Cover Story : Matter of Choice
Women’s entry to Sabarimala has created a storm and if one goes by media projections, then the issue is divided on Right to Pray vs Ready to Wait positioning. This is largely due to the efforts of inimical forces to hijack and misinterpret the issue of women’s entry to the sacred shrine. To understand why this issue has divided the opinion not only in Kerala but all over India, we need to understand the local context of traditions, significance of the Sabarimala shrine, the legal and cultural issues involved in it. More importantly, we need to recognise the role of real stakeholders that is the 'women devotees' in this issue
T Satisan from Kochi
Women’s entry into the ancient forest temple of Sabarimala is debated as a hot issue in Kerala and elsewhere. Since time immemorial the women between the age of 10 to 50 years do not enter the temple, as per the tantrik rituals of that particular temple. The legend says, the deity of Ayyappa consecrated there is a celibate hence young women’s presence would not be acceptable to him. The devotees going there for worship stick on to this system for the last several centuries. Once upon a time, the devotees were limited to Kerala. Over the period of time devotees from Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka started thronging before the sacred shrine. Since the last few decades lot of people from all over India also are coming to Sabarimala for worship. The total turn out per annum is estimated to be 30 to 40 million. Obviously, the temple entry issue which is sensitive for the Malayalis all over the world acquired national significance.
The Sacred Traditions
Sabarimala (Box 1) is a sacred shrine located in the Western Ghats, around 200 Kms away from capital Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala. The temple known for peculiar traditions, like many other local customs all over India, restricts entry of women between the age of 10 to 50, which has now divided the public opinion vertically. While pondering over controversy surrounding the women entry into Sabarimala temple, we have to go back to the modalities maintained with respect to the temple worship during yesteryears. Until the end of the first half of the 20th century temple was not opened for worship every month. It was opened on the 1st day of the month of Vruschikam (Malayalam calendar month) and it remained opened for a mandalam, that is 41 days. Vruschikam normally starts by the middle of November. When the mandalam culminates the temple gets closed. Again temple reopens for Makar Sankraman in January. This time temple remains open for 2 to 3 days as the Tantri i.e. supreme authority of the temple who takes several auspicious parameters into consideration. During those days, the pilgrims used to observe the Mandala Vratham (The Code of Conduct) (See Box 2), the do‘s and do not’s in strict style. Celibacy was one of the key constituents of this practice.
Sabarimala Temple, situated in Western Ghats of Kerala, draws millions of devotees every year. The holy shrine of Lord Ayyappa is famous for its unique traditions and customary rituals. Despite its tradition of ‘barring women’, lakhs of women pilgrims are pouring into Sabarimala every year. How? Here, the restriction is only confined to the women of menstrual age group (10-50).
But, with the change of time devotees demanded the extension of the duration of the pilgrimage period. Then the Travancore Devaswom Board conducted Devaprashnam, the mandatory seeking of the God’s likes and dislikes through astrological exercise and debate by experts in the field; it is very common before making major decisions with respect to the changes to the temple rituals. As a result it was decided to open the temple during Vishu, a festival falling in April to mark the new year of Keralites. After some time, devotees demand came in again. Then the Devaprashnam endorsed the opening of the temple on the 1st day of every Malayalam calendar month.
But, there are some rituals which continue to reamin the same. For example, the king of Pandalam, considered to be the step father of Ayyappa, can scale the Pathinettampadi, 18 steps to reach the shrine, without the irumudi (the only travelling kit which a pilgrim carries on his/her head). He can have the darshan alone before closing the shrine after Makara Sakramanam. But he is not allowed take Darshan face to face to the deity like other devotees. This is also a custom.
How to observe mandala Vratham?
Devotees initiate the vratham by wearing a Thulasi or a Rudraksha mala. After this ceremony, the male pilgrim and the female pilgrim (aged 1-12 and after 55) are addressed as Ayyapan/Swamy and Maalikapuram respectively, until their completion of the pilgrimage. The devotees will wear only BLACK colored clothings.
1. Devotees are expected to undergo practices of simple living, and absolute cleanliness.
The matter of women’s entry to Sabarimala is now before the Supreme Court of India. (BOX 3) The same time it has turned a political issue in Kerala. CPM, as usual taking tactical stand, is talking in favour of temple entry for women without leadership getting into the tricky issue. Congress is also in a confused state. BJP is the only party which maintains that this is not a political issue, hence politicians are not competent to take a final decision. BJP National Executive member PK Krishnadas told Organiser that the matter should be discussed by all stakeholders like Hindu organisations, scholars, spiritual movements and their leaders, women devotees and tantris of the temple, etc.
