Sabarimala temple in Kerala. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

The Sabarimala temple in the south Indian state of Kerala, on the Supreme Court order, opened its doors to women of all ages, triggering violent protests in the state. However, no women in the age group of 10 to 50 have so far entered the temple.

Women should go to Sabarimala

By Jaya Chandran, Web Editor

Wherever women can go, they should go. They should go to Sabarimala too, if they want, when they want. At the earliest opportunity, if you ask me. Otherwise what is the Supreme Court verdict for? To be framed and hung up on a wall? As some kind of a weird testimony for the record that, despite all the discouragement, all the harassment in public spaces, all the sexual attacks in every possible situations, India did treat its women with some dignity, some kind of decency, at least in theory?

First things first. It is silly to debate this question at this age and at this point in our evolution as a civil society.  But the stiff resistance from certain quarters to women’s entry to the temple even after the top court verdict raises serious concerns.

Wherever men can go, women must be allowed to go.

The Supreme Court verdict in the Sabarimala women entry case is clear and definitive.  Women are free to enter Sabarimala and no one should block them. The five-judge bench arrived at this decision by rightly interpreting that that denial of access violates the fundamental rights and equality of the women. Judges further noted that women have equal right to worship as men and ‘to exclude women in the age group of 10 to 50 from the temple is to deny dignity to women’.

Devotees at the Sabarimala temple.

It is a fact that many devotees and general public mistook the existing practice of denial of entry to women of ‘impure’ age as part of the temple tradition. However, it was not, as more and more evidences coming out point to: Women of powerful upper caste communities used to visit and pray at the temple with tacit approval of the temple administration from time to time. That says volumes about the urge to protect Lord Ayyappan’s celibacy, which by the way the court said is not the duty of the female devotees.

But that is an entirely different argument and applies only if you are a believer of the many myths surrounding the reigning deity of Sabarimala.

Denial of fundamental rights

For a sizeable number of people Sabarimala women’s entry issue is much more than a religious issue or a ritual taboo. 

It is an issue of denial of fundamental rights and rights to equality for all enshrined in the Indian constitution.

Devotees take part in a protest against a Supreme Court verdict revoking a ban on women's entry to Sabarimala temple, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. AFP

The context in which the judgement was made should’ve been respected and accepted as it was solidly grounded on Indian constitution and citizen’s rights. Reliance on the rule of law, equality and fundamental rights is crucial for a pluralistic country like India. More than ever now in India: when minorities are being hounded out like never before and even lynched for their food choices, dress codes and religious preferences. 

Also worth noting is the latest setback to the Hindutwa brigade on Sabarimala issue. The Kerala High Court has just the other day rejected petition by a BJP leader seeking ban on non-Hindus at Sabarimala. It is the only religious centre where people of all religions are allowed and denying entry to non-Hindus would destroy the communal harmony in the state, the court said. Hope it is amply clear who is trying to fish in troubled waters.

A fragile ecosystem mauled beyond redemption

Even after the court verdict, many try to justify the denial of entry to women in the name of tradition and glorify those willing to wait until they turn 50. And this 10-50 exclusivity is exactly the same kind of argument that leaves a stale aftertaste of Manusmriti (Ancient set of moral and legal codes for Hindus) that still controls the minds of the current Indian leadership.

Women should go to Sabarimala, of course. It is their right and it is important to exercise one’s rights without which everything is hollow. However, be considerate to nature. Sabarimala, located at Periyar Tiger Reserve, is already a fragile ecosystem mauled beyond redemption thanks to the massive, mindless developments for religious tourism and by the garbage devotees leave all around. Just don’t go there year after year like selfish male devotees. And please don’t leave anything there except your footprints.

Women must not enter Sabarimala

By A.K.S. Satish, Senior Pages Editor

I was attracted to Sabarimala and its presiding Lord Aiyappa from a young age after seeing several pujas and listening to stories from friends and relatives about their 41km trek through the thick forests. I was in awe. I had to go.

My first visit to the Sannithanam was with my friends in 1995. And that sparked many more. Three before moving to Dubai in 2000 and three in the last five years: six in all.

Devotees arrive to pay obeisance at Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala. PTI

What takes me to Sabarimala? It is difficult to explain. It’s a blissful experience. It’s a 41-day fast, something like the fast during Ramadan or Lent. After walking bare-feet through the hard earth, where every stone, where very sharp pebble will test your patience and perseverance, those few subliminal moments before the deity are like a balm – those hardships one battled were nothing compared to this feeling; this magical moment of divinity.

But why put yourself through such a tough regimen? Today a sportsman or even a common-man know that to gain physical strength one has to undertake a gruelling workout schedule. It is the same with the mind. This is a workout to strengthen the mind to gain control over the body. It is a perfect detox. In today’s health-obsessed world, tremendous importance is laid on fasting to overcome many diseases.

And what is the tradition?

