Entry of women to Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple
Sabarimala is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa in Kerala, India. In the past, women devotees of menstruating age were not permitted pilgrimage here, this ban being said to be out of respect to the celibate nature of the deity in this temple. A Kerala high-court judgement had legalized this interpretation, and forbade women from entering the temple since 1991. In September 2018, a judgement of the Supreme Court of India ruled that all pilgrims regardless of gender, including women in the menstruating age group, should be allowed entrance to Sabarimala. The Constitution bench of the Supreme Court held that any exception placed on women because of biological differences violates the Constitution - that the ban violates the right to equality under Article 14, and freedom of religion under Article 25. This verdict led to protests by people who oppose the verdict. Several women attempted to enter Sabarimala despite threats of physical assault against them but failed to reach the sanctum sanctorum. Two women belonging to the previously barred age group finally entered the temple on 2 January 2019, following which the temple was closed and reopened after "purification" rituals.
Many legends exist about the god Ayyappa and how the temple came into being.
According to one of them, Ayyappan, the deity of Sabarimala is celibate. When he defeated the evil demoness Mahushasuri, she turned into a beautiful young woman. She had actually been cursed to live the life of a demoness until the child born out of the union of Shiva and Vishnu defeated her in a battle. Ayyappan, being the abandoned son of Shiva and Mohini (an incarnation of Vishnu), could set her free after defeating her in the battle. After the battle, the young woman proposed to Ayyappan for marriage, but he refused her saying that he had been ordained to go to the forest, live the life of a brahmachari and answer the prayers of devotees. However, the young woman was persistent, so Ayyappan promised to marry her the day kanni-swamis (new devotees) would stop visiting him at Sabarimala. Unfortunately for the woman, Sabarimala was visited by kanni-swamis every year, and she was not able to marry Ayyappan. The woman is worshiped as goddess Malikappurathamma at a neighbouring temple.
According to the "Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States", published in two volumes by the Madras government in the 19th century, women of menstruating age were denied entry into the Sabarimala temple even two centuries ago. Though Benjamin Swain Ward and Peter Eyre Conner, lieutenants of the Madras Infantry, completed the survey by the end of the year 1820 after nearly five years of research, it was published in two volumes in 1893 and 1901. "Old women and young girls may approach the temple, but those who have attained the age of puberty and to a certain time of life are forbidden to approach as all sexual intercourse in that vicinity is averse to this deity (Lord Ayyappa)," the report said  Prior to 1991 when the Kerala High Court forbade the entry of women to Sabarimala, several women had visited the temple sporadically, although mostly for non-religious reasons. There are records of women pilgrims visiting the temple to conduct the first rice-feeding ceremony of their children (Chorounu) at the temple premises. On May 13, 1940, even the Maharani of Tranvancore is recorded to have visited the temple.[not in citation given] In 1986, when young actresses Jayashree, Sudha Chandran, Anu, Vadivukkarasi and Manorama danced near the deity at the pathinettam padi (18 steps) for the Tamil movie named Nambinar Keduvathillai, a fine of Rs. 1000 each was imposed on the actresses and the director of the movie. The Dewaswom Board, the board in charge of the maintenance of the temple and premises was also fined Rs. 7500, because it had given the director permission to film at Sabarimala. Former Karnataka minister Jayamala has also claimed to have entered Sabarimala at the age of 27 and touched the idol in 1986.
In 1990, the rice feeding ceremony of the granddaughter of the former Dewaswom commissioner was held at Sabarimala in the presence of women relatives. Following a court case in connection with this event, the high court of Kerala prohibited the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age to Sabarimala. In 1995, the then district collector Valsala Kumari(42) visited Sabarimala shrine (but didn't visit sanctum) under special permission to get firsthand information about the conditions at the temple in connection with her official duties and becoming the first woman to do so legitimately. In the same year, the local press reported the story of two young women, possibly wives of VIPs, who entered the shrine despite police vigilance. In January 2018, temple authorities made it mandatory for female devotees to furnish proof of their age when visiting Sabarimala.
Kerala High Court Verdict
In 1990, S Mahendran started a petition, alleging that young women were visiting Sabarimala. The verdict on the petition came in 1991 where Justices K. Paripoornan and K. Balanarayana Marar of the Kerala High Court banned entry of women between ages 10 and 50 from offering worship at Sabarimala, stating that such restriction was in accordance with the usage prevalent for a long time. In addition, the High court directed the Government of Kerala to use the police force to enforce the order to ban entry of women to the temple. The court observed thus:
Such restriction (restriction of women entry) imposed by the Devaswom Board is not violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India. Such restriction is also not violative of the provisions of Hindu Place of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 since there is no restriction between one section and another section or between one class and another class among the Hindus in the matter of entry to a temple whereas the prohibition is only in respect of women of a particular age group and not women as a class.