The Legal Tangle
In 1990, an Ayyappa devotee filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) before the High Court of Kerala for the prevention of entry of women between the age of 10-50 into Sabarimala Temple as Ayyappa was a celibate God. High Court directed the Travancore Devaswom Board to execute the prevention as prayed in the PIL. Later on another PIL was filed in 2006 by Indian Young Lawyers Association before the Supreme Court of India challenging the above-mentioned ruling. PIL argued that the ruling did violate the right to religion of women (Article 25) and right to equality (Articles 14 and 15). A special bench of Justices Dipak Mishra, Gopala Gowda and Kurian Joseph was constituted in 2016 to hear the matter in the wake of its constitutional significance. Later on Nikita Azad and Sukhjit Azad impleaded in this PIL. They were the founders of the campaign against menstrual discrimination, “Happy To Bleed.” Their lawyers, representing the voice of the feminists, challenged the constitutional validity of the Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 and the notifications issued there under by the Travancore Devaswom Board on the grounds that they violate (i) the right of women devotees of Lord Ayyappa (Article 25), (ii) the right of women to equality of non-discrimination based on sex as they restrict women’s entry based on a biological phenomena of menstruation (Articles 14 and 15). (iii) the rights of women against religious-social disabilities as secured under Article 17, the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and (iv) Section 3 and 4 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Pubic Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965 that prohibit discrimination amongst classes or sections of Hindus in relation to temple entry.
The most important reason for contention in this issue is the way agitation was built up. Many in Kerala believe that certain elements working on anti-Hindu traditions are behind this. The recent verdict by High Court on Haji Ali Durgah is equated with Sabarimala is also not acceptable to many groups. “We saw them leading the infamous “Kiss of Love” movement and leading the campaign for the Human Rights of the infiltrators and terrorists of Kashmir,” said a campaigner opposing the temple entry for women at the behest of these ‘feminist activists’.
Recently several young women made an online campaign on Facebook and other social media. They carried the placard reading “I AM READY TO WAIT”. It means they are ready to wait until they turn 50 before going to Sabarimala. Adv. Niveditha from Guruvayoor, one of the vanguards of the “I AM READY TO WAIT” campaign while speaking to Organiser said, “I believe that Kerala temples are consecrated on the basis of tantrik rituals hence Vrathashudhi (purity of Vratha) is essential for the temple entry. If these conditions are ignored when the women go to Sabarimala, it will be belittled as a mere tourist centre. If at all the present system is to be changed, the best modus operandi is to go for a devaprashnam and see what God likes; then practice accordingly.” If at all such a decision comes, Niveditha and her colleagues would not go to Sabarimala until they turn 50. For example, even though Guruvayoor Temple authorities relaxed the women’s dress code, they still stick on to the traditional costumes. At the moment, women can send coconuts filled with ghee, when men go, as a token of their participation in the Vratha.
The progressive but reconciliatory stand taken by the senior RSS pracharak, Shri Ranga Hari, surprised many. He said, “Bharatiya tradition did not discriminate against women since the Vedic times. Those days there were around 30-35 female rishis. Devatas are female. During the Islamic agression, Hindu women were not safe hence they confined themselves to their homes, and then came the discrimination in rituals. When the decision took for 41 days Vartha for going to Sabarimala, the presence of a woman in the deliberations was highly unlikely; otherwise the woman would have definitely said that it was not practical for young women”. Taking a reconciliatory stand, RSS Sarkaryavah Shri Bhayyaji Joshi recently said: “When age limit was set there could have some reasons behind it. Let us see what those reasons are. If they are still valid we can discuss it. We can have code of conduct. Let us decide that.” It is in tune with the position taken by Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha of RSS in which it was stated that, “Such sensitive issues should not be politicised, and should be resolved only through discussion and dialogue, and not through agitations.”
Since there are reasonable arguments, with sterling logic and clarity, in favour of women’s entry to Sabarimala, it looks like the matter will continue with serious discussions on merits and demerits. All serious stakeholders are participating in the discussion, justifying their positions. Though opinion in favour of
protecting customs and tradition is dominating among the real stakeholders, that are women devotees, it is mainly due to the external intervention in their domain. Whether such traditions are in tune with our rich heritage and culture is the question everyone will have to ponder. Though trouble makers have raised this issue for brownie political points, this churning among the stakeholders poised to get the nectar of new renaissance in Hindu society. Till then we have to bear with the storm for sure.