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Sabarimala: Among the Believers

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Kerala’s most visited temple has become a war zone for reformists and traditionalists following the Supreme Court verdict allowing young entry to the shrine

AS THE EMBATTLED HILL SHRINE OF SABARIMALA IN Kerala shut its doors on the night of October 22nd, and Lord Ayyappa prepared to go into yoganidra (yogic sleep) until the next month, P Gangadharan, a 54-year-old farmer from Nemmara in Palakkad district, felt a wave of relief sweep over him. In the five days since the temple had opened for the first time after the Supreme Court on September 28th ruled in favour of women’s entry, no woman of childbearing age had managed to come anywhere near the Lord, who is believed to reside here in eternal celibacy. “I thought this would be my last pilgrimage to see Ayyappa. But the sanctity of the shrine is intact, thanks to the efforts of devotees,” Gangadharan said. A regular, he had come away from the annual festival in March with a sense of foreboding. An elephant carrying an idol of Ayyappa had hurtled down a slope, dislodging it along with a priest and injuring over a dozen pilgrims. A purification rite was performed on the banks of the Pamba river to dispel the bad omen, but to Gangadharan, the incident seemed like “a sign that Ayyappa wants to abandon his home, now that uninvited guests are about to invade it”. The floods in August and the consequent closure of the temple to pilgrim traffic also indicated divine displeasure, he said. Like the errant elephant, its owner, the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), administrator of Kerala’s mostly hotly contested spiritual turf, now finds itself on a dangerous precipice. It is caught between the LDF, which wants to see the Supreme Court judgment implemented without delay, and traditionalist stakeholders—priests, an erstwhile royal family closely associated with the temple, right-wing outfits and political parties—who are demanding a review petition be filed and an ordinance passed to stop young women from visiting Sabarimala in the meantime. “At a time when women are getting ready to go to Mars, some people are saying that women shouldn’t enter a temple. The aim of certain groups is to make sure that Sabarimala becomes a battlefield. Nobody can break the secular fabric of Kerala,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told the media on October 22nd, ending speculation that the state government was pussyfooting around the issue to avoid alienating Hindus, especially upper castes.

The proposed reform, aimed at changing Hindu society’s perception of woman as ‘uninvited guest’, temptress and emitter of contagious bodily impurities, has indeed struck a flint in a state where faith does not often spill over into a charged public sphere. “This is by far the biggest uprising in the history of Sabarimala, but let’s not call this Kerala’s jallikattu or Ayodhya moment. Malayalis, no matter how strongly they feel about the issue, are a moderate people,” says Rama Varma Raja, a senior member of the family of Pandalam that was the traditional custodian of the temple, and according to legend, the adoptive house of Ayyappa. The family claims to have migrated from Tamil Nadu and settled down in CE 903 in Pandalam near Chengannur, where it later built a shrine and appointed the Brahmin Thazhamon family as the officiating thantris. For about 50 members of Pandalam’s royal lineage, including Rama Varma and his wife who live in a middle-class dwelling on the main road, this small town on the banks of the Achankovil river is still home. The palace where Ayyappa is said to have spent his childhood before he became a forest-dweller bears witness to the ravages of time. The family’s true heritage, however, is intangible: customs and traditions that establish an invaluable bond between them and the temple, and the rights of Brahminical worship vested through them in the Thazhamons. And now, these privileges are under attack. “Sabarimala does not have a monolithic timeless tradition. It draws from Buddhist and indigenous traditions, and from the Ayyanar cult of Tamil Nadu. It is a blend of the Shaivite and the Vaishnavite. It is fundamentally the opposite of a majoritarian Brahmin shrine. So the argument that women’s entry violates temple custom or hurts the faith of believers is deeply flawed,” says Sunil P Ilayidom, a writer and social critic.

“Ayyappa was a local hero who tamed wild beasts and protected natives against thugs,” agrees Rama Varma, the amicable chairman of the Pandalam Kottaram Nirvahaka Samithi and an electrical engineer who retired as principal of a polytechnic institute. “The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is really a re-enactment of Ayyappa’s journey through the woods with his army of able- bodied men who observed healthy habits—the equivalent of the 41-day vrata—to keep fit as they fought off thugs. The present-day practice of chanting the Lord’s name is also in keeping with this spirit of soldierly bonhomie. Incidentally, no women were part of Ayyappa’s crew, and respecting this custom, women still don’t visit the temple. It is not a matter of discrimination,” says Varma, who goes by Vijay Chandran so as not to be confused with the dozens of other Rama Varmas in the family. “But when a vast number of people including non-Hindus believe in a certain practice, the state government, which was well aware of the popular sentiment, should have communicated their concern to the Court.”

