Lifting of ban on women visiting sacred temple sparks violent protests

India’s Kerala state is wracked with violence after ancient tradition and modern human rights collide following Supreme Court ruling.

By Priti Salian
Published 9 Jan 2019, 13:48 GMT

The southern Indian state of Kerala is currently experiencing one of the most violent periods of unrest in its history. Over 100 people have been injured, one has died and close to 5,800 have been arrested this month, and the U.K. and U.S. have just issued travel advisories to their citizens visiting Kerala.

The reason for the unrest? Following a Supreme Court judgment, two women—now in hiding—entered the grounds of an 800-year-old temple complex that has been off limits to women of menstruating age due to a long-established ban. Here's what we know so far...

What sparked the protests?

In September 2018, India’s Supreme Court ruled that a formal ban preventing girls and women between 10 and 50 years of age from entering the Kerala’s Sabarimala temple—or even climbing one of two processional routes leading to the temple—be revoked. The 13th-century shrine, which sits high atop a hill in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, is dedicated to the Hindu deity Ayyappa. The popular pilgrimage spot is visited by more than 50 million people a year.

Devotees gather at the Sabarimala temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, a Hindu deity celebrated for his avowed celibacy.
Photograph by Arun Sankar, AFP, Getty

In the months following the ruling, more than two dozen female devotees tried to make their way into the temple complex unsuccessfully, facing sometimes violent resistance from men—and even women—blocking their way.

Then, in the early morning hours of January 2, lawyer Bindu Ammini and Dalit activist Kanakadurga, both women in their 40s, managed to ascend one of Sabarimala’s processional routes and enter the main temple while remaining unnoticed among the crowd, with four plainclothes police officers in tow.

Hours after they offered their prayers under police protection to Ayyappa, the temple was closed for “purification rituals”—an act which violates India’s constitutional provision against untouchability. A strike by right-wing Hindu groups ensued and protesting mobs pelted stones and threw crude bombs at law enforcement authorities, escalating violence in the region.

Why aren't women allowed in the Sabarimala temple? Is this a special case?

In India, it’s not uncommon for families to prevent female relatives from entering Hindu holy places during their period, believing that they are “unclean.” Most Hindu temples, however, do not have formal restrictions against entry. Sabarimala is unusual in that it is one of a handful of temples that has a historic proscription against women of reproductive age from entering, with the temple’s religious leadership arguing that such women could distract a deity celebrated for his avowed celibacy.

Supporters of the traditional ban against reproductive-age women at the Sabarimala temple hold a candlelight vigil. Protests have shaken Kerala in the months following the September 2018 Supreme Court ruling that all women be allowed entry into the temple.
Photograph by Chandan Khanna, AFP, Getty

While there are other temples in India dedicated to Ayyappa where women are free to enter, Rahul Easwar, a right-wing activist who is fighting to uphold the Sabarimala temple’s historic position, defends the ban by explaining that every temple has unique procedures of worship based on the choice of a “particular aspect of a particular deity for worship,” which should not be defied.

So, have all women been traditionally barred from the Sabarimala temple?

No, just women who are considered of childbearing age. On December 18, after some struggle, four transgender women were permitted to enter the shrine for the first time, which, while considered a step forward in opening up access to Sabarimala, reinforced the discrimination against menstruating women who are considered “impure.”

Who fought to lift the ban against women at the temple?

The Supreme Court verdict was announced 12 years after Bhakti Pasrija Sethi, a lawyer and general secretary of the Indian Young Lawyers Association, and five colleagues filed a petition against the ban.

Indian police take men into custody as they march on the office of the Kerala's Inspector General of Police. More than 5,000 have been arrested and 100 injured during protests against women's access to the Sabarimala temple.
Photograph by Str, AFP, Getty

Sethi was spurred to file the petition in 2006, after the actress Jayamala revealed that she had entered the Sabarimala temple unnoticed almost 20 years earlier. When the news broke, Sabarimala priests belatedly “purified” the temple, an act that horrified Sethi. Her Supreme Court petition cited the practices of barring access, as well as purification following “impure” access, to be against the “dignity of a human being.”

Why are the reactions so violent?

Some political analysts note that the mob violence appears to be orchestrated by right-wing Hindu nationalist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), considered the parent organisation of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which helms India’s central government.

By opposing the Supreme Court verdict—as well as Pinarayi Vijayan, Kerala’s chief minister from the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—the BJP is said to be positioning itself as a defender of religion and representative of larger factions of Indian society in the run-up to 2019 parliament elections.

What's the feeling on what happens next?

The Supreme Court has received 49 petitions so far urging it to review its decision on allowing women into the Sabarimala temple, and has agreed to a hearing on January 22. The temple currently remains legally open to women, and latest reports confirm that 10 women in the prohibited age group have already prayed at the shrine.

Rekha Raj, a Dalit activist from Kerala who actively supports women’s access to the temple, notes that she gets calls from interested women across the state at a least a few times a week. “There may be hurdles, but a positive attitude is spreading among women,” she says.

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