In an attempt to evade detection by police personnel, members of Hindutva outfits protesting the Supreme Court verdict permitting women of all ages to pray at Kerala’s Sabarimala temple seem to have appropriated the practices of genuine pilgrims. Some protestors have been dressing as pilgrims and using a traditional incantation as a war cry.

Since October 17, when the temple opened to devotees for the first time since the September 28 judgment, protestors have thronged Sabarimala and nearby areas to prevent women aged between 10 and 50 from travelling to the hilltop shrine. Before the verdict, women in this age group were barred from entering Sabarimala.

According to tradition, pilgrims must undergo 41 days of penance before visiting Sabarimala. During this period, they are required to abstain from meat, sex and liquor. They wear black clothes and are known as Ayyappas, after the temple’s principal deity. When they finally set out on their pilgrimage, dressed in black, they carry irumudikkettu (a traditional prayer kit offered to Ayyappa), and chant incantations to the deity. When the temple opened for ritual for two days on November 5, the air was filled with one of the popular chants – “Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa” or “I surrender to you, Ayyappa”.

Observers say the chanting of the Ayyappa incantation by protestors is similar to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s use of the “Jai Shri Ram” slogan during its campaign to build a Ram temple in Ayodhya in the 1980s.

On November 6, protestors heckled a 52-year-old woman named Lalitha, who had arrived at Sannidhanam to conduct a ceremony for a newborn granddaughter, by shouting Ayyappa incantations at her. They seemed to believe that she was younger than 50. The woman showed the protestors her Aadhaar card as evidence of her age in order to gain entry.

The previous day, more than 500 male protesters had defied a ban imposed by the police on the assembly of four or more people at Nilakkal, one of the entry points to Sabarimala. The restriction had been imposed as a precautionary measure for the days the temple was open to the public. The police officers on duty warned the protestors to disperse, but the men shouted slogans at them instead. Later that day, the protestors marched towards Sabarimala, 25 km away, where they joined hundreds of other protesters at Sannidhanam, the temple’s inner courtyard.

(Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

‘Incantations not to intimidate others’

Long-time devotees said it was wrong for protestors to pretend to be pilgrims. They were also unhappy that Ayyappa incantations were being recited to intimidate other worshippers.

Among them was 60-year-old Kunhikkannan from Kannur, who has visited Sabarimala more than 50 times. “The incantations have the power to purify the mind of devotees,” he said. “It is wrong to recite them to prevent police officers from discharging their duties and create trouble.”

Another pilgrim Bhaskaran, 70, who said that he has visited Sabarimala 100 times in the last 40 years, said Ayyappa devotees should control their anger. “Pilgrims should live by example,” he said. “They should behave well with others.”

Mohan K Nair, an ardent Ayyappa devotee and national vice-president of the Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham, a non-political organisation that serves Ayyappa pilgrims, advised the Ayyappas to whisper the incantations while trekking through the forest. “The chants will give them the strength to overcome difficulties,” he said. “It should not be used as a political slogan.”

He said those who masquerade as pilgrims would earn the wrath of Ayyappa. “It is a violation of the custom,” he said. “True devotees will not create trouble at Sabarimala.”

‘We know their identity’

Police officers in charge of security at Sabarimala told that they are aware that protesters were disguised as pilgrims. “Almost all the protesters wore black clothes, shouted incantations to Lord Ayyappa and carried irumudikkettu,” said a police officer. “But we knew that most of them are not Ayyappa devotees. They are political activists. We allowed them to go inside to avoid confrontation.”

The Times of India reported on Thursday, quoting police officials, that of the 7,300 persons who visited the hill shrine on November 5 only 200 were genuine pilgrims. “The remaining 7,000-plus people were actually the cadres mobilised by various groups, including BJP and RSS,” the report said.

At Sannidhanam, this correspondent heard protesters dressed as pilgrims abusing Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for promising to implement the court verdict, while others boasted about how they had heckled the 52-year-old woman.

The hill shrine in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district has been on the boil since the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, a platform of more than 50 Hindu organisations formed under the aegis of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, launched agitations to protest against the Supreme Court verdict. Abolishing the 27-year-old ban women of menstruating age offering prayers at Sabarimala, the court had said that it “amounted to gender discrimination”.

Despite the verdict, no women between the ages of 10 and 50 have been able to enter the sanctum sanctorum so far.

The popular shrine, which is opened for just 131 days each year, is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims annually. From the Pamba river basin, pilgrims must trek 5 km through a steep forest path to reach the temple perched atop the Periyar tiger reserve. The shrine will reopen for the 41-day Mandala puja on November 16.

(Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Worried devotees

Ardent Ayyappa devotees are concerned that the pilgrimage to Sabarimala will never be peaceful again. Among them is Sasi Kumar, 46, who transports pilgrims who are unable to walk on his palanquin-like carrier. “Ayyappa gave me this job,” he said. “I have been working peacefully here for the last 22 years. But I am terrified by the protests. Violence and attacks against women are unheard of in Sabarimala: Sabarimala is for the peace-loving Ayyappa devotees. It is not a place for playing politics.”

His colleague Aravindan was also worried. “Violence will invite the wrath of Lord Ayyappa,” he said. “I don’t know what will happen to the shrine.”

But the protesters do not seem to be perturbed.

They claimed that they are on a mission to protect the tradition of the temple, and that they were only verifying the ages of women before allowing them to proceed.

RSS leader Valsan Thillankeri, who coordinated the protests, was caught in a controversy last Tuesday after he was accused of violating a key tradition at the temple. It is mandatory for pilgrims who stand on the 18 sacred steps leading to the inner courtyard to carry the irumudikkettu on their heads. Thillankeri was seen standing on the stairs without the traditional offering. “I tried to control the protesters standing on the sacred steps due to my ignorance,” he was quoted as saying by Malayalam newspaper Malayala Manorama.

Long-time pilgrim Kunhikkannan said the incident had exposed the motives of the people organising the protests. “An RSS leader who was protesting to preserve the customs of the temple himself broke the custom,” he said. “This shows that they are not serious about the protests. It is all about politics.”