Supreme Court Verdict
In 2006, six women, members of the Indian Young Lawyers' Association, petitioned the Supreme Court of India to lift the ban against women between the ages of 10 and 50 entering the Sabarimala temple. They argued that the practice was a violation of their constitutional rights and questioned the validity of provisions in the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules act of 1965 which supported it.
We have no hesitation in saying that such an exclusionary practice violates the right of women to visit and enter a temple to freely practice Hindu religion and to exhibit her devotion towards Lord Ayyappa. The denial of this right to women significantly denudes them of their right to worship.
The verdict was passed with a 4-1 majority where Chief Justice Dipak Misra, and Justices A. M. Khanwilkar, R. F. Nariman and D. Y. Chandrachud favoured permitting women to enter the temple, while Justice Indu Malhotra dissented. Indu Malhotra said that every individual should be allowed to practice their faith irrespective of whether the practice is rational or logical. The Supreme Court observed that the custom of barring women was in violation of Article 25 (Clause 1) and Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Worship. The petition that led to this verdict was filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association.
Arguments against women entry
Some women choose to not enter Sabarimala believing that it would be an insult to Malikappurathamma's love and sacrifice. Others believe that Ayyappan himself placed restrictions on women entering the temple because he wanted to be celibate, and the presence of women of reproductive age group would distract him from this cause. Some believe in the taboo that menstruation is impure (thereby making women of menstruating age also impure), and that it is a sin to visit a Hindu god while they are impure. Others simply cite the at least 500 year old old tradition should be continued to be practiced. Some people have pointed out the practical difficulties for women in climbing Sabarimala. The Sabarimala temple is situated on the top of a hill surrounded by mountains and dense forests, which some regard as physically challenging to women to navigate. An official of Sabarimala has pointed out that there will be lack of adequate sanitation facilities for women, thus making their journey difficult. Hospital facilities are also sparse. Some argue that women will 'defile temple premises', and 'distract' the pilgrims who follow a 41-day period of strict abstinence from sex. Sai Deepak, the lawyer representing two women’s groups and a devotee sangam in the Supreme Court case has argued that the deity Ayyappan should be considered as a person, and should be given the Constitutional right to privacy under Article 21, thus restricting women of menstruating age from visiting him per his will. A US-based cardiologist pointed out that menstruating women are barred from visiting temples because it can lead to endometriosis, but her arguments were later dismissed as being pseudoscientific. The Travancore Dewaswom Board president said that allowing women to the temple will lead to 'immoral activities' and turn the place into 'a spot for sex tourism like Thailand'.
Arguments in favour of women entry
Those in favour of allowing women entry to Sabarimala argue that menstruation is not impure, and that women have equal right to enter the temple. Some pointed out that women are allowed to enter other temples of Ayyappan, so that the exception for Sabarimala is unusual and inconsistent. A frequent criticism is that claims that women are impure, based on the physiological process of menstruation, is gender discrimination.
According to the historian, Rajan Gurukkal, there is "neither ritual sanctity nor scientific justification" for the argument of menstrual pollution. He notes that the shrine was originally a "cult spot" for a tribal deity, Ayyanar of local forest dwellers before it became a place of worship for Ayyappa in the 15th century. Unlike traditional Hindu beliefs that menstruation is impure, the tribals considered it to be auspicious and a symbol of fertility. They thronged to the temple along with their women and children of all ages until the 1960s. Gurukkal also notes that there is documented evidence of young savarna women making their way into the temple till the 1980s.
The chief minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, said that his party (LDF) has always stood for gender equality and therefore will provide facilities and protection for women pilgrims to Sabarimala.
Though many Menstruation age woman had entered the Sabarimala temple and it had been purified using tantric rituals in such violations before the supreme court verdict such as the famous Jayamala incident, no woman between the age of 10 to 50 were able to go inside the sabarimala temple post the Supreme court verdict.
In October, when Sabarimala was opened for pilgrims for the first time since the Supreme Court verdict, protests were staged at the Nilakkal and Pamba base camps. Many women journalists were assaulted by the protesters and Police had to resort to a lathi charge to disperse them. The protesters forced a 40-year old woman from Andhra Pradesh to stop her journey to Sabarimala at Pamba. Suhasini Raj, a journalist working for New York Times was also forced to return after she was blocked by protesters near Marakkoottam.
