Quiet for the most part of the year, Nilakkal comes alive during the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage between November and January. This village in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district lies 26 km from the shrine of the celibate deity Ayyappa and serves as one of two base camps for pilgrims. With the pilgrimage having begun on Sunday, Nilakkal is expectedly bustling. But mixed in with the pilgrim crowd is a large police contingent, tasked with keeping possible miscreants in check.
The security arrangements are in anticipation of trouble following the Supreme Court’s decision on November 14 to refer a batch of review petitions in the Sabarimala case to a larger constitutional bench. The case pertains to the court’s September 18, 2018, order overturning the shrine’s practise of denying entry to women of menstruating age (10 to 50 years). That verdict had led to months of unrest and violence, with the BJP and Sangh Parivar at the forefront of the anti-women campaign.
However, the events of last year and even the past week are not the first time Nilakkal has been engulfed in religious tension. The village was at the epicentre of Kerala’s first major communal clash back in 1983. Trouble had then broken out between the Catholic community, who wanted to build a church near a Shiva temple, and the Sangh Parivar, which had led a violent campaign against it. That agitation is credited with giving the Sangh a foothold and a growth spurt in Kerala.
A church next to a temple
For visitors to Nilakkal, a small temple with an arch bearing an imposing image of Shiva’s avatar Mahadeva is among its most prominent landmarks.
It was next to this temple that the Catholic community sought to build a church dedicated to St Thomas, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ who is said to have brought Christianity to India in 52 AD.
St Thomas is believed to have established “Ezharapalli” or “seven and a half churches” in Kerala, including...