Kerala on razor’s edge

The clash between tradition and women’s rights, aided by hostile politics, is tearing God’s Own Country apart

By Author  |  Published: 6th Jan 2019  12:12 amUpdated: 5th Jan 2019  10:43 pm

Kerala has been on the boil right since the Supreme Court verdict allowed women of all ages, including menarche to menopause, to enter the Lord Ayyappa shrine in Sabarimala on September 28 last year. Not a day passes without protests around the famous temple. A series of hartals and the violence witnessed in the last two days have resulted in widespread destruction coupled with 1,369 arrests across the State.

What triggered the mayhem was the entry of two women — Kanakadurga (44) and Bindu Ammini (42) — who had darshan in Sabarimala temple on January 2. Clad in black dress and covering their faces, Kanakadurga and Bindu merged with other male devotees and had darshan of Lord Ayyappa at around 3.30 am.

The two women, who failed in their first attempt on December 24, 2018, to enter the temple, had earlier met on the Facebook page, Navodhana Keralam Sabarimalaiyeleku, started by a Kozhikode-based social activist, Shreyas Kanaran, who believed women, regardless of their age, must get darshan in Sabarimala temple.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said, “The two ladies were not given any special treatment or provided a helicopter. The Kerala government followed Supreme Court’s order and provided police security for them. Other devotees who were present helped them with arrangements after they entered the temple.” The police personnel, both men and women who accompanied Kanakadurga and Bindu, were also dressed in black.

Women’s Wall

Gender rights activist Trupti Desai, along with a group of women, tried to enter Sabarimala temple in mid-November last year. However, they were forced to return to Pune after they were stuck at Kochi International Airport for 10 hours, being surrounded by protesters who prevented them from stepping out of the airport. Several other women, alone or in groups, made unsuccessful bids to enter the temple because protesters stopped them midway.

On New Year’s Day, women across all the 14 districts in Kerala formed a 620-km-long ‘Women’s Wall’, scripting history to make a loud statement about gender equality against the backdrop of the Sabarimala controversy. Though sponsored by the CPI(M), over 35 lakh women, cutting across caste, religion and class lines, stood shoulder-to-shoulder to prove that they were united for this cause.

CPI(M) politbureau member Brinda Karat, who was the last woman of the human chain, said women have erected a “human wall of resistance against the dark forces”. Representatives of the Universal Record Forum, who record awesome achievements in the world, declared the human wall as the ‘longest women’s wall in the world’.

Conflict Zone

After Kanakadurga and Bindu had darshan, the tantri (chief priest) who conducted purification ceremony (shuddhikriya) next day, was questioned by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) president A Padmakumar because the act is in violation of the Supreme Court judgment. The TDB manages the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala and is authorised to raise queries if there is any inappropriate procedure witnessed in the daily system in the temple without its approval. Tantri Kandararu Rajeevaru has been asked to submit an explanation as to why he conducted ‘shuddhikriya’ in 15 days’ time.

Kerala police claimed a Sri Lankan woman, Sasikala (46), offered prayers at the sanctum sanctorum, climbing the 18 holy steps around 9.30 pm and returned to Pampa at 11 pm on Jan 3, the day the dawn-to-dusk hartal was called by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi (SKS), an umbrella organisation of various groups.

Around 79 Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) buses were damaged and protesters placed burning tyres and boulders bringing traffic to a halt at several places. They attacked over 20 CPI (M) offices and left at least 31 police personnel injured. The Left workers were seen in pitched battles with BJP cadres and the police were forced to lob tear gas shells to disperse the frenzied mobs.

The four districts that were badly hit by the hartal violence were Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, Thrissur and Palakkad. The district was forced to impose curfew in Palakkad town. Some BJP workers were stabbed when they tried to close a hotel owned by a person who belonged to a minority community in Thrissur.

Situation getting worse

Chandran Unnithan, an SKS activist, died after being severely injured during stone-pelting between rival groups at Pandalam in Pathanamthitta district. The 52-year-old sustained a wound on his head and was immediately taken to a hospital in Pandalam. However, his condition deteriorated after which he was moved to a private hospital in Thiruvalla where he was declared dead. Two CPI(M) cadres, Kannan and Aju, had been reportedly taken into custody, claimed the district police.

The Pandalam Circle Inspector had warned SKS that protests could be risky, given the situation. But police instructions were ignored, reported Malayalam news channel Asianet. The CPI(M) demanded an inquiry into the incident. The Kerala Chief Minister has been provided additional police protection after the violence.

The Shrine

Sabarimala is an ancient temple, surrounded by 18 hills in Periyar Tiger Reserve on a hilltop in Pathanamthitta district. The temple attracts pilgrims from across the world.

The temple is open for worship only during the days of Mandalapooja in November-December, Makara Sankranti on January 14 and Maha Vishuva Sankranti on April 14, and the first five days of each Malayalam month.

It was mostly unreachable for about three centuries after its installation. Legend has it that in the 12th century, a prince of the Pandalam dynasty, Manikandan, rediscovered the original path to reach Sabarimala. This prince is considered an avatar of Ayyappa. It is believed that he meditated at Sabarimala temple and became one with the divine.

Beliefs

The pilgrims have to take up difficult treks in the forest as vehicles cannot reach there. They have to observe 41-day abstinence before going to the temple. They are also required to strictly follow a vegetarian diet, refrain from alcohol, not use any profanity and are not allowed to cut their hair and nails. Married men should sleep separately and are expected to bathe twice a day and visit local temples. They have to wear black clothes, not shave until the completion of the pilgrimage and smear sandal paste on their forehead.

The ban on women entering the temple premises is being practised for centuries, as devotees consider Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity, to be celibate. In 1991, the Kerala High Court restricted entry of women above the age of 10 and below the age of 50 to Sabarimala temple as they were of the menstruating age.