Two women of menstruating age attempted to enter the temple on 19 October 2018 but were blocked by protesters about 100 metres away from the sanctum sanctorum. They returned after the priest warned that he would close the sanctum sanctorum if they were to attempt to climb the 18 sacred steps leading to the deity. One of the women named Rehana Fathima was later arrested on grounds of 'hurting religious sentiments' for posting a photo in facebook, in which she was seen sitting in an allegedly 'obscene pose' after dressing up as a devotee of Ayyappa.
A 46-year old woman who claimed that "her body was full of divine power from Ayyappa motivating her to climb Sabarimala" was asked to return after the police denied her protection. On 20 October 2018, one woman journalist and the president of Kerala Dalit Mahila Federation also had to return without reaching the deity due to protests. A female Dalit activist was attacked at various places by mobs on her way to Sabarimala even though she was accompanied by police and decided to return after reaching Pamba. She lost her job, was forced to leave her home and is now living in an undisclosed location under police protection fearing threats for her life from those who are against allowing women entry to Sabarimala.
Trupti Desai, women's rights activist and founder of Bhumata Brigade, was blocked by protesters at Cochin International Airport on 16 November 2018, while on her journey to Sabarimala. She decided to return after getting stranded inside the airport for more than 14 hours and vowed to come back again.
Four transwomen who attempted to visit Sabarimala temple were sent back by Erumely police on 16 December 2018. They alleged that the police harassed them and asked them to dress up like men if they wanted to visit the shrine. Even though they agreed to the demands of the police, they were eventually sent back citing the law and order situation at Sabarimala. They prayed at the shrine 2 days later as the temple authorities didn't object to allowing entry of transwomen at Sabarimala.
A group of 11 women belonging to the Chennai based women right's outfit 'Manithi' were chased away by protesters after they covered a distance of 100 m uphill from the Pamba base camp, accompanied by Police on 23 December 2018. Even though the police claimed that the group later returned from Sabarimala on their own decision without visiting the shrine, the group alleged that they were forcefully made to return by Kerala Police.
On 2 January 2019, two women claimed that they have entered Sabarimala shrine which was later confirmed using CCTV visuals. This has been a major breakthrough since the Supreme Court verdict came.
Protests and Hartals
A total of seven hartals were organised in Kerala by various Hindu groups and their umbrella outfit Sabarimala Karma Samithi against allowing women to enter Sabarimala Temple since October 2018. The first hartal was observed in Pathanamthitta district on 7th october 2018. BJP called for this hartal in response to police beating up adv. Prakash Babu, state president of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha during a protest march held on 6 October 2018.
The second hartal was on 18 October 2018. The Bharatiya Janata Party called for this hartal across the state to deter women between the age of 10 and 50 years from worshipping at Sabarimala. The Indian National Congress also launched a protest demanding the state government to file a review petition against the Supreme Court's verdict. The Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, held “RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) driven upper caste religious fanatics” responsible for the violent agitation to undermine the universal right of women of all ages to worship at Sabarimala. Rahul Easwar, a member of the family of Sabarimala priests and leader of Ayyappa Dharma Sena, was arrested for inciting violence and rioting near the Sabarimala temple complex. He was denied bail on the grounds that he could return to Sabarimala to incite further trouble. Malayalam actor Kollam Thulasi said that women who enter Sabarimala temple should be ripped in half. An FIR was registered against him for his deliberate act intended to outrage dignity of women and inciting violence.
Over 3000 people were arrested and around 500 cases were registered at various police stations across Kerala in relation with the protests including hartal-related violence, since the Supreme court verdict came.
The third hartal was on 2 November 2018. Sivadasan, a lottery seller went to Sabarimala pilgrimage and his dead body was found near Laha. BJP called for a hartal in Pathanamthitta district blaming police action at Pamba as the reason behind his death even though police confirmed that he died in a road traffic accident.
Anticipating protests, IPC Section 144 was declared at Sannidhanam, Pamba, Nilakkal and Elavunkal when the temple reopened for the 41 day long Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrim season in 16 November 2018. Around 70 people were arrested for defying prohibitory orders and protesting near the main temple, also K. Surendran, state secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party and K P Sasikala, leader of Hindu Aikya Vedi were taken into preventive detention while on their journey to the temple on 17 November 2018. The human rights commission of Kerala has called it, "gross violation of human rights of Sabarimala devotees".
On November 21, Thiruvananthapuram City Police Commissioner, P Prakash threatened NRIs who are using social media to express their displeasure of the state interfering in temple practices by "provocative voice notes videos and photos, and social media posts" of "getting their passports cancelled, and forcing to return to India."