Two days after the Supreme Court verdict, members of the family, conferring over Whatsapp groups from different parts of the state, called for a peaceful protest in town under the banner of the newly-constituted Ayyappa Dharma Samrakshana Samithi. The next day, tens of thousands, including crowds rustled up overnight by Hindu outfits such as the Nair Service Society (NSS), the RSS, People for Dharma, the Hindu Aikya Vedi (HAV) and the Ready to Wait movement, marched from the Medical Mission Junction to the Shasta temple in town like a giant slow-moving bee. The protest became a moment of aperture, a freeze frame burned into the hearts of Hindus—even those who wore a loose mask of secularism. Politically, it meant that the RSS’s previous stand in favour of the reform was untenable and RSS General Secretary Suresh Joshi had to execute a quick backflip to echo the official line of the BJP—that women should not be admitted without reaching a social consensus. The Congress and even Muslim leaders fell in line, seizing an opportunity to isolate the CPM. The moment had been creeping up on Kerala for years and now that it had reached the doors of Sabarimala, no one could afford to let it slide. For the LDF, which had filed two affidavits with the Supreme Court favouring equal rights for women devotees at the shrine, there was no turning back from its high-minded stance. The idea of Kerala, it argued, was safe only with the Left now that the others had abandoned the narrative of righteous struggle against a superannuated practice.

If religion was a meritocracy, the faithful would get precedence over idle-gazers at a temple that demands the toughest penance from devotees

In the hyper-political aftermath of the protests, members of the family and the Thazhamon thantris, who have been forceful in their attack on the LDF and the TDM, may be distancing themselves from the Hindu right as well. They have categorically dissociated from all violence, says Rama Varma. A source close to the matter says there is a prevailing sense of disdain at the Sangh Parivar’s ‘hijacking’ of the protests and its deep reserves of menace. The movement has seen the likes of Rahul Easwar, the rightwing activist who got arrested for inciting a riot, Pratheesh Viswanathan, convenor of the Sabarimala Samrakshana Samithi, and other rabble-rousers from the Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad (AHP) and the HAV lead thousands on the beaten high road of Hindutva. “The Pandalam family is full of Leftist sympathisers.

It is easy to blame the BJP, but what we have done is merely articulate the faith of millions. Even women who work at the temple are opposed to the verdict,” says PS Sreedharan Pillai, state president of the BJP. “It was the family representatives who sought our support in the first place. At a meeting held with the stakeholders, I told them, you must lead the protest at Pandalam, we will back you from behind.”

BENEATH THE CALM OF THE woods enveloping Sabarimala, conspiracies fester. Rain splashes the road snaking through rubber and hard wood plantations to Nilakkal, the gateway to the shrine in Pathanamthitta district. When a group of youth in saffron garb flags down my car at Laha, I prepare to argue with them, but they are merely collecting donations for a local temple festival. “Go ahead, it is safe until Pamba,” says H Anand, a gangly 21-year-old. “But under no circumstances should women proceed any further.” For thousands of Ayyappa devotees across the state, including women who are passive facilitators in the 41-day period of austerity observed by men before visiting Sabarimala, the grim possibility of two young women, a journalist and an activist, stepping foot in the shrine had loomed like an inevitable storm. Three others had been turned away but each time a fresh challenger appeared on the scene, the mob got ready to play whack-a-mole. “It is a highly emotional issue for people, including for policemen. Riot police should not have been brought in to protect the two women. The media playing activist further aggravated the situation, but the government has since course-corrected and handled the ground situation well,” says a television reporter who has been stationed at Nilakkal for the past four days. With prohibitory orders in place and the government stressing that Sabarimala is no place for activism—although Minister for Devaswom Affairs Kadakampalli Surendran would later retract his statement—peace prevails over the gloomy afternoon. Even the sporadic sloganeering by a group of BJP leaders, who gather in front of TV cameras to court arrest, fails to stir the air.

In the five days since the temple opened after the Supreme Court verdict, no woman of childbearing age had managed to come anywhere near the Lord

But if an ordinance is not passed before November 17th, when the shrine reopens for the three-month-long Mandalam- Makaravilakku celebrations during which nearly 50 million devotees converge at Sabarimala, there could well be a riot, says NT Sujan, 49, escorting me on autorickshaw to the tribal colony of Attathodu near Nilakkal. A farmer, tea shop owner and community leader of the Malaipandarams, one of three Scheduled Tribes that inhabit the holy hills around Sabarimala, he says that the tribe has for the first time come together in a public show of protest. “Thirty of us started a namajapa in Pamba on October 1st. It was spontaneous and it happened before any political outfit got involved. By evening, the crowd had swelled to over a hundred. A second namajapa began on October 7th and went on till prohibitory orders came into effect. This is a first for our community,” he says, pouring frothy tea as his wife peels garlic at their shop overlooking an emerald array of hills. “We are not very assertive. This forest is a sacred world that we have held precious for as long as anyone can remember. And yet, we did not protest when we were evicted from many of the holy hills, or when we lost our rights of cleaning rice at the temple, and offering honey and mats made of the leaves of the Arayanjali tree at the feet of the Lord. This issue, however, has struck a deeper chord,” says Perumal Parashuraman, 59, bare-chested and dressed in a black lungi. “We depend on Ayyappa to protect us from animals and the elements, even the Forest Department. We cannot risk angering him—it is we who have to live in these hills all year round, not you, not the woman who carried objectionable articles in her irumudi kattu (ritual cloth pouch with two compartments to hold offerings like coconut and ghee) to the sannidhanam.”

