Agastya Ne Kaanam - Part II: Athiruamala - Agasthyakoodam

Read Part I here.


Dazed from the early wake-up call and still worn out from the preceding day’s walk, hands wrapped tight around their shoulders to battle the cold, but also sweating underneath their fleece and shawls, 200 trekkers are awake, causing a 6 am flurry at the Athirumala Base Camp. The punctual ones are already packing their breakfast from the forest canteen (a choice between upma and puri) and leaving camp. Some are rushing between the toilet area and sleeping sheds, while others are huddled around an open tap in one corner, hurriedly brushing.

One batch is having an easy morning, having already climbed the peak the previous day, now passive towards the strain of a 16-kilometre walk back to the base station. For them, the path leads downhill, with plenty of time to stop and bathe at the several waterfalls along the way. For the rest, it is summit day.


The previous day’s walk has caused minor damages to their hiking accessories. The frame of Cicily’s spectacles has broken after falling, which she is taping up, while the sole of Sachithra’s shoe has torn out, forcing her to climb in flip-flops. Nisha is counting the chocolates and oranges left from yesterday as Sulfath and Meena leave the base camp and catch on to the trail.

But peering behind the kitchen sheds, the apex point of Agasthyakakoodam is distinctly evident. The unclouded forecast prediction lends some respite to the steep, 70-degree rope climbs which will follow.


Shiny having a cup of ginger coffee


Rema getting ready at the base camp dormitory


(Continued from The Fight for Access Part I)

In the 2017 meeting with forest officials and the tribe leaders, the activists pressured the ministry further beyond their proposal to sanction access till Athirumala. Finally agreeing to waive off the exclusionary regulation, the ministry guaranteed that it would facilitate trekking for women that very year, in 2017. From the Agastya Ne Kaanam group, 51 participants were committed registrations to undertake the trip on 24 February 2017 (a day after the termination of the same year’s official trekking season).

Divya remembers her first rush of excitement when she received the ministry’s affirmation, “We prepared ourselves mentally and logistically, bought sleeping bags, jackets, and had already organised travel between our hometowns and Bonacaud.”

Pointing to her grey quick-drying hiking pants, she added, “In fact, I bought these in preparation for the same trek two years ago.”


Cicily, Shirly and Sachithra, soon after leaving base camp

But, only two days before their departure, in an unexpected blow, they received a stay order by the court based on a plea filed by representatives of the Kani tribe, still limiting access to Athirumala. “That’s when we decided to file a counter petition by stating our grounds for request to access the peak in legal terms.”


Watermelon, dry fruits and rest: Divya, Sachitra, Sulfath with Niyas, a new friend and walking companion

In March 2017, the group filed a writ petition in the High Court against the forest department, questioning the guidelines forming the basis for exclusion. The petition was filed through WINGS and a supportive women’s rights group from Kerala — Anweshi, “In our petition, we clarified that our motivation to climb the peak is purely on exploratory grounds and there is no intention to hurt the sentiments of the leaders of the tribe.”


Rema, trudging slowly along the rock path

Although it had always been an unwritten ban, perceived partly as a cautionary measure by the forest department to avoid protests by the Kani tribe, the petition prompted the High Court to demand official guidelines from the forest department.

“But since the case stayed in court for one whole year, we decided to protest at the Bonacaud base station itself, to declare our resolve to climb the peak, in the beginning of the 2018 season.


Sachithra, Divya, Sulfath and Meena click a selfie at a rest point before the Ponkalappara rock patch

Their march from the Bonacaud village to the gate of the base station and the resulting media attention was a turning point in the court battle, forcing the jury to act upon the petition and demand thorough safety guidelines from the forest department, before the beginning of next year’s (2019) season.

The official guidelines submitted to the court by the forest department, as predicted, found no Constitutional ground to continue gendered exclusion.


Rema breaks for a snack at Ponkalparra

Eventually, in January 2019, the High Court officially ordered a change in the regulation just days before the online registrations for this season were to begin. Additionally, this order also introduced a ban on the reserve’s explorers from conducting rituals and making offerings atop the peak in front of the Agasthya idol.


At Ponkalparra, a portrait of Shiny


The activists’ investigation into disparities between the forest department’s sexist reasoning for prohibition versus the traditional concerns of the Kannikkarans had helped accelerate the already erupting dialogue promoting equal rights to secular spaces for women in the state.

The achievement of having the unwritten ban revoked around the same time as the Sabarimala Temple protests were gaining momentum (the first week of January 2019) helped further the larger movement for demanding access to male-dominated spaces.


Divya catches her breadth after a swift plod through the rock path


Before the rope climb, a portrait of Shirly against the cluster of Ezhilampotta peaks

Until 2016, there was limited awareness about the exclusionary regulations of the trek, but since the launch of their agitation, more women and organisations were provoked to be alert about other spaces that may not be at the forefront of a national debate (like the Sabarimala Temple), but where women could claim rightful occupation.


Shirly looks up midway through the first rope climb

For the women who did know about and dreamed of climbing Agasthyakoodam, the updated notification was a relieving encouragement to apply for permits and take on an adventure they were denied since 1990, despite being outdoor enthusiasts who wanted to explore the bioreserve’s diversity. This was a victory and reason for celebration in itself.

What, then, inspired older women nursing physical health issues or those not necessarily outdoor enthusiasts to take up such a strenuous ascent?


Meena finishing the first rope climb

For Divya, it was the risk of very limited participation of female trekkers in the future, even after the High Court ordered a change in regulation, “Rumours and perceptions about these so-called safety concerns which were used to condition those who wished to trek would take years to unlearn. We felt it was necessary to counter the department’s constant assertion by attempting the climb ourselves.”


At the Agasthya peak, Meena, Cicily, Divya Sachithra and Nisha


Although the trek began as the ultimate culmination of their protest, somewhere along the way, after having trudged through the jungles and grasslands for two days, patience and persistence had ripened into gratitude.

The climb had evolved into a roaring celebration of ideals these women had always stood for.


Sulfath’s first step on the Agasthyakoodam hill plateau

While folding up a banana leaf plate in which she had eaten the upma that she had packed from the base camp and soaking in extensive views of the western Sahyadri range, Sulfath reflected,

“Changing the misogynist outlook towards women and our physical capabilities, and acknowledging that we can bring unique but also equally powerful perspectives and energy to so many male dominated activities will take time.”

Divya offered a thought on what would actually bring this change, “Nine of us, including non-trekkers and senior women, are here without any injury. Hopefully, reaching the base station safely may prove the point we set out to make when we started our agitation. But what it really necessitates is an inquiry into and observation of various biases in gender dynamics between men and women, whether officially regulated or merely social, and question them with our own experiential viewpoints as women.”


A group snapshot of the Agasthyakoodam climbers atop the peak

—All photographs by Sahil Jagasia

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