Kerala Police was severely criticised by High Court for the various restrictions it had implemented in Sabarimala which caused difficulty for the pilgrims but agreed with the decision to impose Section 144. Following criticism from High Court, all restrictions except Section 144 were removed gradually. The Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party launched separate protests demanding the state government to revoke section 144 imposed in Sabarimala.
The fifth hartal was on 11 December 2018. Bharatiya Janata Party called this harthal on Thiruvananthapuram District, Kerala. It was in response to police action against Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha march to secretariat on 10 December 2018.
A 49-year-old man committed suicide in front of the protest site of BJP on 13 December 2018, following which BJP called for another state-wide hartal. It was the sixth hartal invoked by BJP on Sabarimala issue since the beginning of mandalam makaravilakku pilgrim season at Sabarimala and sixth one in the series. BJP alleged that the man who is an Ayyappa devotee, immolated himself, protesting against the restrictions imposed by Kerala government at Sabarimala, but police denied the allegations saying that he committed suicide due to personal reasons and his dying declaration didn't mention anything about Sabarimala.
On December 26, thousands of Ayyapa devotees mainly women, took part in Ayyappa Jyothi, an event organised by Hindutva outfits in protest against supreme court verdict. In some places, the people participating in the event were attacked by CPI(M) and Democratic Youth Federation of India(DYFI) activists. In response, kerala police arrested 16 members who premeditated the attacks. Cases are also filed against 1400 people who took part in the Ayyappa Jyothi event.
As a counter protest, a human chain called Vanitha Mathil was formed by women across the state of Kerala supporting the Supreme Court verdict. Around 3-5 million women participated in the event organised by the state government.
The seventh hartal was on 3 January 2019. Sabarimala Karma Samithi called a state wide hartal in Kerala and Bharatiya Janata Party supported it. The reason for this hartal was the entry of two women under the age of 40 into Sabarimala Sree Dharmasastha Temple. One of the protestors named Chandran Unnithan belonging to Sabarimala Karma Samiti got injured when CPI(M) members started pelting stones and he died shortly of severe skull injuries.
Many cases of violence and arson were reported from across the state during this hartal. Fed up of a series of hartals in connection with Sabarimala women entry issue, trader organisations in Kerala had already decided to observe 2019 as 'anti-hartal year' and to defy all hartals in future. Even though police had promised them adequate protection, shops which opened defying the hartal were widely attacked and some even put to fire. News medias decided to boycott all press conferences by Bharatiya Janata Party following unprovoked targeted attacks on journalists.
More than 100 buses of Kerala state road transport corporation were damaged. Offices, libraries and businesses owned by the ruling left party were damaged and incidents of street fights between CPI(M) and BJP cadres were reported from many places. Anticipating further violence, section 144 was imposed in Palakkad and Manjeswaram towns on next day.
Attacks against residences of women who tried to enter Sabarimala as well as those who supported the verdict were reported from Kerala. A hotel owned by Kerala Tourism Development Corporation at Chennai was also damaged by unidentified men protesting against women entry in Sabarimala. Leaders of the ruling CPI(M) compared the miscreants unleashing violence over Sabarimala with Taliban and Khalistan terrorists.
Entry of women in Sabarimala
Two women aged below 50 walked into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala before daybreak on 2 January 2019, becoming the first to do so since the Supreme Court ordered the end of a decades-old ban on women of menstrual age entering the shrine.
Ninety-five days after the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on the entry of women at Sabarimala hill shrine in central Kerala, two women, a resident of Koyilandy in Kozhikode district and a native of Angadipuram in Malappuram district, both in their mid-40s, entered the temple with the escort of police personnel at around 3:45 am on 2 January 2019 Wednesday. They had previously attempted to climb the hill on December 24, before being blocked by protesters. According to reports, both women had stayed at a secret location, vowing not to return home until they offered prayers at the temple.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan confirmed the entry of the duo at the temple and underlined that the police force was duty-bound to give protection to anyone who asked for security.
On 4 January 2019, a 46 year old woman from Sri Lanka entered the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple and prayed at the sanctum sanctorum. She became the first woman under the age of 50 to have climbed the 18 holy steps with irumudikkettu (offerings to the deity) since the Supreme Court verdict.
On 8 January 2019, a 36 year old woman dalit leader claimed to have entered the temple. A Facebook group called 'Navodhana Keralam Sabarimalayilekku' (that translates to Renaissance Kerala to Sabarimala) has posted a series of videos and photos showing the dalit leader at Sabarimala, to prove the claim.
On 18 January 2019, the Government of Kerala has informed the Supreme Court that 51 female devotees of menstrual age dodged protesters to enter the Sabarimala shrine besides the duo during this pilgrimage season.
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