Sabarimala verdict: SC says women can visit shrine, but female devotees may keep out to protect deity's celibacy

The reason why women were not allowed in Sabarimala is both religious and historical. But, will women who believe in the story and history behind the shrine even want to go?

MA Deviah September 29, 2018 12:34:40 IST
Sabarimala verdict: SC says women can visit shrine, but female devotees may keep out to protect deity's celibacy

Thanks to the Supreme Court of India, women of all ages can now visit the Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala. The real question is, will women of all ages want to go?

The reason why women were not allowed in Sabarimala is both religious and historical. But, will women who believe in the story and history behind the shrine even want to go?

The thing is: Sabarimala is not the only religious place that excludes women. Across India, across religions, women are treated like second-class citizens. Most mosques exclude women. Unfairly, menstruating women are not allowed to enter temples. It’s not as if there is security at the entrance checking if a woman is menstruating or not; it’s the women themselves who prefer to stay out. The same self-regulation could work in Sabarimala too.

Sabarimala verdict SC says women can visit shrine but female devotees may keep out to protect deitys celibacy

File image of Sabarimala temple. PTI

It’s telling that of the five honourable justices who delivered the Sabarimala verdict, the only dissenting voice was that of the lady on the bench. Her reason for doing so was more about religious freedom. She said courts must not interfere with issues concerning "deep religious sentiments” except in cases like sati, which is clearly a social evil.

Across Kerala, the verdict has been greeted with mixed emotions. While some welcomed it, a majority felt it would be difficult to implement. Anyone who has been there will understand that during the pilgrimage season (mid-December to mid-January), Sabarimala is subjected to an onslaught of humanity. With 45 million pilgrims, Sabarimala is the single largest pilgrim centre in the world. And it is growing by a million every year! Just 3,000 Kerala police perform a stellar job controlling the mostly peaceful multitudes of pilgrims, but they are often overwhelmed and on one occasion people have tragically died in a stampede.

The wrath of God apart; there are other real issues for women wanting to make this trek. The lack of toilets and other facilities, for instance, is a genuine problem. The Sabarimala’s hilltop infrastructure is woefully inadequate, stretched beyond anything the Kerala government can develop and maintain. Sabarimala does not have enough toilets to cater to the needs of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that visit the shrine during the season. While a few are lucky enough to find clean unisex toilets, the only choice for the rest is open defecation.

As someone who has performed the pilgrimage to Sabarimala for over 25 years, it’s been easy to track how the numbers of pilgrims have exploded every year. Pilgrims come for different reasons. Some come to see the divine light on 14 January (even though there exists evidence that the light is man-made).

Others are intrigued by the integration of a Muslim saint into the Sabarimala story. One of Lord Ayyappa’s closest aides was Vavar, an Arab pirate. The Vavar mosque stands at Erumeli, at the start of the arduous trek up the hills. Devotees visit the mosque before starting their trek to the shrine. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court order also applies to women's entry inside the mosque. Probably not.

Meanwhile, a look at the reactions to the Supreme Court judgment gives an indication of how widely divided people are over women's entry into the shrine. While the Kerala government seems to have welcomed the judgment, it would be careful about doing anything that would interfere with the divinity of the place. With hundreds of crores of rupees in collections, Sabarimala is a major source of income for the government. Not to mention the enormous amount of money that the pilgrims spend in the state and the jobs generated by it.

The temple administrators are less welcoming, though. They buy into the backstory that Sabarimala’s power comes from Ayyappa being celibate and doesn't need to be distracted by the presence of women. A former actress who once claimed that she had tripped and fallen into the sanctum sanctorum and touched the idol — anyone who has visited the shrine knows that this is impossible as the idol is set way back in the structure — said this was the answer to her prayers.

But, most interesting was BJP leader PP Mukundan's prediction that while female rationalists will create a spectacle by visiting the shrine, no genuine female devotees would defy the tradition. In the short-term, this is probably true. But, the question now being asked is what should the Supreme Court go after next? Loud speakers, public prayers and processions? It’s about time.

 

 

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