Ayyappan, the Lord of Sabarimala, dwells in a forest of myths and stories. There are numerous tales and traditions about his origin, childhood, adventures, conquests, and his retreat into the forest. Theatre, cinema, ballads, devotional songs, comics and popular literature have picked on the many strands of the Ayyappan legend to weave together a story of faith and established a pilgrimage that attracts lakhs of people to the shrine within the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala.
Among the many stories is one that speaks of unconsummated love, which may be crucial to the current debate about the denial of worship rights to women aged between nine and 50. The Supreme Court, currently hearing a PIL on the subject, recently asked the temple administrator — the government-controlled Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) — if the restriction imposed on women is in violation of the right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution.
Ayyappan of Sabarimala is worshipped as a celibate god. Pilgrims assume the identity of Ayyappan once they take the initiation vows for the pilgrimage. They are expected to practice celibacy and abstinence during the 41-day vratam. The belief also is linked to Ayyappan’s relations with Malikapurathamma, a minor deity, who resides close to his abode atop Sabarimala. In one legend, Malikapurathamma is a reincarnation of Mahishi, the demon Ayyappan slayed prior to his retreat to Sabarimala. She fell in love with Ayyappan and asked him to marry her. He recalled his vow to remain a brahmachari. When she insisted, he made a promise that he would marry her the year no kanni ayyappan (a first-time pilgrim) would visit him. Beginning with Makara Vilakku festival, Malikapurathamma leaves her shrine on three successive nights to inspect if the time has come for Ayyappan to fulfill his promise. A procession from the Malikapurathamma temple goes to a banyan tree not far from the Ayyappan shrine, where the first-time pilgrims leave an arrow to announce their presence. Every year, a crestfallen Malikapurathamma returns to continue her eternal wait. In this interplay of the humane and the divine, a tradition to restrict the presence of women was established. The faithful argue that any violation would displease the god.
The Ayyappan cult is not restricted to Sabarimala. Radhika Sekar, an anthropologist, who has authored the study, The Sabarimala Pilgrimage and Ayyappan Cultus, writes that the myths and legends of Ayyappan are not found in the major Puranic texts. The main sources of the myths and legends are in the folk songs of Kerala and Coorg. The only Sanskrit text that narrates the story of Ayyappan is the 19th century text Bhutanathopakhyanam, she writes. The deity, according to her, is also popular in Coorg and among castes and tribes of the West Coast. Most of the Ayyappan temples were originally uncovered shrines located inside sacred groves. So, irrespective of the origins of the deity and the worship tradition, Ayyappan seems a forest deity. But, barring in Sabarimala, there appears to be no restriction on the presence of women at any Ayyappan shrine.
Rajan Gurukkal, a social scientist who has written extensively on Sabarimala, believes that the restriction on women fails the test of the Constitution. The agamic injunctions are meant to be transcendental, he argues, and hence insufficient to justify the restrictive condition. He points out that aspects more central to worship than any “tradition” are bimba shuddhi (purity of the idol) and prasaada shuddhi (purity of the abode). The temple authorities have failed to observe these as the pilgrim rush, he argues, enabled by commercial interests, have wreaked havoc on the shrine and its larger ecosphere. Worried about the rising number of pilgrims every season — it is estimated that about 50 lakh trek to the forest shrine annually — Gurukkal is sceptical about allowing women to participate in the pilgrimage. He believes that it can have major ecological and socio-legal implications. An ecologically sensitive landscape already far surpassed in carrying capacity cannot take another substantial load, he says. “Women’s rights activists should be critical of the patriarchal passions embedded in pilgrimages into forest temples by upholding ecological values and passions,” he argues.
That Sabarimala stands out among Kerala’s temples spaces for its accommodation of all devotees irrespective of religion and caste has helped the shrine administrators to evade the rights test — in this case, that of women of a particular age group. The unique and site-specific tradition also kept it outside the purview of temple entry protests that had rocked Travancore, Kochi and Malabar, which together became Kerala in 1956.
While caste was central to discrimination in temple entry until it was removed by royal decree, forced by mass movements, including by upper caste Hindus, the threat of conversion to non-Hindu faiths, and a renaissance spirit ushered in reformist saints, the restrictive practice at Sabarimala is limited to only a section, even if a large one, of women. It could also be that the path through the dense forest discouraged many not to undertake the pilgrimage. Moreover, participation in Sabarimala pilgrimage used to be perceived not merely in terms of undertaking the trek. The entire household, especially women who ran the kitchen, partook in the build-up to the trek, beginning with the start of the vratam. The women of the house would accompany the ayyappans to the local shrine from where they would set off on the pilgrimage. The pilgrim was a representative figure, not just an individual on the quest for a subjective moksha experience. No one read the rights discourse or experienced discrimination in this pilgrimage, a physical and a ritualistic enactment of Ayyappan’s own journey from being a warrior prince to a spiritual recluse.
The social landscape that shaped the pilgrimage in the 1950s and thereafter has changed. Not surprisingly, questions are being raised about a tradition that discriminates on the basis of gender.