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India

Sabarimala's first pilgrim season ends today, no women allowed entry yet

The Sabarimala temple’s first period of pilgrimage after the Supreme Court lifted the ban on the entry of women of menstrual age ends Monday with 10 women aged below 50 stopped by angry devotees from praying at the 800-year-old hilltop shrine in Kerala’s Patthanamthitta district since it opened on Wednesday.

Amid the face-off between the state’s Left Democratic Front government which assured implementation of the September 28 apex court verdict and the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and various Hindu groups which opposed it and demanded a review petition be filed, the Travancore Dewaswom Board (TDB), which manages the temple, is expected to submit a report to the court on the ground situation. It is also likely seek more time to implement the verdict as the main pilgrimage season begins next month.

Meanwhile, 20-odd review petitions challenging the Supreme Court’s verdict in which a five-judge constitutional bench decided 4-1 that exclusion on the basis of biological and physiological features was unconstitutional and discriminatory and denied women the right to be treated as equals, are also coming up before the apex court.

Admitting the Sabarimala pilgrim season beginning next month was going to be a challenging one for them, Kerala police chief Loknath Behera said a review of the alleged lapses and excesses while handling the issues related to the temple will be conducted after the shrine closes on Monday.

As protests continued across Kerala and elsewhere, four women, all from Andhra Pradesh, were Sunday stopped on the pathway to the temple by Ayyappa devotees and forced to return.

Two of the women, said to be in their 40s, were part of a pilgrim group visiting temples in Kerala and claimed they did not know the customs of the Lord Ayyappa temple, PTI quoted the police as saying. The women, who were stopped at the Pambha base camp, later gave written statement that they did not want to proceed and were escorted by police o the shrine area’s entry point Nilakkal, where their vehicle was parked, police said.

Protesters found another woman on the path to the temple and made her return after checking her Aadhaar card, which stated she was 47, reported IANS. Police reached the spot and took the woman, who felt a bit uneasy amid the ruckus, to a clinic. She subsequently did not proceed.

Another woman, who reached the hilltop on a palanquin, was stopped and surrounded by protesters about a kilometre from the temple. Police took her downhill to the Pambha base camp.

However, the hilltop and base camps of Nillakal and Pambha - which had seen violent clashes on Thursday and Friday - were relatively peaceful on Sunday.

On Saturday, protestors stopped 52-year-old Latha Kumar, a teacher from Tamil Nadu’s Trichy who was on her second pilgrimage, outside the temple, alleging she was below 50 years of age but allowed her after she showed her Aadhaar card. Woman Dalit leader SP Manju (38), who was planning to visit the shrine Saturday, was asked by police to defer her plans following heavy rain and later decided to return.

Though Hyderabad-based woman journalist Kavitha Jakkal and activist Rehana Fathima, escorted by 100 policemen, reached right up to the temple Friday, they could not go in as devotees and priests blocked their way and the tantri (head priest) warned he would close the temple if they entered. Another woman, Mary Sweety, who works in the Middle East, did not go as police refused to provide protection.

Madhavi, a devotee from Andhra Pradesh, and New York Times reporter Suhasini Raj had to abandon their trips midway Thursday after protests.

Fathima, whose house was vandalised when she was on her to Sabarimala, has been expelled from the Muslim community for “hurting the sentiments of lakhs of Hindu devotees”, the Kerala Muslim Jama’ath Council president A Poonkunju said in a press statement, according to PTI.

On Sunday, the BJP and organisations like the Sabarimala Karma Samithi took out ‘nama japa’ (hymn chanting) rallies outside all police stations in the state to protest the crackdown on their activists.

BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai said if the state assembly passes a unanimous resolution, the Centre can explore the possibility of an ordinance to protect the shrine’s customs. He held the state government was fully responsible for the present situation, as “it was in a tearing hurry to implement the verdict angering devotees”.

He also alleged that even members of the ruling Left were opposing the bid to break the shrine’s long-standing customs. Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member S Ramachandran Pillai however said the protesters did not have the support of Kerala’s society.

In Chennai, Hindu Makkal Katchi activists held a protest alleging the women who tried to visit Sabarimala had “spoiled the sanctity of celibacy of Lord Ayyappa” and were not devotees but seeking publicity, ANI reported.

Pilgrimage to Sabarimala situated in Western Ghats mountain ranges is unique. A devotee has to observe 41 days’ fast and abstain from all worldly pleasures followed by a rigorous uphill trek through forests.The temple management had earlier told the apex court that the ban on entry of women of the particular age was because they cannot maintain “purity” on account of menstruation.

Prior to the apex court verdict, women aged between 10 and 50 were allowed only till Pambha, where women cops were deployed to screen women devotees and could seek proof of age from anyone they doubted.

The restriction on women was first challenged in Kerala High Court which ruled in 1991 that it was part of an age-old tradition and not discriminatory under the Constitution. In 2006, the Indian Young Lawyers Association had filed a PIL in the Supreme Court challenging the practice, saying it was discriminatory in nature and against gender justice.

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