The Sabarimala pilgrimage is like no other. At least that’s what I was told and I have followed. There are many dos and don’ts. On wearing the tulsi mala one assumes the form of the deity himself. The person is addressed as swami. It is a great leveller – one has to shed ones ego almost instantaneously as each swami is expected to touch the feet of other swamis.

Here personal position, financial might, caste or creed have no role to play. In fact, a father can touch the feet of his son, who is also a swami. However, they must not fall at anyone else’s feet except the mother. Such is the respect given to a woman. 

Now comes the biggest question. Why were women not allowed into the temple for so many years?

I am a traditionalist. And tradition says Lord Aiyappa is a Naisthika Bramachari (eternal celibate). Hence, all swamis, who perform the pilgrimage, have to adhere to tradition. The wives and mothers of these pilgrims also make sacrifices and go through tough regimens. But they stay away from the temple.

File photo: Pilgrims throng the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala. IANS

Every place has its rules

The woman is not undermined here. It is just that she has a different role. Every place has its rules. There are many women-only places. There are rituals which men are not allowed to attend.

Pilgrims who undertake the journey to Sabarimala fast for 41 days – they abstain from sex, alcohol and non-vegetarian food. The presence of women at the temple may be a source of temptation. And when there are such large numbers of men, one also has to take into account the safety of women.

Just as you do not want liquor shops on the way, you also do not want illegal trade run en route to Sabarimala, on the foothills or near the Pampa River. It is a pious time and every effort must be made to preserve piety.

Sabarimala is a place where men of different religions can enter. So if such a place has had a restriction, then there must have been a reason. Many clubs and hotels or organisations have a dress code. Still today there are many golf clubs in the world which don’t allow women members. And there are ladies day at prominent horserace courses.

One can argue why should there be a code in the first place. It is simple. Every place has its rules.

If you believe in a place, follow the rules, if you don’t stay away.

The agitators’ core arguments

Gulf News Web Report

The main argument at the root of the current agitation against the court verdict is the alleged “impurity” of menstruating women.

In fact, it is a taboo in almost all temples. It is more of a voluntary sort of thing considering the difficulties in enforcing it.  Whether the court has any right to intervene in the affairs of the faithful is just tactical point to divert the attention.

File photo: Devotees take part in a protest against a Supreme Court verdict revoking a ban on women's entry to Sabarimala temple, in Thiruvananthapuram. AFP

The protest organisers have taken special care to bring women to the forefront of the agitation but it presents a bizarre spectacle. Thousands of women marching to the tune of some invisible men — to save Ayyappan from their own “impurities”.  

The other point was the “eternal celibate” nature attributed to Lord Ayyappan. It is believed that Ayyappan’s celibacy will be affected if women of reproductive age enter Sabarimala.

What the court said

The India Supreme Court primarily looked in to the issue on the basis of gender discrimination and right to worship.

Right to worship is given to all devotees and there can be no discrimination on the basis of gender, the court said.

The practice of barring women in age group of 10-50 to go inside the temple violates constitutional principles, the Supreme Court said in its verdict.

What is Sabarimala and who is Ayyappan?

Sabarimala is one of the most prominent Hindu pilgrimage centres in south India, located in Pathanamthitta District, in the state of Kerala.

The temple is open for worship during the 41 days of Mandalapooja (November-December) Makaravilakku (in January) and Vishu Sankranti (April) — and the first five days of each Malayalam month.

The shrine witnesses one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world — with up to 50 million devotees visiting every year.

It is one of the ‘richest’ temples in India in terms of seasonal income. During the festive season last year it has achieved a record income of Rs 255 crores or Dh 126,140,810.

In 1991, the Kerala High Court bench restricted the entry of women above the age of 10 and below the age of 50 from Sabarimala Shrine, as they were of the menstruating age.

Essentially, it is this order that the Supreme Court constitution bench had scrapped through its 4-1 judgement, allowing women of all ages the right to enter the temple.

The legend of Ayyappan

There’s one popular legend associated with the birth of Ayyappan, the deity of Sabarimala shrine. Ayyappan is also called Hari-Hara putra, which literally means “son of Hari” (Vishnu – an important deity in Hindu pantheon) and Hara (Shiva - another important Hindu deity). And these two are male deities.

How could Ayyappan be born of two male deities? The story, popular in many South Indian texts, goes like this: In those days, there were constant fights between Devas and Asuras or the gods and demons, but they united once for “Samudra mandhan”, or the churning of the ocean to get Amrit, something like an elixir of immortality.

When the pot containing the elixir emerged from the ocean, the Asuras grabbed it and they wanted to keep it for themselves.

Sensing trouble, Vishnu then took the form of Mohini, a gorgeous female enchantress, and tricked Asuras to hand over the pot containing the exilir.

When Shiva came to know about this, he wanted to see the enchantress Mohini. Vishnu assumed the form again and Shiva couldn’t control his desire for Mohini — and Ayyappan (or Shasta) is born out of their union.

