The Sabarimala temple in the Western Ghats in Kerala draws several crores of pilgrims every winter. Many of them follow an austere regimen for 41 days before setting out for the 1,500-year-old abode of the god Ayyappa. They prepare for the pilgrimage by cleansing their body and mind—bathing at dawn every day, wearing a garland of beads, eating only vegetarian food and abstaining from sex, alcohol, profanities and impure thoughts. Wearing black clothes, they trek barefoot to the hilltop temple, carrying a bundle of ghee-filled coconuts on their head and chanting ‘swamiye sharanam Ayyappa’. Take the name of Ayyappa, and He will take care of you—or so they believe.
The climb is steep, the path thorny on some stretches, and the pilgrims address one another as Swami and Ayyappa.
The teaching of the temple is inscribed before the sanctum: Tatvamasi, meaning there is no difference between you [the devotee] and I [the deity]. There is, however, a big difference— as Ayyappa is a celibate, women of menstruating age are not allowed to visit the temple. This has been a matter of debate for long, and following a petition filed by a lawyers’ group in Delhi, the Supreme Court has questioned the age-old tradition and appointed an amicus curiae to help it decide on the matter. It has given the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, and the Kerala government time till April 11 to place their views before it.
Hindus in Kerala are divided on the issue. Some say the ban on females of 10 to 50 years is an unfair practice and is against freedom of worship. Some stand by tradition and say that abolishing an age-old custom that honours the deity and the piety of the devotee is unacceptable.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has joined issue and announced that women of all age should be allowed into temples. Critics of the RSS see a deeper game in this declaration, and not any progressive mindset.
The Devaswom Board, which has not been hostile to the RSS, is steadfast in its resolve against allowing women of all age to visit the temple. It recently held a statewide yagna on Shivaratri, apparently to spread awareness of tradition and to use prayers to resist propaganda against rituals and customs. Said the board’s president, Prayar Gopalakrishnan: "I am sure that the final verdict of the Supreme Court will support our stand. In case, God forbid, it is against our stand, we will go in appeal. We will even go to the president of India. Nothing can be imposed on us.”
The Modi government is in favour of all women being allowed at Sabarimala. Said Union minister Venkaiah Naidu to THE WEEK: “The matter is in the Supreme Court. So I wouldn't like to elaborate. My personal view is that there should not be any gender discrimination in places of worship. But, having said that, traditions have to be respected and revisited according to changing times.”
The Supreme Court bench of Justices Dipak Mishra, P.C. Ghose and N.V. Ramana questioned how women could be stopped from entering the Sabarimala temple, when God did not discriminate between men and women. The court said that there was no gender discrimination in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and other Hindu scriptures.
The Congress-led coalition government in Kerala wants status quo to prevail. Said home minister Ramesh Chennithala to THE WEEK: “The government has to respect the sentiments of the devotees. Every temple has certain practices from time immemorial. We don't want them to be affected in any manner.” His party colleague Shashi Tharoor, MP, said: “Including Sabarimala, women should be allowed entry into all temples and there should be no gender discrimination.”
The priests and tantris of the temple are for maintaining tradition. Said Kandararu Maheswararu, 23, the youngest-ever tantri of Sabarimala: “The idol at Sabarimala has been made and installed in such a way that it depicts the deity as a permanent bachelor. The controversy about the temple is not good. It hurts me. I want traditions to be preserved, no matter what.”
Women in Kerala themselves are split. Said the actor Padmapriya: “I support the stand taken by the Supreme Court. Traditions are not a static entity. They are created to be challenged. How does one otherwise explain civilisations coming and going?” On the other hand, Princess Aswathy Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi of the Travancore royal family said: “In temples, rules are set by the priests. Let us learn to respect them. Besides, practically, it is difficult for women to enter Sabarimala temple during the pilgrimage season.” She said if women of all age were allowed to enter the temple, it would lead to confusion and chaos.
Some Hindus say that laws are being exploited to target Hindu temples and traditions, and that nobody talks about gender discrimination in mosques and churches.
Said Prathap Chandran, a Malayali employee at Qualcomm in San Diego, California: “The practice at Sabarimala is not meant to victimise women but to honour the fact that Ayyappa was unmarried. It should not be correlated with other aspects of social functioning.” Chandran said that actions in the name of noble causes such as women empowerment should go against established practices only after considerable thought.
The Kerala High Court had upheld the tradition in Sabarimala in 1983. As Maya S. Pillai, a housewife in Varkala, said, “Even if the ban is lifted, many Hindu women in the menstruating age will not break the tradition."
The Indian Young Lawyers Association is one of the six petitioners in the Sabarimala case filed before the Supreme Court in 2006. Its president Naushad Ahmed Khan received death threats after the court questioned the ban. The court asked the Delhi Police to ensure his safety. Said Khan to THE WEEK: "My name is being circulated mischievously. There are five other petitioners—all young women lawyers who are in fact Hindus. Why is my name being singled out in this manner?" Khan said that a colleague in his firm had filed the petition along with the other petitioners.
The Bombay High Court is awaiting the Supreme Court’s final verdict in the case. The High Court is hearing a public interest litigation seeking entry of women into the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali Dargah. The Maharashtra government had told the High Court that women could not be denied the right to equality and should be allowed to enter the sanctum.