India's flashpoint temple, off limits to women

Geneva Stokes
January 3, 2019

According to early reports, two women in the barred age group have reportedly entered the Lord Ayyappa shrine in Sabarimala early Wednesday morning.

Police fired teargas and used water cannons to disperse a large crowd of protesters in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, television news channels showed.

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.

The attempts to enter the temple and resulting protests have become a flashpoint as some Hindu hardliners in the nationalist BJP-led country try to defend what they see as core values in Hindu-majority India.

Police with batons charged at demonstrators who were trying to enforce a shutdown of shops and businesses in the area called for by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy. Several police officers were injured as protesters threw stones. The local state government helped the women enter the temple, and defended their decision to do so in a news conference as "a matter of civil rights". The shrine was shut down for the ritual 10.30 am and was opened after almost one hour, sources said.

The "Women's Wall" rally was backed by the communist government in the state where a Superme Court order on Sabarimala temple has triggered weeks of protests.

On December 24 past year, the two women had unsuccessfully tried to offer prayers at the shrine. A spokesperson for the Opposition Congress party, K Sudhakaran, described the two women entering the temple as "treachery" and that the left-wing state government "will have to pay the price for the violation of the custom".

"I had earlier made it clear that the government will provide protection if any women come forward to enter the temple", said Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

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A number of Muslim women also took part in the campaign and they carried banners with messages like "neither we are impure nor second rate citizens".

Traditionalists have also argued that the temple deity, Ayyappa, was celibate. Police have clashed with devotees supporting the ban and have 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. We are not in the favour of changing rituals, he said, adding that the temple will have to be "purified".

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

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

Legend says that the goddess Malikapurathamma asked Ayyappa to marry her. For the first time in the history, the temple has been closed due to a breaking of tradition.

NSS, which has filed a review plea in the Supreme Court challenging its verdict, expressed hope that the top court would take a favourable decision.

The head of the BJP party in Kerala, P.S Sreedharan Pillai, slammed the women's visit as a "conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples". He pointed to other Hindu temples and ceremonies where men are not allowed to attend.

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