If religion was a meritocracy, the faithful would get precedence over idle-gazers at a temple that demands the toughest penance from devotees. But Adivasis, whose propinquity to Lord Ayyappa is uncontested, are playing defence by consenting to act as an anti-women army ‘guarding’ the hills while they could be playing offence against the supremacy of caste and class in the house of god. For some of them, enculturation is a gamble for an honourable mention in the rolling credits of the saga that is unfolding at Sabarimala. The rain pounding on Perumal Ayyappan’s front porch seems to echo the static that has muted out marginal voices from the debate on Sabarimala. “At Thalapparamala, one of the 99 sacred hills around Sabarimala, we still offer worship the old way—on the new moon of the month of Karkada, we offer tambula (betel nut and leaves) to the elements along with tender coconut, flattened rice and the local brew. Alcohol is a must for a tribal deity,” says Ayyappan, 70, the village elder. Attathodu was once a tiny hamlet of 11 families, but with the resettlement of tribes who had been living inside the woods, its population now stands at about 750. “Thantris now have no regard for STs, but our forefathers enjoyed a high standing in Sabarimala, where they were initiators of several pujas. But this is a battle for another day. Right now, please keep the focus on the issue of women’s entry,” interjects Sujan.

When a number of people believe in a certain practice, the state government, which was aware of the popular sentiment, should have communicated their concern to the court, says Rama Varma Raja of the Pandalam Royal Family

A section of Malayarayas, some of whom converted to Christianity in the late 19th-to-the early 20th century, are less inclined to back the protests. In Moozhikkal, a remote tribal post set amidst rubber plantations along the old pilgrims’ trekking trail to Sabarimala, Prabhakaran Kannathu, a 68-year-old farmer and self-taught ethnographer, leads a quiet movement to reclaim Ayyappa as a Malayaraya deity. “Our tradition is a feminist one. We celebrate menstruation and do not believe in dowry. A tribal deity cannot possibly reject the yoni (womb) whence he sprang,” he says, in the flickering candlelight. Power cuts are common here, and medical facilities, roads and other urban privileges are a distant dream. “You may think we are primitive. But our women went to Sabarimala regularly before the High Court ban came into effect in 1991. When I was 13, my mother, who was still young, visited the temple and took other ladies with her. But today, I cannot convince my own wife to go although she has crossed 50.” His lament is that while upper caste women from powerful families allegedly entered the shrine even after the ban took effect, Malayarayas had to give up rituals like the Makaravilakku that had been their preserve in the past.

“Ayyappa is no naishtika brahmachari (eternal celibate). The shrine of Malikapurathamma inside Sabarimala serves as a reminder that he thinks of her and waits for the day they can be together,” says Biju Narayana Sharma, a Dalit thantri from Malappuram who has christened himself Maha Chandala Baba Malavari. Biju runs the Mathrukula Dharma Raksha Ashram out of his home in Cherukara, where he teaches Veda and Tantra to Dalit disciples. “I have been attacked by caste Hindus for my radicalism. Although I am a Devaswom-certified thantri, I have not been appointed to any major shrine because of my caste,” he says. The high priests of Sabarimala are afraid of Dalits asserting their rights, he says, for caste and gender-based discrimination cannot be condoned in the name of Tantra. “There are two sides to Tantra—the satvik tradition and vamamarga, which involves animal sacrifice and alcohol. There are accounts of vamamarga rituals performed at Sabarimala in the past. It cannot slip into the Brahminical realm because one family said so.” His wife Ambika, a woman in her thirties who is a tantric sadhaka, says, “There are some disappointments you carry for the most part of your life. Not being able to go to Sabarimala, for me, is one of them.”

