Saturday, June 10, 2023

Gender equality and women’s entry to Sabarimala


By M.R. Lalu

As the pilgrim season of the Mandala Makaravilakku festival culminates, the famous Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala and the endless forest garden surrounding it have fallen into a deep meditative silence once again. Endless stretch of forest to the borders of Tamil Nādu remains deathly silent. This year arrangements for the pilgrim season were made under the directives of the Kerala High Court with necessary measures put in place to check the pandemic. The state government, in a significant move, allowed 30000 devotees to visit the shrine through a virtual queue system every day. The Makaravilakku festival was on January 14 and the temple was closed on January 20. Sabarimala temple was in controversy for years as the traditions of the temple forbade entry of women of menstruating age into its premises. A pilgrimage to this shrine is of great importance to millions of devotees. 60 kilometers away from my house, the shrine and the Lord Ayyappa have always been a subject of great reverence for me personally and a matter of deep faith for my family.

The Supreme Court’s verdict on women entry to this popular shrine in Kerala had been a great shock for a significant population of the state. The social impact began to be visible as the women folk of the majority community in the state came out to the streets against the CPI (M) led government. Sabarimala, as I know it from my childhood, has been a spiritual shrine that attracts millions of devotees every year. Interestingly, it was the first time in the history of any verdict that the beneficiaries of the decree directly flooded to the streets in millions rejecting its efficacy and questioning its intentions. ‘The Ready to Wait’ campaign by the women of the state was unprecedented in many ways. It was a movement of the women by the women and for the women. While they stood against the verdict of the court, they were ready to wait to visit the shrine until their menopause age dawned in.  It was in 1990 a case was filed in the Kerala High Court alleging that women were entering Sabarimala occasionally, probably unnoticed, and the petitioner demanding a carpet ban on women of certain age to the shrine. The Kerala High Court, citing the need of preserving the age-old customs of the shrine, banned the women of certain age from entering it. In 2006 the matter was taken to the Supreme Court by a group of lawyers from the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association which demanded the ban be lifted, citing the ban as a violation of women’s right to worship in Hindu spiritual centers.  The court viewed that any exception placed on women on biological differences violates the Constitution. Therefore, the ban was lifted and the state government, to implement the court verdict, against the will of millions of devotees, managed to intrude into the sanctity of the temple, by bringing two women from the ultra-left social groups in disguise of security personnel. 

Historical evidence from the 19th century reveals that menstruating women were banned from entering the temple for almost 200 years.  The principal deity Lord Ayyappa is treated as a celibate (Naishtika Brahmachari) and the customs prohibited women of menstruating age from entering into his abode. The argument was mainly considering the deity as a person and his eligibility to enjoy the constitutional right to privacy by denying women of that age from visiting him.   On the contrary, menstruation being purely a biological factor and exclusively a matter of womanhood, the petitioners seeking a lift on the ban were of the opinion that no woman should be prohibited from entering the temple because she was a woman. For them, both genders were blessed with unique biological capabilities and that should be respected. This entry ban was only applicable to Sabarimala and temples dedicated to the same deity elsewhere did not have such restrictions.  Photos and idols of the deity can be seen in almost every South Indian family.

The apex court viewed the whole issue as a dominance of the patriarchal entity in the present-day society. It also viewed that excluding the women of menstruating age from a pilgrimage was equally amounting to untouchability.  Every year the preparations for the pilgrim season start on the first day of the Malayalam month Vrischikam. The pilgrim season begins as the devotees start observing austerities for 41 days and climbing the hill shrine with spiritual offerings for Lord Ayyappa which they carry bundled on their head. These are the symbolic representations of the sinful karmas of the devotee, who indeed carries them to the Lord as an act of surrender and regret. He opens the bundle of sinful karmas at the shrine and takes refuge at the lotus feet of Lord Ayyappa.  41 days of penance by the pilgrim undergoing rigorous religious practices transforms the ambiance of the family purely into a spiritual one. Menstruating ladies are not welcome to certain places of the houses as their presence is viewed to bring impurity and disrupt the penance.

The Sabarimala shrine and its economic importance in Kerala was one of the reasons behind the state government’s over enthusiasm to implement the court order against the ban. Every year, the pilgrim season pumps a huge amount of money to the state’s exchequer. When the sanctum sanctorum alone receives more than 200 crores in the form of cash and ornaments and other revenues from the prasadam distribution in a pilgrim season, the government gets an additional 1000 crore or more as revenue recovery from various pilgrim related activities from across the state. More than three crore devotees are estimated to take to the pilgrimage from different parts of the world and the importance and the impact of the temple on the socio- economic scenario of the state is unparalleled.  The state government was much aware of this fact and by implementing the verdict the government wanted more devotees including the womenfolk to throng into the shrine and thereby more money to pour in.

The Sabarimala Temple is a unique institution with regard to its religious practices. As I mentioned above, the 41 days of severe abstinence transforms a devotee into a spiritual being. As he begins his austerities by putting a rosary around his neck, he becomes a swami and stops eating meat and consuming alcohol and stays away from sensual pleasures and also strictly stops using coarse language even in unfavorable situations. He is on a spiritual journey aiming to discover the divine Ayyappa principle in him. He wears simple orange or black waist cloth and lives on limited needs.  The pilgrimage is a perfect example of spiritual coexistence of human beings forgetting all the differences and merging into what the Upanishads call “Tatvamasi”, the divine state of the Lord in oneself. Though the major castes in the state were seen divided on the whole issue, the devotees were seen to be out in one voice against the court order and the state government’s stand to implement it. More than 3000 Ayyappa devotees were arrested in the agitation and the subsequent unrest. The stalemate continued for long but this year the pilgrim season went on smoothly amidst the pandemic with the state government sensibly avoiding women entry to the shrine.  

(Author is freelance journalist and social worker based in Kerala. The views expressed are personal opinion of the author. He can be reached at [email protected].)

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