On Wednesday, Kerala’s Sabarimala temple is set to open to the public for the first time since the Supreme Court ordered temple authorities to allow women of all ages to enter and offer prayers to the deity Lord Ayyappa. Before the judgment, women between the menstruating ages of 10 and 50 were barred from entering the temple as the deity’s devotees believe he is an eternal celibate.

Till late on Tuesday, however, there was no clarity on whether women would be permitted to enter the shrine. Though the Kerala government has said that it planned to implement the Supreme Court’s order in letter and spirit, organisations that claim to represent the deity’s devotees – including the Sangh Parivar – have threatened to stop women between the ages of 10 and 50 at Nilakkal, the entry point to the shrine, and prevent them from proceeding further. Several such organisations have been protesting in Kerala against the Supreme Court order over the past few days.

From Nilakkal, devotees travel for a ritual bath to Pamba, 18 km away, before heading for darshan at the temple, another 5 km away.

On Tuesday, hours before the temple was to reopen, several groups of devotees were checking vehicles at Nilakkal and asking any women, including journalists, to turn back.

What the court said

Sabarimala, perched atop a hill in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Pathanamthitta district, attracts lakhs of pilgrims during the Mandala, Makaravilakku and Vishu seasons. While the Mandala season starts on November 17 this year, Makaravilakku starts in the second week of January 2019 and Vishu on April 14. The shrine is also open to the public during the first five days of each month in the Malayalam calendar, which is the reason it is opening on Wednesday. During these monthly openings, it draws fewer pilgrims.

The practice of barring menstruating women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the shrine had become a custom following a Kerala High Court verdict in 1991. In its September 28 judgment, the Supreme Court said that the temple cannot discriminate against women of menstruating age by prohibiting their entry into what was a public place of worship. “Subversion of women on biological factors cannot be given legitimacy,” the court said. “Certain dogmas have resulted in incongruity between doctrine and practice.”

Women protesters search a passenger bus at Nilakkal on Tuesday. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

‘Don’t hide’

On Tuesday, following reports of the vehicle searches at Nilakkal, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan reiterated that his government was committed to ensure the safety of women who wanted to visit the shrine. “The government will not allow anyone to search vehicles at Nilakkal,” said Vijayan, “It is illegal.”

But the vehicle checking continued unabated. The policemen on duty on Tuesday did not do anything to stop the groups of men and women flagging down cars and buses to check if they had any women passengers.

At 8 pm on Tuesday, this correspondent saw a group of four women searching a bus enroute to Pamba. “Is there any woman in this bus?” Satyabhama, 40, a resident of Nilakkal, asked its passengers. She was searching vehicles all day. “We have got information that a woman is trying to sneak into Sabarimala by this bus. Do not hide, we will not allow any women go to Sabarimala.” She and her friends did not find any woman on the bus.

After their five-minute search was over, Satyabhama told this correspondent that she would sacrifice her life to protect the sanctity of Sabarimala. “Lord Ayyappa would become angry if menstruating women entered the Sannidhanam [temple],” she said. “As the natives of Nilakkal we will stop anyone who tries to break the custom and traditions.”

Asked how she and her friends ascertained the age of the women devotees, she said that was not a problem. “We assess [their age] by looking at their face,” she said. “It is easy.” Satyabhama, however, failed to guess the age of this correspondent.

Devotees protest, chanting Lord Ayyappa's incantations at Nilakkal on Tuesday (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen)

A few minutes later, another group of male protesters, chanting incantations to Ayyappa, stopped a vehicle carrying a woman journalist and asked her to turn back. “Don’t try to be smart,” they warned her. “Go back.” Earlier in the day, the protesters had sent back another woman reporter and a group of journalism students who arrived at Nilakkal enroute to Pamba.

Shobha, another guardian of the gates, asserted that she and her group of friends would continue their vigil till the temple closes after five days. “We will end our vigil only after the temple closes on October 21,” she said.

A few metres away from the vehicle check-post, men, women and children sitting in a tent chanted incantations to Ayyappa. This was part of a protest started nine days ago by the Sabarimala Achara Samrakshana Samithi or committee for the protection of traditions and customs at Sabarimala. “We are here to protect Sabarimala,” said Sharda, one of the protesters.

Hindu devotees take part in a motorcycle rally as part of a protest against the Supreme Court judgment that allowed women of menstruating age to enter the Sabarimala temple, at Nilakkal in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district, on October 16, 2018. (Photo credit: Sivaram V/Reuters).

Discussions fail

Early on Tuesday, the Travancore Devaswom Board’s attempt to broker peace with the chief priest of the Sabarimala temple and the former royal family of Pandalam failed. While the board manages the temple, the erstwhile royal family enjoys traditional rights over the conduct of rituals.

PG Sasikumar, the president of the Pandalam palace managing committee, told reporters that the meeting was unsatisfactory. “We came out of the meeting because they are not ready to accept our demands,” he said.

Travancore Devaswom Board President A Padmakumar said that the board told the Pandalam representatives that they would discuss the possibility of filing a review petition on October 19 after meeting lawyers. “But they demanded [that we] file it tomorrow,” he said. “And they walked out of talks. They also demanded to continue the ban on women’s entry. But we told them the board is not in a position to do that. Though the talks failed we are ready to hold further discussions.”

As protesters vow to stop women who “dare” to go inside the shrine, there are women who have expressed their wish to visit the temple.

As Wednesday appraches, Nilakkal residents are apprehensive about what will happen. “It’s a crucial day,” said Ramesh, a merchant at Nilakkal. “We are praying to Lord Ayyappa to pass it peacefully.”

Devotees chant Lord Ayyappa's incantations at Nilakkal on Tuesday. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).