked for rioting and flouting prohibitory orders, but Abilash is unrepentant.

The Sabarimala Karma Samiti, a body of Hindu outfits formed last year, said it will prevent women from entering the temple. “We hope good sense will prevail on the government. If it tries to fool devotees again, we will resist it fiercely,” said RV Babu, a leader of Hindu Akiya Vedi, which is associated with the Karma Samiti .

Kanakadurga, who created history by praying at the Sabarimala temple on January 2, welcomed the Supreme Court’s Thursday decision.

“Today’s verdict is encouraging. There is no stay on the September 28 (2018) verdict which opened the temple to women of all ages. I will go again,” Kanakadurga told the media at Malappuram.

Kanakadurga and Bindu Ammini, both aged below 50, prayed at the Sabarimala temple on January 2 with police security amid huge protests.

“The Kerala government should ensure that they provide all the support to women who want to go and pray at Sabarimala,” Ammini said.

State police chief Loknath Behra said 10,000 policemen will be deployed under an additional Director General of Police.