Sabarimala redux in Kerala? Tribal groups resist women's participation in trek to revered Agasthya Hill site

TK Devasia
Amid the Sabarimala standoff, a tiny tribal community in Kerala is waging a lonely battle against attempts for a similar "intrusion" into their sacred landscape.

Even as Hindu organisations backed by powerful political outfits are violently resisting the entry of women in the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, a tiny tribal community is waging a lonely battle against attempts for a similar "intrusion" into their sacred landscape.

Women have been preparing to trek the Agasthya Hill, the resting place of Agasthya Muni, the deity of the Kani tribal community, following a 30 November 2018 high court verdict lifting the gender-based restrictions in climbing the 1,868-metre mountain located at the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Thiruvananthapuram district.

Kanis have been opposing women's entry on the hill top where the idol of their deity is placed, as they believe him to be eternally celibate like Sabarimala's Lord Ayyappa. The community does not have any temple on the hill but only an idol of Agasthya Muni, which the male members worship. Leaders of the community claim that women from the social group have never gone to the peak, in accordance with the traditions and beliefs that they have been following for generations.

The forest department that manages the sanctuary has also not been allowing women to trek the hill, considering the opposition from the Kanis as well as the tough terrain. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had granted permission for women to participate in the trek last year, following a strong demand from women activists. However, the high court stayed the decision, responding to a petition filed by a Kani tribal group. The stay was subsequently lifted on appeals filed by Malappuram-based Women Integration and Growth through Sports (WINGS) and Pennoruma, a women's collective.

Following the high court verdict, the department has allowed 100 women to trek the hill during the annual 26-kilometre trekking season from 14 January to 24 February this year. State Wildlife Warden YM Shajikumar said that the women had secured the passes through online booking. They are among 4,100 people allowed to trek the mountain during the current season.

A group of Kani tribals have vowed to block the women at Bonacaud, the entry point to the Agasthya hill. However, the forest department officials are not anticipating any Sabarimala-like situation there, since the high court has barred the women from performing any puja at the hill top.

"We have spoken to leaders of various tribal organisations. They had planned the resistance due to a misunderstanding. They have agreed not to block the women after they were made aware of the conditions in the high court verdict. There could be some minor protests, but they may not lead to violence," said Shajikumar.

Mohanan Triveni, president of the Agasthyakoodam Kshethra Kanikkar Trust, has also clarified that they will not be forcibly preventing women from trekking the hill in view of the high court verdict. However, he said that they will organise an Achara Samrakshana Yajnam on the line of the naama japa (prayer chant) protests organised by the Hindu organisations against the entry of women in Sabarimala.

Women activists, who have been pleading for their right to trek the Agasthyamala, feel relieved since none of the political parties and organisations that have opposed entry of women into the Sabarimala temple have come forward to support the tribal groups.

"The situation would have been different if the BJP and RSS had entered the scene. However, they might have ignored the tribals' protests as they do not constitute a sizeable vote bank in Kerala," says G Rejitha, a women's activist who has got a pass for the trekking.

There were attempts by the Sangh Parivar to construct a temple at the peak of the mountain a few years ago and gradually transform it into a site similar to the Sabarimala temple. However, the Kani tribals thwarted the move after a protracted legal battle with the support of the forest department.

Agasthyamala is one of the virgin biosphere reserves in Kerala which was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012. The mountain is also Kerala's second highest peak after the Anamudi peak (2,695 metres) near Munnar in Idukki, and is also a significant trekking site.

Trekking is allowed at Agasthymala only for 41 days a year between January and February, coinciding with the Makarasankranthi and Sivaratri festivals that the tribals celebrate. During the period, the number of trekkers will be restricted to 100 persons a day. All the passes for trekking this year were sold within two hours of the commencement of online booking on 5 January.

The trek is a challenging one, since the path passes through dense forests inhabited by wild animals and is filled with slippery boulders. Many people have lost their lives in attacks by wild animals. Last year, one person was killed and another injured in a bison attack. Two trekkers were trampled to death by an elephant earlier. Noted herpetologist Dr B Subramanian, who went to the mountain in connection with a research project in 2014, slipped to death.

Forest officials say it will be difficult for women as there are no separate facilities like resting sheds and toilets for women. Those going up and coming down converge at the Athirimala base camp. There are only five camp sheds at the base for 200 trekkers. While giving the passes to women, the forest department had clearly stated that they will not be able to provide any separate facilities.

Women trekkers are not worried about the lack facilities. They only want the forest department to provide them security. The department has 30 guides to assist the trekkers. Each group will commence the journey at Bonacaud at 8 a.m. and travel around 18 kilometres to arrive at the base camp, where they will spend the night. The second phase of the journey, which involves an 8-kilometre climb to reach the Agasthyamala peak, will begin next morning.

Rejitha, who will take part in the trek in February, is excited. She says, "Women have conquered several male bastions. We will conquer Agasthyamala too and show that we are not behind men."

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