The renaming of the Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala threatens to blow up into a political controversy. The shrine has long been known as Sree Dharma Sastha Temple. But in November 2016, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers it, changed the name to Sree Ayyappa Swami Temple. This week, the board went back to the old name.

Why this change of heart? The 2016 decision was taken when the board was led by Prayar Gopalakrishnan, a Congress leader nominated by the previous government led by his party. By the time the decision was made, though, the Congress had been replaced in power by the current government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The Gopalakrishnan board’s decision did not sit well with the ruling party, with Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran terming it as a “serious violation of the rules”.

Gopalakrishnan, however, insisted the new name was proper since the temple was dedicated to Lord Ayyappa when the deity was reinstalled in 1951, a year after the sanctum of Sree Dharma Sastha Temple was destroyed in a fire.

Recently, the government reconstituted the Travancore Devaswom Board with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Padmakumar as the president and the Communist Party of India’s Sankardas as a member – and it promptly restored the old name “considering the sentiments of the devotees”.

“Besides those who changed the name had not consulted with the state government before taking such an important decision,” Padmakumar explained the decision.

Why is the shrine’s name such a contentious subject? Many people suspect that restoring the old name is a “political decision” aimed at facilitating the entry of women of all ages into the sanctum sanctorum. Currently, women of menstrual age, 10 to 50 years, are barred from entering the shrine.

The shrine's name was changed to Sree Ayyappa Swami Temple in November 2016. Photo credit: IANS

Question of women’s entry

The Gopalakrishnan board had renamed the temple at a time when the Supreme Court was hearing a public interest litigation, filed by a group of women advocates from the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association, challenging the ban on the entry of women into the temple.

The petition argued the ban violated women devotees’ Constitutional rights to equality and not to be discriminated against, and the freedom to practice any religion and manage their religious affairs.

Hearing the plea, the court had asked whether the deity Dharma Sastha lived with two consorts, Poorna and Pushkala, and why women were barred from visiting the Dharma Sastha Temple.

By associating the temple with Ayyappa, a Naishtika Brahmachari vowed to celibacy, the board could argue that letting in young and adult women would be tantamount to breaking the deity’s vow.

In October 2017, the Supreme Court referred the petition to a five-judge Constitution Bench.

Thus, the decision to restore the temple’s name has kindled women’s hopes of offering prayers at Sabarimala.

Padmakumar said the previous board had erred in renaming the temple. “Sree Dharma Sastha Temple was a name given by our forefathers,” he said. “No one has the right to change it.”

Maintaining that the current board has not renamed the shrine, he said, “We just restored the old name.”

He also criticised the previous board for changing the name just to challenge the petition in the Supreme Court. “Would you change your name if you are facing litigation?” he asked. “It is absurd and unconstitutional.”

Gopalakrishnan, meanwhile, termed the “latest developments” as “politically motivated”. “The board constituted by the Left Democratic Front government is playing politics,” he alleged. “Restoring the name is meant to pave the way for women’s entry into the sanctum sanctorum. It will hurt the sentiments of devotees.”

Padmakumar claimed the board has not thought about permitting women to offer prayers at Sabarimala. “Women’s entry is not on our agenda at present,” he said. “It is not just about the individual freedom. It is also about traditions and rituals.”

All eyes are now on what position the government takes on the matter. The Left Front government sprung a surprise last November by backing its predecessor’s affidavit in the Supreme Court supporting the restrictions on women’s entry into the hill shrine. It was an about-turn from its 2007 position decrying the age bar for women devotees.