The Supreme Court verdict permitting the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala Temple, so far out of bounds for menstruating women, has led to an eruption of spontaneous protests all across Kerala over what the protesters consider an assault on their faith.
Lord Ayyappa, the deity of the temple, is supposed to be a ‘naishtic brahmachari’ committed to eternal celibacy and strict rules of abstinence, which is the reason for banning women between menarche and menopause. It is a centuries-old custom, which the women devotees of Ayyappa follow voluntarily.
A striking feature of the protests is the massive participation of women, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the court ruling. Their refrain is that not only would they stay away from the temple, but that allowing women to enter the precincts of the most important of all Ayyappa temples would hurt their faith. There is no ban on the entry of women in any other Ayyappa temple; so, women desirous of worshipping the celibate God can visit these temples without any problem.
The protests that began spontaneously are fast acquiring the character of Tamil Nadu’s Jallikattu protests, in which thousands gathered on Chennai’s Marina Beach against a Supreme Court ban on the state’s traditional bull-taming sport. With the agitation beginning to turn violent, the Tamil Nadu Assembly was forced to pass a Bill that overturned the court ban.
The Sabarimala protests have, so far, remained peaceful, but, with the date for reopening of the temple only a fortnight away, the situation has the potential of turning explosive as the protesters have vowed not to allow women beyond Pampa, the point from where an arduous four-kilometre trek to the temple hillock starts.
The state government has declared its intention to go ahead with plans to facilitate the entry of women. Multiple review petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging the majority verdict that permitted women’s entry, but Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi has turned down the plea for urgent consideration, saying these could be taken up when the court reopens after the Puja holidays. This means that the temple will reopen before the court takes a view on the challenges.
As the protests take the shape of a movement by the faithful for the protection of their freedom to practise their faith, the agitation is also acquiring political overtones, with the BJP using the opportunity to grow its influence by championing the cause. The Congress has also hardened its stand, saying it amounts to intrusion into matters of faith. Unless all parties moderate their approaches, the situation could turn ugly and spin out of control. Perhaps, it would be more prudent for women to wait a little longer for greater clarity to emerge.