Set deep in the Ranni forest division in Pathanamthitta district of South Kerala is Nilakkal. On Tuesday, protesters, mostly tribal women from neighbouring hamlets, sat under a makeshift tent, chanting Ayyappa hymns and making occasional speeches.
Others stood on the road, charging at every vehicle passing through. Then, in the presence of police and as other men stood chanting Ayyappa slogans, a couple of women would climb on board to ensure there were no women travelling onwards to Pampa, the traditional base camp that was damaged in the floods earlier this year, “We will make sure no woman goes to Pampa. Those who do so will have to walk over our dead bodies,” one of the women protesters said as they ‘cleared’ a bus of Ayyappa pilgrims.
A day before the Sabarimala temple in South Kerala opens on Wednesday evening for the first time since the recent Supreme Court verdict allowing entry to women of all ages, Nilakkal and Erumeli, the two base camps for this month’s Sabarimala pilgrimage, Tuesday stayed on the edge.
The Sabarimala shrine is thrown open to devotees for the first five days of every month in the Malayalam calendar, besides a two-month annual festival starting mid-November. This month, the shrine will open on Wednesday evening before the main puja on Thursday. The first set of pilgrims will be taken in buses from Nilakkal and Erumeli to Pampa. From there, pilgrims will begin their 7 km ascent to the hill shrine.
Earlier in the day, there were chaotic scenes at Nilakkal as protesters stopped two women journalists from the electronic media from going to Pampa, the last point until where women are allowed.
By evening, some of the protesters held a meeting with senior police officials at a guest house nearby. “They were concerned that we were stopping vehicles. We told them we weren’t using force. Our idea is only to raise awareness about Lord Ayyappa to women who may want to travel to Sabarimala. Our protest is peaceful – we are only chanting Ayyappa hymns and saying our prayers,” said Prasad Kuzhikala, general secretary of the Kshetra Achara Samrakshana Samiti, one of the organisations backing the protest.
“But tomorrow, we won’t be the only ones here. The Congress, BJP, Rahul Easwar (a relative of the family of priests at Sabarimala) will all hold protests and we told the police we can’t say what will happen then. We assured them we would protest peacefully,” he added. Close to 30 km from Nilakkal, Erumeli, the other base camp for the pilgrimage and traditionally the main ‘edathavalam’ (halting point) for pilgrims, too stayed tense as constables spread themselves across the town centre, positioning themselves in front of places of worship.
The police cover in Erumeli was put into effect within hours of the breakdown of talks that the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which administers Sabarimala, held with the Sabarimala priest’s family and representatives of the Pandalam ‘royal’ family.
M P Ravindran, a constable posted outside a local Ayyappa temple in Erumeli, said, “Erumeli is calm today, but I can’t say the same for tomorrow when the temple doors open. We will have to stay alert.”
Erumeli is home to the Vavar mosque, where pilgrims halt before they travel on to Sabarimala. According to folklore, Vavar, a Muslim warrior, is a close associate of Ayyappa. On Tuesday, small batches of pilgrims, mostly from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, lined up in front of the Vavar mosque as well as the local Hindu temples in the town.
“I first came to Sabarimala six years ago to pray for a child. Three years later, our son was born. Coming to Sabarimala gives me a special sense of happiness,” said one of the pilgrims from Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh.
On the restriction placed on women between ages 10 and 50 from going up to Sabarimala, he said, “I completely agree. It’s the temple tradition. Young women must not enter.” While a relative calm exists in Erumeli, over the last two weeks, the town witnessed numerous corner meetings and prayer marches led by Hindu organisations where men and women have staunchly defended the temple’s “rules”. Any mention of the Supreme Court verdict invites angry comments directed at the apex court and the LDF government led by Pinarayi Vijayan.
“His party may not believe in God, he may not, but what right does he have to foist his party’s stand on the age-old beliefs of Hindus? Not a single woman between 10 and 50 will climb the hill tomorrow. Ayyappan will ensure that,” said Manju, who runs a fruit stall in the centre of the town.