Nilakkal: Ahead of the reopening of the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala — the first time after the Supreme Court verdict which allowed female devotees to enter shrine premises — strong protests rocked the surrounding areas, leaving many jittery.
On Tuesday, the base camp at Nilakkal, which is 20 kilometres away from the shrine, was teeming with protesters — mostly women — inspecting cars, buses, and other vehicles heading to Pamba to check for female pilgrims. While hundreds of agitated women protesters were forcibly dragging devotees out of the vehicles, absence of women police officers at the scene aggravated the situation further. Female members of the press covering the protest, too, were not allowed to proceed towards the main shrine.
“We will not let any women between the age group of 10 to 50 years go beyond Nilakkal. This is a matter of faith and ritual. This has to be followed,” said one of the women protesters who obstructed two female journalism students travelling to Pamba to cover the protests. “If you have to cover the event, do it from Nilakkal. We will not allow you to go to Pamba."
Two of the trainees — Dravika Trehan, 21 and Reetu Rohini, 22 — were also assaulted for wearing black outfits as the women protesters misidentified them to be potential devotees who could “defile the rituals”. When the trainees asked protesters to check their ID cards, the women said they held no relevance for them as those were printed in English. The protesters considered the black outfits enough to confirm that their was to 'defile the tradition'.
Nilakkal was the epicenter of the massive agitation on Tuesday with organisations like Sabarimala Achara Samrakshan Samiti at the forefront. “This protest has been going on since the past nine days and will turn violent if the demands of the protesters are not met. The state and judiciary should not have entered into our religious matters as the issue is related to sentiments. Sabarimala is the home of Lord Ayyappa who chose an ascetic life to practice celibacy. So, interference of women in the shrine shall be seen as transgressive,” said Neelesh Sagar, a local who came to protest at the base camp with his family.
When questioned why this specific age group should be deprived of the right to worship, the women named menstruation as the main cause. “There are many Lord Ayyappa temples in Kerala. Entry is only restricted in Sabarimala which is the main shrine. Women can go elsewhere to worship. This matter is related to a longstanding custom and has nothing to do with equality in rights,” said a woman protester from Sabarimala Achara Samrakshan Samiti.
On 28 September, a five-judge Supreme Court bench comprising of the then chief justice of India Dipak Misra granted women of all ages the right to enter Sabarimala temple. The verdict was given on a public interest litigation, filed by Indian Young Lawyers’ Association in 2006. The decision was met with widespread outrage as many claimed it would desecrate their faith.
“We are trying to make the women who reach here understand the importance of these customs and preserve those, as crores of believers stand by it and visit the shrine,” said Anoj from the Sabarimala Achara Samrakshan Samiti, while advising women to refrain from violating the tradition.
Ayyappa Seva Sangam and devotees from various parts of the country also joined the protests. “I came all the way from Karnataka to join the demonstration. This pilgrimage was never meant for women and I strongly condemn the Supreme Court order,” said one Ramakrishna Poojari.
Another devotee from Andhra Pradesh, Sanjay, said, “We cannot let anyone tamper with our customs and traditions. Allowing women for pilgrimage would be detrimental to our religion. All women pilgrims need to be stopped come what may.”
On Wednesday, the protesters at Nilakkal had returned after the police forcefully evicted them. Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had also warned them against blocking devotees heading towards Sabarimala. However, the gridlock is unlikely to end easily, as women actively participated in the agitation on Wednesday by obstructing other women heading towards the shrine.
The Sabarimala shrine opens every month for a few days for prayers, and once a year through the months of November and December for the annual pilgrimage. The present schedule of monthly prayers for the Malayalam month of Thulam is from 17 October to 22 October. As per the Supreme Court verdict, the shrine will be open for devotees across all ages and genders during this time.
(The authors are Kottayam-based freelance writers and members of 101reporters.com)
Updated Date: Oct 18, 2018 16:31 PM