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Posted at: Nov 4, 2018, 12:18 AM; last updated: Nov 4, 2018, 12:18 AM (IST)

When tradition gets overruled

Kerala’s Sabarimala shrine reopens tomorrow. The hill temple has been in the news following protests against the SC ruling allowing young women to enter its premises. SreevalsanThiyyadi looks at the issue

For the liberals, there’s a trap in the Sabarimala verdict even as it ensures gender equality. Despite the progressive tone, the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a 1965 law that restricted the entry of women in Kerala’s Sabarimala temple mutes a strand of heterogeneity in Hinduism. Diversity, crusaders of egalitarianism constantly remind, is a key feature of the country’s majority religion.

The September 28 judgment has triggered gender-centric public discussion around the temple like never before. The bar on women of the 10-50 age bracket in the hill-shrine was legally reiterated in 1991, courtesy a verdict of the Kerala High Court that upheld the ‘age-old’ observance. It’s another matter that the restriction possibly began only in the 1950s, after reconstruction of the forest shrine following a fire at the start of that decade.

Yet, perception about Sabarimala’s particularly chaste Ayyappa (Naishthika brahmachari, who avoids women) overshadows the ethos around the deity who has devotees across the Dravidian states. Bearded Sabarimala pilgrims sporting black clothes and raising ‘saranam’ slogans define the crowds on Kerala-bound trains and buses from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh during the December-January mandalam pilgrimage. The temple is otherwise open only around the start of every Malayalam month.

For now, Malayalis are the most vocal among the indignant. Middle-aged Pushpa Ayyappan, a semi-literate maid from Vandiperiyar in Idukki adjoining Pathanamthitta district where Sabarimala is situated, says, “Swami will never permit young women near Him, however hard they try”.

Biju Jayaraj, who works in California and has been living in the US for the past 23 years, says he deplores the court verdict “the same way if it had banned beef in Kerala”.

Parvathi Ramesh, who lives in the Gulf, prefers “activists” not to be overzealous, but wonders how anyone can insist that only believers among the women can visit Sabarimala.

According to writer K Sugathakumari, the recent events in Sabarimala pain her as a devotee as much as a nature lover. “You are playing politics around a holy place,” bemoans the 84-year-old poet, once known for her Congress leaning. “When the Pamba river (by the temple) overflowed in the (August) floods, one thought the lord got a reprieve. Sabarimala is no place for violence or bloodshed.”

The reference to the crimson body fluid comes in the context of clashes the rugged pathways to Sabarimala saw for five days from October 17 when it customarily opened ahead of the Thulammonth. It could also be suggestive of menstruation — the period when women generally avoid visiting temples.

That way, attempts by ‘activists’ such as Rehana Fathima and Kavitha Jakkal to enter the Sabarimala with police protection (and hence governmental patronage) triggered anger among Hindus, especially women.

“They should better have fought for the security of common women, who still can’t walk alone on our roads after sunset,” says Saritha Varma, who was part of a ‘Ready to Wait’ campaign two years ago in support of the Sabarimala ‘tradition’.

Ayyappa devotee Unnikrisshnan Namboothiri wonders why a regime that never thought of services for the aged to reach Sabarimala was now keen to “guard non-believer women” seeking to enter the shrine.

A renewed show of contempt the Leftists have for erstwhile kings is also hurting several devotees. Among them is journalist Rathi Narayanan, who says members of the Pandalam ‘royal’ family that has enjoyed a historical connection with Sabarimala, are “actually living in unenviable conditions” and merit no ridicule.

Political observer A Jayasankar blames Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s “arrogance and stubbornness” for precipitating the situation. “Had he promptly called an all-party meeting seeking consensus, most Hindus wouldn’t have revolted like they are doing today,” the Kochiite lawyer says.

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