Pressure on a hill shrine

Print edition : May 13, 2016

The multitude of devotees waiting for darshan at Sabarimala. Photo: S. Gopakumar

On the issue of restrictions to the entry of women in the Sabarimala temple, the dominant view in Kerala, even among women, seems to be that tradition must prevail.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF AYYAPPA FROM A local war hero into a saintly soul and his ethereal disappearance into the idol of “Dharma Sastha” at a shrine in the deep forests of the Western Ghats is the incredible legend that sustains the Sabarimala pilgrimage. In that story, a woman cursed to be a demon is delivered from her curse when Ayyappa kills it. She then asks him to marry her. But Ayyappa’s “divine” mission’ is to remain a celibate forever and bless the world. She, therefore, decides to wait for him until, as he promised her, new devotees stop trekking to his secluded shrine in the forest to seek his blessings.

The second part of the legend, in which the beautiful woman, revered at Sabarimala as Malikappurathamma, with her own separate shrine, waits eternally for the godly young man, is perhaps a devotee’s reason why young women were required to honour the eternal quest and keep away from the pilgrimage.

If all of this sounds irrational and discriminatory, it is; but that is the popular belief. The Kerala High Court in its 1991 judgment that formalised the ban on young women compiled many reasons for the same after an examination of key witnesses. It directed the Travancore Devaswom Board to exclude women “from menarche up to menopause” (as it first described it, and later made it more specific, or practical, by mentioning the exact ages as “after 10” and “below 50”) from the Sabarimala shrine.

Among the reasons that form the basis of the restriction on women in Sabarimala alone, and not in other Ayyappa temples, is what the judgment describes as a fundamental one: the belief that “the deity at Sabarimala is in the form of a ‘Naisthik Brahmachari’, one who has taken a vow of celibacy and observes certain rules of everyday conduct”.

It is a curious list of rules and includes, for example, “casting lustful eyes on females”. The judgment says it is therefore believed that young women should not offer worship in the temple so that “even the slightest deviation from celibacy and austerity observed by the deity is not caused by the presence of such women”.

Ayyappa is believed to have lived as the adopted son of the king of Pandalam, a small region now in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. P. Ramavarma Raja, a prominent member of the royal family and former president of the Pandalam Palace Administrative Committee, told Frontline: “It is our belief that the customs and traditions of this temple and the pilgrimage associated with it are closely related to the advice given by Ayyappa to our ancestors at the end of his human life, when his saintly spirit merged with the idol at Sabarimala.”

The dense forests around Sabarimala are believed to have been the historical Ayyappa’s area of activity, where he went hunting or to war with bows and arrows with his lieutenants, importantly Vavar, an Arab seafarer whom he had defeated in battle. The imageries from his life are reflected at places of worship along the pilgrimage routes, in the dress and demeanour of Ayyappa devotees, and in the requirement of a 40-day vow of abstinence for the pilgrimage. Maybe women were never part of the original scheme of things because of the gruelling nature of the journey through deep forests.

‘Not a public place’

The chairman of the Travancore Devaswom Board, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, told Frontline that it was unfortunate that a temple where people of all religions, castes and creed could offer prayers, where devotees worshipped at a mosque and a church that were part of the legend along the pilgrimage route, and which preached that “the god you seek is within you”, was drawn into such an unfortunate controversy because of the peculiarities of its customs of worship. “The board is of the view that there should not be any kind of gender discrimination in public places. But Sabarimala is a Hindu temple, not a public place. It is a place of worship of Hindu believers, with its own traditions and customs. Is it right for the courts to say, for example, that Muslims need not set apart separate areas of worship for men and women in mosques; or that Christian women should also be allowed to conduct services in churches? Are we all not equal under the law?”

He said the belief was that at least 800 years had passed since the soul revered as Ayyappa merged with the idol at Sabarimala. “Is it right to say that this belief and its integral customs are in conflict with the Constitution that came into being just a few decades ago?”

According to Sarah Joseph, a leading writer in Malayalam, too many contradictory concepts are being put forth as reasons to ban women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering Sabarimala. “Clearly, the ban is meant for menstruating women alone. This discrimination is there in all religions, where men have imposed a lot of appalling values which have become ingrained in society. When medical science is so advanced and even children below the age of 10 understand what sanitary napkins are for, we are not able to overcome such biases. It is a dark, closed area in our open world; stupidity, more than injustice.”

