Sabarimala row: Women escorted by 100 policemen skip Hindu temple visit after huge protests

Sabarimala: Huge protests by hundreds of devotees at the entrance of Sabarimala temple forced the Kerala Police accompanying two women on Friday to call off their journey towards the Lord Ayyappa shrine.

At 10.50 am, Kavita, the Hyderabad-based journalist and her four member crew along with another woman devotee Rehna Fathima from Kochi, began their descend towards Pamba foothills of the temple.


It was around 6.45 am, when the two women accompanied by a 100 policemen led by Inspector General of Police S. Sreejith started their two-hour climb. Twenty led them from the front while 80 officers backed them from behind and one of the women put on the police gear.

In a never-before move, around 30 employees attached to the temple tantri and the chief priest went on protest as they stopped their rituals and sat down in front of the hallowed 18 steps leading to the sanctum santorum and sang Ayyappa hymns after they heard that the two women were about to reach the shrine.

When the group reached the first entry point to the temple, hundreds of protesters were lying on the road leading to the hilltop temple.

Threat to close temple

Soon Sreejith received a call. He told the protesters that the government has decided not to use force and asked them to relent.

“Now I have to talk to the two women, who also have their rights according to the Supreme Court directives and it too has to be protected. Please do not create any disturbances here, but you can continue to chant the hymns,” said Sreejith.

After an hour, Sreejith told the media that he had a word with the temple tantri who categorically told him he would be forced to close down the temple if there was any violation of tradition and faith.

“So we told the two women about it and they also decided to abandon their trek and return, asking for protection till they reached home,” Sreejith said, adding that would be provided. “So we are taking them back.”

However, Kerala Minister of Devasoms, Kadakampally Surendran told the media here that they have come to know that the two women were actually activists.

“After coming to know that, it becomes our duty to protect the rights of the devotees and not that of activists.

“Our request to women activists is not to ply their trade in hallowed places. The police should have been more cautious. They should have found out more about these women. The state government is duty-bound to protect the rights of the devotees,” said Surendran.

House damaged

Fathima’s house in Kochi was meanwhile damaged by angry devotees.

“We have just come here after hearing about the damage caused to her home. We do not know if there were other residents around,” said a police official.

Fathima works with the BSNL in Kochi and lives with her partner. Both had started out for the temple.

“There are no separate rule of law for activists, or others. There is only one law. She is not an activist and she has the right to go and pray as per the apex court directive,” said Fathima’s partner who is a news producer, who along with his team is present at the protest venue.

BSNL has issued a statement saying it was not connected with Rehana Fathima’s action, who is a staff of their Ernakulam Business Area.

“Outside BSNL premises, Rehana Fathima alone shall be fully responsible for her action in her own personal capacity outside the normal business hours.

“This is in no way related to the written assigned official responsibilities, as per BSNL conduct and service rules and regulations,” the statement said.

When the police along with the two women were on their ascend, the temple Tantri family and members of the Pandalam royal family went into a huddle.

They were considering closing down the temple in order to stop the women from entering, according to informed sources.

Kerala Governor P. Sathasivam summoned police chief Loknath Behra to his office and spoke to him about the overall situation.

Devasom Minister Surendran spoke to state CPI-M Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan.

BJP leader K. Surendran lashed out at the state government and Sreejith for violating the Kerala Police Act Rule 43.

“According to the Rules, none other than a police official can use their dress or their equipment. We wish to know how come Sreejith allowed the two women to use police uniform and helmet.

“This destroys the sanctity of the Sabarimala temple. We warn the Kerala government not to try tricks to forcefully impose the apex court verdict,” said Surendran.

Temple opened on September 28

The temple opened its doors on Wednesday for the first time since the September 28 Supreme Court verdict that allowed women from the 10-50 age group to enter the famed shrine.

On Thursday, there was a dawn-to-dusk shutdown across Kerala called by outfits owing loyalty to Hindu groups and the BJP.

The agitators’ core arguments

The main argument at the root of the current agitation against the court verdict is the alleged “impurity” of menstruating women.

In fact, it is a taboo in almost all temples. It is more of a voluntary sort of thing considering the difficulties in enforcing it. Whether the court has any right to intervene in the affairs of the faithful is just tactical point to divert the attention.

The protest organisers have taken special care to bring women to the forefront of the agitation but it presents a bizarre spectacle. Thousands of women marching to the tune of some invisible men — to save Ayyappan from their own “impurities”.

