With the main pilgrimage season at Sabarimala set to begin on November 15, authorities at the Kerala temple said they do not expect a rush of women devotees in the wake of Friday’s landmark Supreme Court judgement lifting the ban on female visitors between the ages of 10 and 50.

The court struck down rule 3 (b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which stated that “women who are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship shall not be entitled to enter or offer worship in any place of public worship”.

Sabarimala, the popular hill shrine located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Pathanamthitta district, is visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims during the 41-day Mandala Kalam, which begins on the first day of the Malayalam month of Vrishchikam.

However, A Padmakumar, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, told Scroll.in on Friday, said that he does not expect many women devotees in the upcoming season. “I don’t think women are prepared to undergo the rigorous religious practices before setting out for the pilgrimage,” he said. “So the Supreme Court verdict will not make much of difference this time.”

Board changes its position

The entry into Sabarimala of women of menstrual age has long been a topic of controversy. The Sabarimala board opposed the petition asking for the ban to be lifted but on Friday announced that it would comply with the Supreme Court’s verdict.

Board member KP Shankaradas said that he did not expect large numbers of women even in the future because menstruating women cannot comply with the mandatory 41-day religious observance necessary for the pilgrimage. “Pilgrims have to take vows of strict religious observance for 41 days before embarking on the trek to Neelimala to reach the shrine, which has 18 sacred steps, and catch a glimpse of the deity,” he said. “Menstruating women cannot fulfill the vows. So it is naive to expect a heavy rush of women to the shrine beginning tomorrow. Only those who adhere to the religious vow will set out on the arduous journey.”

However, Shankaradas said that it will not be difficult to facilitate pilgrimages by women. “We have made the arrangements keeping in mind the male pilgrims,” he said. “Now we have to make a few changes to accommodate women pilgrims.”

The proposed changes include introducing a separate passage for women for climbing the 18 sacred steps, arranging exclusive bathing ghats and, of course, providing toilets for women.

Flood damage

Padmakumar said that women devotees will have to cope with the facilities available. “All devotees are equal before Lord Ayyappa,” he said. He added: “But we will provide them all other amenities like separate toilets, drinking water during the season. We are currently constructing 1,500 public toilets and we will earmark a fair share to women pilgrims.”

The Friday’s verdict came even as the temple town is limping back to normalcy after the recent floods. The water destroyed several toilet complexes, uprooted electric poles and silted up sewer lines, waterlines, septic tanks and waste collection tanks.

The government recently decided that Nilakkal would be the base camp of the pilgrimage in the post-flood season and that private vehicles would not be allowed to proceed to Pampa. Nilakkal is 20km away from Pampa.

Shankaradas said that women who are keen to visit the shrine should perhaps avoid the two busiest pilgrimage seasons – Mandala Kalam and Makara Vilakku – and plan their visits during the lean period instead. “The shrine is open during the first five days of each Malayalam month,” he said. “The temple doesn’t experience heavy rush during that period.”

The verdict has also given the board an opportunity to demand more land from the government. “The board owns just 59 acres of land,” said Padmakumar. “We need an additional 100 acres to meet the extra flow of pilgrims.”

Review petition

Since the board has resolved to implement the Supreme Court verdict, it is now planning to hold consultations with major stake holders. On Friday, the chief priest of the temple, Kantaru Rajeevaru, described the verdict as disappointing. His reaction sparked speculation that the board would file a review petition to appeal the Supreme Court decision.

But Shankaradas denied this and said that the board would try to find a consensus. “We have to obey the verdict from the Supreme Court,” he said. “Moreover, the Left Democratic Front government is also supporting women’s entry into temple.”