“WE ARE A LIBERAL FAMILY that has embraced changes in custom as and when society and the times demanded it. Our system is not all that strict,” says Kantaru Maheswararu, the 25-year-old nephew of the head thantri of Sabarimala, Kantaru Rajeevaru, who threatened to shut down the temple should a young woman manage to enter the sanctum. The family claims Parasurama vested them with the power to officiate at the temple over 2,000 years ago. The flood- ravaged town of Chengannur, the seat of this elite class of priests who call the shots at over 600 Shasta temples across south India, is home to a shrine to Parvati where she is believed to menstruate, necessitating a lock-in, for even a goddess cannot escape the stigma of periods. Sabarimala is the font of the spiritual authority of the Thazhamons, who claim that the bar on young women entering the sanctum is an inviolable divine fiat. “The kalabhabishekham (fragrant ritual bath), which was held only once a year, now happens every day. The padi puja too has been incorporated as a daily ritual. It is not as if we resisted all change. But this judgment attacks the very root of our faith. In fact, we believe that one of the causes for the fire that burned down the shrine in the 1950s was the entry of young women,” Maheswararu says. Temples were once places for sadhana and not tourist spots, he adds. “We do not interfere in the temple administration, and the TDB has undertaken several infrastructure projects at the temple without obtaining our consent, but when a fundamental matter of ritual and faith comes up, we must be consulted, that is the way of this temple.”

At a time when women are getting ready to go to Mars, some people are saying that women shouldn’t enter a temple. Nobody can break the secular fabric of Kerala, says Pinarayi Vijayan, Chief Minister of Kerala

According to Maheshwararu, it was Sankaracharya who formalised many of the rituals practised at the temple and he likely played a role in doing away with animal sacrifice. Sankara, who authored a work on Ayyappa named Parapooja, paid tribute to the deity’s exceptional character and noted that traditional worship by way of avahana, arghya, snana, upavita, abharana and naivedya fail to do justice to the god of the hills.

How do I worship that entity
Which is limitless and without borders
Which is full of perennial bliss
Which has a form beyond imagination
And which stands alone without a second?

In principle, few leaders in Kerala are opposed to the worship of Ayyappa in Sabarimala by one and all, says RV Babu, state general secretary of the Hindu Aikya Vedi. “There were different opinions within the Parivar but we all agree that a vidwat sadas (a meeting of scholars) must be conducted before implementing a sweeping change. Change is inevitable in the land of Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali, but perhaps a compromise can be reached where women are allowed on the first five days of the month but not during the sacred Mandala season. The government has failed to spread awareness about the reform, which is why society is not ready to accept it.” Babu’s moderation seems off-message when compared with the incendiary exhortations of local BJP and RSS leaders. He compares and contrasts the case of Sabarimala with that of Guruvayoor where women were required to wear a sari until recently. “There are two major differences. In Guruvayoor, the acharyas were consulted and they opined that the Lord would not object to women devotees wearing churidars. The other difference, a major one, is that in Sabarimala, there is no perceptible demand from women devotees to break tradition and worship at the temple. The petitioners and the government are pursuing an agenda that does not reflect the popular opinion of the affected class,” he says.

“Women who have seen a member of their family prepare for the Sabarimala pilgrimage will not want to violate the sacred space of Lord Ayyappa,” says Bindu Prasad, a BJP Mahila Morcha leader from Kozhancherry near Pathanamthitta. “When they turn swamis , we do not meet the eye of our husbands in case they feel the pang of temptation.” For the past couple of weeks, about 20 women activists from across the state have lived under her roof. Every evening, huddled around the dining table that is always festooned with food, the women would plan the next day’s events—a dharna in Nilakkal, a march in Pathanamthitta, an awareness campaign among the tribals. With prohibitory orders in place, they now wake up late, take turns to shower and don starched cotton saris, and talk affectatiously over steaming hot kinnathappams about why the issue is not just a political one for women devotees. “Sabarimala allows our brothers, husbands and sons the rare chance to be part of something larger than themselves. We can make our presence felt in front of the Lord with our absence alone. There are over a thousand Shasta shrines women can pray at. Why must we stake claim to this one temple?” asks Sindhu Rajan, a young Morcha leader from Palakkad district, as we wait for Shobha Surendran, a virulent speaker, member of the BJP’s National Executive and party general secretary in Kerala. Surendran was arrested from a bus at Vadaserikkara the previous day along with six other women activists on suspicion of violating Section 144. “The government tapped my phone. It is afraid that if Kerala becomes a battleground, Pinarayi Vijayan will lose and there will be a repeat of the anti-Communist vimochana samara of 1958,” Surendran says throatily. The LDF, she says, tightened its grip over the protests fearing that a major backlash could tilt the balance of power in Kerala. “But you see, the balance has already tilted. Everyone is with us now, everyone except Naxals.” The argument against permitting one and all to enter a beloved abode of god has come full circle, ending, predictably, in outrageous charges of being anti-national.

Also Read

A Tale of Two Temples
A Crisis of Faith: The Wages of Selective Secularism

Sabarimala: A Trek Too Far
Lekshmy Rajeev: ‘Local religious rituals were crushed by Brahmins in Sabarimala’

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