The State government has taken the view that customs cannot be changed, and that the opinion of the tantris (main priests) should be taken as the last word on such issues. In contrast, the previous Left Front government told the court in 2007 that “it is not fair” to stop some sections of women from entering the Sabarimala temple, and a “commission of scholars” should be appointed to facilitate the change.

“There is no point in trying to see reason or logic in such issues of faith: there may not be any; or they may clash with one another. Is it not the essential nature of faith or belief? If your faith is in direct conflict with constitutional rights, then surely the constitutional rights will prevail. However, I don’t understand the logic behind restrictions imposed by faith being seen as part of constitutional rights. Of course, if those restrictions are socially abhorrent, such as Sati, a practice we have shed, then certainly the constitutional rights should prevail,” said K. Jayakumar, former Chief Secretary of Kerala.

The Devaswom Board president told Frontline that the religious practices of a temple were decided by the tantri immediately after the idol was consecrated, and the Devaswom Board did not have the power to go against the rules.

‘Custom vs gender’

“What we have here is an issue of custom versus gender discrimination. But custom is man-made. That is why it undergoes change. That is why there was the temple entry movement in Kerala. We have a long history of those who were discriminated against because of their caste or religion and so on gaining the right to some dignity, to walk in the streets around a temple, or enter a temple, and so on. Such changes have come through dialogue, new interpretations,” Sarah Joseph said.

Curiously, a formal prohibition on young women trekking to Sabarimala came only with the 1991 verdict of the High Court, which considered a petition filed by an individual complaining of one such woman taking part in the ceremony of feeding rice to her child for the first time at the temple, in September 1990. One of her relatives present at the ceremony, the petition said, was a board official. It was not an isolated event, and there is evidence that women in the forbidden age group used to visit the temple regularly until then, especially in the off-season months when the temple was opened for a few days in the beginning of every month and devotees could pray without observing the vow of abstinence.

There was an occasion in the early 1930s when the then maharaja of Travancore, too, seems to have visited the temple with the maharani. It is also well known that the board has initiated several changes in the traditions, customs and practices of the temple, with or without the concurrence of tantris since the 1950s when the temple was renovated following a mysterious fire “disaster”. According to reports, the original idol was found destroyed after the incident and had to be reconsecrated. There have also been instances when the board has issued receipts for the conduct of ceremonies involving young women. On one occasion after the High Court judgment, it allowed a film crew to shoot a young actress dancing right in front of the sacred steps.

Ramavarma Raja said that when Pandalam became part of the princely state of Travancore, the Sabarimala temple was handed over in trust to Travancore. After the State of Kerala was formed, all temples in the region (except the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram) were brought under the administration of the Travancore Devaswom Board. “Slowly the members of the Pandalam palace were denied any say in the administration of the temple. Several traditional practices at Sabarimala were altered or diluted, without consulting us or ignoring our protests. We feel that it has affected the sanctity of the temple in many ways. Already there are people who therefore consider it all as mere stories and legends and go to Sabarimala for fun. But we have a spiritual link with the Sabarimala temple. Similarly, there are millions who have faith in the traditions of Ayyappa. If further dilutions happen, as a result of court interventions too, we fear that soon there will be no difference between believers and non-believers. It will be the end of our belief,” he said.

Surprisingly, in Kerala, except for the debates on television channels, there has only been a lukewarm response, unlike in other States, to the upsurge of women demanding gender equality in places of worship. Even the petition challenging the restriction on entry of female devotees to Sabarimala has had only a subdued response, including from women’s organisations, in the State, where the tradition of menstruating women voluntarily keeping away from places of worship seems to be strongly entrenched.

“Women who believe in a liberal world are a minority in Kerala. Therefore, I think even if the court decides in their favour, young women will hesitate to go to Sabarimala. At least initially, they will say oh no, because, in all religions, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, women are the ones who nurture the patriarchal values more than men. They are more dangerous in that sense because they bequeath the same values to the next generation. In Kerala, unlike men, the majority of women do not think independently. So even if the court permits, maybe, a few years down the line they may start going there in some numbers. But even then, I am sure, they will not undertake the journey or enter the temple during their menstrual cycle,” said Sarah Joseph.

Jayakumar, who is also the chairman of the government’s high-power committee for the implementation of the Sabarimala Master Plan, however draws attention to another possible result: “I can say one thing with certainty. If young women also form part of the chock-a-block pilgrim congregations at Sabarimala, especially during the three main seasons, it will pose enormous practical problems there.” On this, there is unanimity of opinion in Kerala.

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