The other point was the “eternal celibate” nature attributed to Lord Ayyappan. It is believed that Ayyappan’s celibacy will be affected if women of reproductive age enter Sabarimala.

What the court said

The India Supreme Court primarily looked in to the issue on the basis of gender discrimination and right to worship.

Right to worship is given to all devotees and there can be no discrimination on the basis of gender, the court said.

The practice of barring women in age group of 10-50 to go inside the temple violates constitutional principles, the Supreme Court said in its verdict.

What is Sabarimala and who is Ayyappan?

Copy of PTI10_18_2018_000031B

Devotees arrive to pay obeisance at Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, Thursday, October 18, 2018.

Sabarimala is one of the most prominent Hindu pilgrimage centres in south India, located in Pathanamthitta District, in the state of Kerala.

The temple is open for worship during the 41 days of Mandalapooja (November-December) Makaravilakku (in January) and Vishu Sankranti (April) — and the first five days of each Malayalam month.

The shrine witnesses one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world — with up to 50 million devotees visiting every year.

It is one of the ‘richest’ temples in India in terms of seasonal income. During the festive season last year it has achieved a record income of Rs 255 crores or Dh 126,140,810.

In 1991, the Kerala High Court bench restricted the entry of women above the age of 10 and below the age of 50 from Sabarimala Shrine, as they were of the menstruating age.

Essentially, it is this order that the Supreme Court constitution bench had scrapped through its 4-1 judgement, allowing women of all ages the right to enter the temple.

The legend of Ayyappan

There’s one popular legend associated with the birth of Ayyappan, the deity of Sabarimala shrine. Ayyappan is also called Hari-Hara putra, which literally means “son of Hari” (Vishnu – an important deity in Hindu pantheon) and Hara (Shiva – another important Hindu deity). And these two are male deities.

How could Ayyappan be born of two male deities? The story, popular in many South Indian texts, goes like this: In those days, there were constant fights between Devas and Asuras or the gods and demons, but they united once for “Samudra mandhan”, or the churning of the ocean to get Amrit, something like an elixir of immortality.

When the pot containing the elixir emerged from the ocean, the Asuras grabbed it and they wanted to keep it for themselves.

Sensing trouble, Vishnu then took the form of Mohini, a gorgeous female enchantress, and tricked Asuras to hand over the pot containing the exilir.

When Shiva came to know about this, he wanted to see the enchantress Mohini. Vishnu assumed the form again and Shiva couldn’t control his desire for Mohini — and Ayyappan (or Shasta) is born out of their union.

The union of Shiva and Vishnu is narrated in the same vein, with additions and subtractions, in various south texts like Bhagavata Purana, Brahmanda Purana and Tripurarahasya.

Was Sabrimala a Buddhist temple?

Sabarimala is the only major temple in Kerala where people from any religion could go freely.

And it’s not because of the Hindu tradition or heritage, but points to the Buddhist connection.

Women were denied entry probably because of the same connection as Buddhist “viharas” were out of bounds for the women in the early days.

Ayyappan is also called “Dharma Shaastaavu” and the word Dharma or Dhamma clearly indicates the Buddhist connection.

Another curious link to Budhdhist tradition is the call for Sharanam (a request for protection or help).

During Shabarimala pilgrimage, Ayyappan devotees’ talismanic chant is “Swami Sharanam, Ayyappa Sharanam” and this has obvious roots in Buddhist sharana chants like “Budham Sharanam, Sangham Sharanam”, scholars have pointed out.

The third one is the posture of the deity, it has a close similarity to Buddhist idols.

Noted Kerala academic Sunil P. Ilayidom has commented that the Sabarimala idol is similar to those found in the Gandhara style of Budhdhist art.

All this point to the strong possibility that Sabarimala could be such Buddhist shrine appropriated by the Hindu mainstream groups from a Buddhist sect.

So whose tradition are they trying to protect now?

Most of the people protesting on the streets and attacking women devotees on social media who want to go to Sabarimala have no idea about any of these — other than what the campaigners have pushed down their throat.

The Tamil connection and Ayyanaar

Ayyappan is also called Shashtavu. Shasta is also identified with the Tamil deity Aiyyanaar. Village temples of Ayyanaar can be seen everywhere in Tamil Nadu. He is considered a guardian of many other folk deities.

The origins of Ayyanaar worship is not very well documented, and some studies have pointed to the Sinhalese and possible Buddhist connection for this deity too. Sinhalese worship him in the name of Ayyanayake, according to scholarly studies.

– With input from agencies

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