I first read about Sabarimala’s Ayyappan temple in association with an annual miracle. Every January 14, a divine light was said to appear on a hill across from the Sabarimala temple. The makara jyothi, as it is called, was the grand climax of the pilgrimage to Sabarimala for lakhs of devotees from across India. A pamphlet in my possession published by a rationalist group stated that the Sabarimala temple trustees were in cahoots with the forest department in creating the miraculous flame, and ensuring nobody could access the site to expose the trick. A good miracle makes for money and power, and the makara jyothi attracted more credulous devotees each year.

In 1997, a few years after I read about the makara jyothi, I encountered Ayappan pilgrims up close and personal. I was headed to the International Film Festival in Trivandrum, in those days one of the very few opportunities film buffs had of catching up with what was new and interesting in world cinema. The festival opened on January 10, coinciding with the Ayyappan rush. It felt like every man from Kerala living in Bombay was on the train with us. The journey, which took over two days, wasn’t a pleasant one at the best of times in sleeper class. Ours was made considerably less comfortable by men in black bathing incessantly. The authorities provided water at select stations along the route, in pipes installed beside the tracks, but many devotees chose to bathe in the toilets, leaving them flooded while using up all the available water. It would be fair to say I emerged from the journey less than well disposed towards the Sabarimala pilgrimage.

Two years later, on January 14, 1999, a stampede killed 53 pilgrims at Sabarimala. A judicial commission found lapses in the government’s provision of facilities but did not investigate the makara jyothi phenomenon, saying it was a matter of faith. Twelve years later, on Makara Jyothi Day in 2011, 106 pilgrims were crushed to death in the throng that had crowded the site to get a view of the divine light. The government of the day was taken to task for not putting in place all measures recommended by the 1999 commission and, this time round, the miraculous flame could not escape scrutiny. The Kerala High Court asked the Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, whether the flame was man-made, and board members, forced to tell the truth after decades of fooling gullible worshippers, admitted the fire was created deliberately each year on a cement platform built by the board. They tried to muddy the waters by alluding to a star visible on the horizon on January 14, but the cat was out of the bag. The number of pilgrims travelling to witness the fake miracle has dropped substantially over the past few years.

Getting away with fraud

Considering the temple trustees had duped pilgrims for decades by claiming the flame was of supernatural origin; and considering that belief in the miracle had drawn unsustainably large crowds to the site each January 14, leading directly to the disaster of 2011, the Travancore Devaswom Board should have been under the cosh. Yet, no charges were brought to bear on the temple’s administrators. The Indian state and judicial system failed to act on what seems to me to have been a clear case of fraud.

The courts acted, instead, on a petition asking for women of all ages to be allowed into the temple. Did the petition merit the court’s intervention? It is generally accepted that courts ought to steer clear of interfering in religious traditions and customs. Excessive state intervention threatens freedom of religion, a fundamental right in every liberal Constitution including India’s. At the same time, religious customs can themselves contravene fundamental rights, including the right to freedom of worship, and these customs must be eradicated. The most prominent such practice in India is the historical denial of temple access to Dalits. Legislation and court verdicts have gone a long way in reversing this dreadful exclusion, though much work remains to be done.

Judicial overreach?

In considering the Sabarimala petition, one of the judges who sided with the majority, Justice DY Chadrachud, evoked a parallel between the exclusion of Dalits and the prohibition on women of child-bearing age from entering Sabarimala. I believe his conflation of the two prohibitions was profoundly erroneous. Not long ago, denial of entry to those considered low born was common across Hindu temples in India, as well as some churches. It arose from a fundamentally discriminatory view of Dalits, and significantly curbed their fundamental right to worship. Millions of Dalits across India were desperate to pray to their gods as other Hindus did, but were forbidden from passing beyond the threshold of any temple.

The situation of women is very different. Hindu temples are, in general, female-friendly places, and women often form the majority of worshippers in them. There are literally millions of Hindu shrines in the country and barely a handful bar female worshippers. It is a very tall order, in these circumstances, to claim that these extraordinarily rare exceptions create a significant barrier to the fundamental right to worship of Indian women.

I have no belief in any deities, whether those that accept the company of women or those that abhor it. I would love to see a time when every temple, every mosque, every church, and every gurdwara provides women equal access, as well as equal opportunities within clerical hierarchies. However, I do not believe it is the job of courts or governments to mandate such changes. The courts should step in only when a fundamental right is seen to be curtailed, as it was through centuries of caste discrimination. For the rest, we have to hope that reform movements within individual faiths will gradually make them more equitable. Overreach can prove counter-productive, as the decades of Atatürkist secularism in Turkey demonstrated.

Activist Rehana Fathima attempts to enter the Sabarimala shrine. (Credit: PTI)

I have not read of female devotees of Ayyappa being part of the petition to open up access to the temple. Those who sought the change, and those who made valiant attempts during the past week to reach the sanctum, seemed to be without exception activists rather than pilgrims. Some of them, like activist Rehana Fathima, only played into the hands of Hindutvavadis by attempting to access the site.

Having said that, it is now the law of the land that women of all ages and faiths can pray within the Sabarimala temple, and it becomes the duty of the state and security forces to ensure their safety. There being no law against playing into the hands of Hindutvavadis, I wish Rehana Fathima the very best if she bravely attempts the journey to Sabarimala again. I hope women activists who arrive at the site when the temple opens next will do so in sufficient numbers to afford a measure of protection against those baying for their blood, who have no regard for the rule of law, and have displayed open contempt for the Supreme Court’s verdict. My heart is with the women, even though my mind tells me the court erred and overstepped its authority in the Sabarimala judgement.