The union of Shiva and Vishnu is narrated in the same vein, with additions and subtractions, in various south texts like Bhagavata Purana, Brahmanda Purana and Tripurarahasya.

Was Sabrimala a Buddhist temple?

Sabarimala is the only major temple in Kerala where people from any religion could go freely.

And it’s not because of the Hindu tradition or heritage, but points to the Buddhist connection.

Women were denied entry probably because of the same connection as Buddhist “viharas” were out of bounds for the women in the early days.

Ayyappan is also called “Dharma Shaastaavu” and the word Dharma or Dhamma clearly indicates the Buddhist connection.

Another curious link to Budhdhist tradition is the call for Sharanam (a request for protection or help).

During Shabarimala pilgrimage, Ayyappan devotees’ talismanic chant is “Swami Sharanam, Ayyappa Sharanam” and this has obvious roots in Buddhist sharana chants like “Budham Sharanam, Sangham Sharanam”, scholars have pointed out.

The third one is the posture of the deity, it has a close similarity to Buddhist idols.

Noted Kerala academic Sunil P. Ilayidom has commented that the Sabarimala idol is similar to those found in the Gandhara style of Budhdhist art.

All this point to the strong possibility that Sabarimala could be such Buddhist shrine appropriated by the Hindu mainstream groups from a Buddhist sect.

So whose tradition are they trying to protect now?

Most of the people protesting on the streets and attacking women devotees on social media who want to go to Sabarimala have no idea about any of these — other than what the campaigners have pushed down their throat.

The Tamil connection and Ayyanaar

Ayyappan is also called Shashtavu.  Shasta is also identified with the Tamil deity Aiyyanaar. Village temples of Ayyanaar can be seen everywhere in Tamil Nadu. He is considered a guardian of many other folk deities.

The origins of Ayyanaar worship is not very well documented, and some studies have pointed to the Sinhalese and possible Buddhist connection for this deity too. Sinhalese worship him in the name of Ayyanayake, according to scholarly studies.

Self-realising pilgrimage

By Balaram Menon, Senior Web Producer

Located in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta district in Kerala, Sabarimala Sri Dharmasastha Temple is the most ancient and prominent Sastha temples in India, and one of the few shrines that is open to all faiths. Surrounded by mountains and dense forest at the Periyar Tiger Reserve Sabarimala is believed to be the place where the celibate deity Lord Ayyappa meditated. 

The pilgrimage

The Sabarimala pilgrimage season begins in mid-November and ends in mid-January. The temple attracts pilgrims not only from the south India, but also from other parts of the country and abroad. The shrine gets thronged with devotees during this main season. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world with an estimated 50 million devotees visit there each year. The temple stays closed during the rest of the year except for the first five days of every Malayalam month and during Vishu (April).

41 days of austerity

Certain customs are to be strictly followed if one wish to undertake a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. The devotees have to take a 'vrutham' or 41 days of austerity. The vrutham can be undertaken only after getting permission from one's parents or guru. The devotees must abstain from all things that are materialistic or offer worldly pleasures. They have to follow a vegetarian diet and are required to abstain from consuming alcohol, tobacco and intoxicants in any form, cutting hair or shaving are also taboo. They must also wear black, dark blue or kavi (saffron) clothes and pray and wash regularly during this period. Besides, a pilgrim should lead a modest way of life and his mind should be filled with devotion and prayers throughout these days. Chanting Ayyapa bajans and other devotional songs as much as possible keep the vrutham intact. The do’s and don’t’s during this period are set to cleanse the human mind, body and inner soul. The sanctity and purity of these rituals make this an endearing saga and gives an enriched way of life.

The trek up

Banks of river Pamba, the base of the Neelimala Hills, is the main halting point on the way to Sabarimala. From there begins the steepest climb of the pilgrimage, a 4 to 5 kms trek up the majestic Neelimala Hills, atop which sits Lord Ayyappa in all his glory.

River Pamba, the base of Neelimala Hills, from where the trek up to Sabarimala begins.

It is an atmosphere of festive fervour with thousands of pilgrims wind their way up the difficult trail in an unending stream, the hill reverberating with the loud rhythmic chants to Ayyappa.

At the first sight of the 'Patinettampadi' (the holy eighteen steps), a full throated chanting praising Lord Ayyappa goes up from the pilgrims. These holy eighteen steps are one of the specialties of Sabarimala. Every steps represent some inner meanings and those who climb through are supposed to become free from all sins like kama, kroda, and moha emotions (lust, anger, desire etc).

The essence of Sabarimala pilgrimage

Once reached atop, the devotees can see the word 'Thathwamasi' is written on the entrance of the Sanctum Sanctorum of Lord Ayyappa. The word 'Thathwamasi' means 'It's you', ‘the Lord and You are one and the same’. It's one, not two. This is the culmination of the Sabarimala pilgrimage and the moment to realise oneself.