India’s flashpoint temple, off limits to women

An Indian priest closes doors at the Ayyappa shrine at the Sabarimala temple in southern Kerala state after performing “purification” rituals following the entry of two women on January 2, 2019. AFP PHOTO

By AFP

IN SUMMARY

The restriction on woman at Sabarimala, situated on top of a 3,000-foot (915-metre) hill in a tiger reserve that takes hours to climb, reflects a belief — not exclusive to Hinduism — that menstruating women are impure.

The Supreme Court order is opposed by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

 

Two women in their 40s defied traditionalists on Wednesday to enter the Sabarimala temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest sites, sparking violent clashes in southern India.

It was the first time that women aged between 10 and 50 entered the site in the southern state of Kerala since India’s Supreme Court overturned a ban in September.

Police fired tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon as protests and clashes between rival groups erupted across the southern state of Kerala, local media reported. Several officers were reportedly injured.

The Supreme Court in September overturned a decades-old ban on women of menstruating age — deemed as those between 10 and 50 — setting foot inside the gold-plated Sabarimala temple.

In recent weeks Hindu traditionalists — backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — have prevented attempts by women to access the hilltop site, with some hardliners turning violent.

But in a surprise pre-dawn operation on Wednesday heralded by activists but enraging conservative devotees, police enabled two women to penetrate the hilltop temple and then leave again undetected, officials confirmed.

Video images showed the 42-year-old women, Kanaka Durga and Bindu, who has only one name, wearing black tunics with their heads bowed as they rushed in.

“We did not enter the shrine by climbing the 18 holy steps but went through the staff gate,” one of the women, who both remained under police guard on Wednesday, later told reporters.

Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said: “It is a fact that the women entered the shrine. Police are bound to offer protection to anyone wanting to worship at the shrine.”

Purification

As soon as news of Wednesday’s breach spread, the temple head priest ordered the shrine closed for a purification ritual. It reopened after around an hour.
Later violent clashes were reported between scores of people chanting slogans in front of the state parliament in Thiruvananthapuram.

Police with batons also charged at protesters who were trying to enforce a shutdown of shops in the area called for by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy.
Modi’s government did not immediately react to news of the women entering the temple, but activists celebrated.

“Watching the visuals of them making their way into the shrine makes me cry in joy — how long it has taken for us to claim space, to write our way into history,” wrote feminist author Meena Kandasamy on Twitter.

Local BJP leaders have said they would observe a two-day protest across Kerala against the breach. The state is ruled by an alliance of left-wing parties.

Rahul Easwar, a right-wing activist in Kerala, condemned the state authorities for helping organise the secret operation.

“Such cheap tactics are unbecoming of a state government,” he said on Twitter.

Progressive

September’s verdict was the latest progressive ruling from the court, with judges also overturning bans on gay sex and adultery last year — posing a challenge to Modi’s traditionalist BJP.

In rare comments regarding the Sabarimala temple on Tuesday, Modi — running for a second term in elections later this year — appeared to support the ban, saying the matter was related to tradition.

“There are some temples which have their own traditions, where men can’t go. And men don’t go,” Modi told Indian media.

Indian Hindu devotees wait in line to visit the Sabarimala temple in Kerala following the entry of two women on January 2, 2019. AFP PHOTO

The restriction on woman at Sabarimala, situated on top of a 3,000-foot (915-metre) hill in a tiger reserve that takes hours to climb, reflects a belief — not exclusive to Hinduism — that menstruating women are impure.

Traditionalists argue also that the temple deity, Ayyappa, was celibate.

Repeated efforts by women to enter the temple since September have been angrily rebuffed by Hindu devotees with police having to step in to escort them away to safety.

In October, devotees clashed with police in a town near the temple leading to the arrest of more than 2,000 people.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across Kerala to back the demand for access to the temple. Media reports said some were heckled by right-wing activists.

The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge to its ruling on January 22.

Women are still barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women at Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

Here follows some background on the temple and the landmark verdict.

Gold-plated

The gold-plated Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple complex sits atop a 3,000-foot (915-metre) hill in a forested tiger reserve.

It contains a shrine to Lord Ayyappa, believed to have been the Earth-born son of two of Hinduism’s three main gods, Vishnu (in his female avatar) and Shiva.

Legend has it that Ayyappa was found abandoned as a baby. A king of the Pandalam dynasty, which is still active in temple operations, found and raised him.

At 12 Ayyappa revealed his divinity when he emerged from the forest riding a tigress. The boy fired an arrow which landed at the site where the temple now stands.

No sex or shaving

Those wishing to visit undergo a 41-day period of introspection and detachment known as vratha abstaining from sex, meat, intoxicants and even shaving.

After this period many devotees, wearing ritual bead necklaces, walk barefoot for dozens of kilometres including, and especially, the final steep climb.

Only those who have observed the vratha and carry the irrumude, a symbolic offering, can enter the main courtyard up 18 divine golden steps.

The sacred offerings, tied in a cloth usually carried on the head or shoulders, include coconuts, rose water, rice and pepper.

Marriage proposal

Legend says that the goddess Malikapurathamma asked Ayyappa to marry her. He said he would only do so if first-time devotees decide not to visit him — which has never happened.

Worshippers celebrate a festival each year when a procession of the goddess is taken to a spot close to the temple three times — and she is forced to wait.
The reason for Ayyappa’s refusal is because of his celibacy — one of the arguments against allowing women of menstruating age to enter.

The ban lifted by the Supreme Court also rested on the belief — not exclusive to Hinduism — that menstruating women are impure.

l
Women can however access most other Hindu temples in India. Their entry at Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

Legal wranglings

The Supreme Court order is opposed by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

It was one of a string of recent decisions to have eaten away at some of India’s traditions, including outlawing bans on gay sex and adultery last year.

The BJP is not in power in Kerala. Instead the state is run by a coalition of left-wing parties which have said they will enforce the court ruling.

But efforts by women to enter the temple in recent months have been angrily rebuffed by Hindu devotees, with police having to step in to escort the women away to safety.

In October, devotees clashed with police who arrested more than 2,000 people.

On Tuesday, tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across Kerala to back the demand for access to the temple. Media reports said some were heckled by right-wing activists.

On November 13 the Supreme Court agreed to hear challenges to its decision from January 22, but said that until then its September ruling stood.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

54 ÷ = 27