Sabarimala: Of Lord Ayyappan, politics, gender rights and faith

The Sabarimala Temple has been at the centre of political and religious unrest ever since the Supreme Court verdict lifting the ban on the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50.

The Sabarimala Temple opened for pooja today amidst high police deployment, which included women personnel who were all above 50 years of age along with more than 2,000 commandos, to prevent any untoward incidents. In the meanwhile, a clip showing Kerala BJP leader Sreedharan Pillai addressing a BJP Yuva Morcha meeting where he declared that the party had planned the whole series of protests and that the temple’s head priest or tantri had called him to discuss closing the sanctum sanctorum when women devotees were approaching the temple, has gone viral. This has prompted the ruling CPI(M) and Congress party to allege that BJP has been trying to milk the sentiments of devotees and use the situation for political gains.

Ever since the September 28 Supreme Court verdict which allows the entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala was passed, there has been much outcry against it. The state has been divided along lines of whether women of the menstrual age, between 10 and 50, should be allowed or not, with the majority voicing their opinions against the verdict.

The days that the temple was open for Pooja, from October 17-22, witnessed angry protests from devotees and groups egged by political parties, who took it upon themselves to guard the pathways to the temple and ensure that women didn’t enter. While many women stayed away from the temple, nearly a dozen who tried to enter were attacked by right-wing activists who camped and held protestations along the route.

Along with the protestors were also hundreds of women, who marched in various namajapas (chants in the name of Lord Ayappas) protesting against the verdict.  Women holding placards which said Save Sabarimala marched on the streets of Pandalam, the seat of the Pandalam royal family which places its claims over the Sabarimala temple.

Much controversy erupted when two women activists approached the temple, escorted by police, but were forced to retreat in the face of opposition by protestors. Among the two, TV journalist Kavita Jakkal from Andhra Pradesh reached within 500 metres of the temple, wearing a helmet and riot gear which was provided by the police. The Kerala police came under criticism for providing her with the police uniform.

One of the protesting groups, Sabarimala Karma Samiti, has also drafted an open letter asking all media houses to refrain from sending women reporters to cover Sabarimala as this would aggravate the situation.

According to temple rules, pilgrims to the temple are required to observe a 41-day vow of celibacy, abstinence from alcohol and renounce all worldly pleasures before they visit the temple. Those against the ruling state that by allowing women of all ages to enter, the Court is going against the tradition of the temple and Lord Ayyappa, who is in a Naishthika Brahmacharya, or a celibate state which will be defiled by the entry of women who are in the menstruating age.

Protestors state that women of the menstrual age should not be allowed in the temple as they are unable to take such a vow for 41 days. Many men also argue that the presence of women would cause a distraction to the vow of celibacy that they undertake take.

Political one-upmanship

Cashing in on the discontent are political parties which have been in the forefront of protests against the verdict. These are the same political parties which either welcomed the verdict or were non-committal when it was first passed.

While BJP had not taken a firm stand immediately after the verdict, it joined in the Save Sabarimala bandwagon soon and during a visit to Kerala, party president Amit Shah, declared that his party is with the devotees and that they will bring down the LDF government if the ‘oppression of Ayyappa devotees’ is not stopped.

Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) working president K Sudhakaran was quoted as telling Mathrubhumi that if the party does not stand with the devotees on Sabarimala, Congress will be decimated by the saffron brigade and will have to face its ‘Waterloo moment’. Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi had stated that he was personally of the opinion that women are equal and should be allowed into the temple, but that he was going with his party, despite the difference of opinion. The leader of the Opposition, Ramesh Chennithala has stated that the UDF’s (United Democratic Front) stand is that it will be with the devotees.

A step backwards

However, the verdict is also being hailed by many as a step towards bringing gender equality, and any attempts to reverse it will take the state – which is known for its progressiveness – a step backwards. In an interview to the Malayalam newspaper Deshabhimani, celebrated author, film director and screenplay writer MT Vasudevan Nair spoke about how such protests are shameful for a state which has seen revolutionary temple entry movements. Quoting poet Kumaranasan, the writer said ‘Fools may consider a blunder committed yesterday as a ritual today, it may become science tomorrow, hence do not give a nod to this, my lord,’ mentioning that as we correct our mistakes and try to move forward, there are people who are taking us back.

Over the decades leading up to independence and after, the state saw many movements which have helped bring about social and economic reforms. Amongst the more revolutionary of these have been the temple entry movements such as the Vaikom Satyagraha, where protestors fought against a ban which had been placed on the entry of those who traditionally did not belong to the four varnas (castes).

When it was issued in 1936 by Maharaja Chitira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the Temple Entry Proclamation, which led to the abolishment of the ban on temple entry by Dalits, faced a backlash from the upper castes and the neighbouring princely states of Cochin and Malabar. The Maharaja of Cochin even went to the extent of declaring the people of Travancore as untouchables. Today, more than eight decades later, the temples of Kerala are open to devotees, regardless of caste.

The Kerala model has been much lauded over the years – and a major reason for this is the high level of political and social awareness that is prevalent among ordinary people in the state. The many years of reforms should not be diluted by protests and political one-upmanships in the name of religion and faith. Kerala is, after all, the birthplace of social reformers such as Narayana Guru, who rejected the rigid caste system which was prevalent in Kerala at the time, and Chattampi Swamikal, who worked for the downtrodden.