These girls can go anywhere, to any other Ayyappa temple. Why do they want to come and defile this holy place? They come with their bobbed hair, thinking it’s some tourist place,” says D Subhashini, sitting on a chair that she has dragged a few feet away from the temporary shed where protesters, many among them tribal women, are singing Ayyappa hymns.
“Can you do me a favour? Please talk to the higher-ups and get this order (the Supreme Court judgment allowing entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala) overturned. Please… for the sake of the man in your family, the brother you may have, the son you may have. I beg of you,” she continues, her pitch shrill.
At this protest site in Nilakkal — a rain-washed valley deep in the Ranni forest division and the site of pitched clashes between police and protesters determined to stop the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 into the hill shrine — faith, politics and patriarchy make for an uneasy mix. For this month’s Sabarimala pilgrimage, the first since the Supreme Court order, Nilakkal, in Kerala’s southern district of Pathanamthitta, is the main base camp. Pilgrims are taken from here in state transport buses to Pampa, the traditional base camp that was washed away in the floods earlier this year. From Pampa, they will make a 7-km trek up to the hill shrine.
Subhashini and all the other women from a nearby tribal colony have been holding “prayers” in Nilakkal for the last 10 days to keep “these women” out of the shrine. They have come together under the banner of the Sabarimala Achara Samrakshana Samiti, one of scores of organisations that have sprung up. Many of these have hazy ties and take great pains to disassociate themselves from each other and from the state units of the BJP and RSS, which were among the first political outfits to support the protests.
“We came on our own; nobody brought us here,” insists Subhashini, who works as a domestic help in Kochi and is now on “long leave”. “I am not leaving till this is resolved. I couldn’t sleep at night when I thought of all this… We have grown up with Ayyappa stories, it’s in our soil, our sweat. Even today, I greet my two-year-old grandson with ‘Swamiye Sharam Ayyappa’ and he greets me back the same way. Please don’t take that away from us. And this government of ours won’t give us anything, but will take away our faith. God alone knows what calamity awaits us. First the floods happened when the case was in court and yesterday, my son said there was a landslide near Pampa. All of you come and go, but we have to live here. The forest is our home. Please don’t let a curse befall us,” she says, beating her chest and wailing.
Suddenly, Subhashini stands up, alerted by commotion nearby. A group of protesters have waylaid a KSRTC bus on its way to Pampa. A few women clamber on board to ensure there are no “young women” in the bus. A child looks on, his nose plastered against the bus window, at the raucous crowd below. He doesn’t smile when smiled at.
As protesters ‘clear’ the bus, a woman says, “We told them we are not hitting or killing. Are we?” “Of course, not,” replies a young man.
These days, “Sabarimalayile acharangalum, anushtanangalum (tradition and rituals of Sabarimala)” is a phrase that plays in an endless loop among those who disagree with the court’s order — the protester in Nilakkal, the faithful who “can’t think of violating an age-old tradition”, the family of the thantris (head priests), and an erstwhile royal family that believes they are ordained to serve the Lord. Amidst a belief that the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government could have handled it better.
“Of course, we don’t agree with what the court said,” says a young woman at the protest site. A nurse at a hospital in Kanpur, she was home on leave when the protests broke out. “It’s a matter of faith. I can go to any Ayyappa temple anywhere, I can even go to Sabarimala when I turn 50. Where is the discrimination?” she says, an arm slung across her friend.
Back from the protest site, Vishnu, a 26-year-old who is driving his friend’s taxi today, says, “When the floods happened, the CPM was the first to reach the ground. I was proud that a party I had voted for had saved so many lives. But today, I am ashamed I trusted them. What is the point saving our lives when it is to take away our faith? I recently told my mother, if a woman goes up the shrine, I will take three decisions. 1) I will never vote for the CPM, 2) I will never go to Sabarimala, 3) I will never marry.” Laughing, he adds, “They panicked.”
In one of the many unassuming homes that make up ‘Pandalam Palace’ sits 99-year-old matriarch Thanvangi Thampurati, reading the day’s newspaper. “I read all of it, especially news from Sabarimala. By the time I am done reading, I forget too,” she says. She is the ‘vallia thampurati’ or the senior-most woman member in line with the matrilineal tradition followed by Kerala’s royal families.
The Ayyappa lore rests firmly in Pandalam, home to the royal family that traces its origins to the Pandya kings of Tamil Nadu. The story goes that the king of Pandalam, out on a hunting trip, finds a child in the forests and adopts him. But the queen, fearing that her biological son would lose his inheritance to the young Manikandan, sends him to the forests to fetch her tiger milk as a ploy to get him killed (The ‘royal’ family version only says the stepmother was unwell and Manikandan was sent to get the milk).
As the boy returns triumphantly, riding a tigress, the king is filled with remorse. Young Manikandan is then said to have retreated to the forests after blessing the family and finding a place for himself as Ayyappa in Sabarimala.
Thampurati bears some of the burden of transmitting this oral legacy. Over the last few years, she has had to dig deep into the recesses of her fading memory. On Sabarimala, though, she is clear: “I can’t tell women not to go, but I can say it’s not right for them to go. Men who go have to observe a strict 41-day vratam (of celibacy and strict abstinence from temptations of all kinds and perform puja). Can women do it for 41 days? Won’t their menstrual cycle disrupt the vratam? Anyway, the women of Pandalam never go to Sabarimala. This is about tradition, faith,” says Thampurati.
In her more youthful days, she was attracted to a dogma of another kind. “At least four women from Pandalam family were Communists. We used to work a lot for the party… Those days all the big leaders were underground,” she says, her beady eyes twinkling from behind her thick glasses.
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Thampurati’s niece Deepa Varma, treasurer of the Pandalam Palace Managing Committee, has just come after flagging off a motorcycle rally against the Supreme Court’s order. “It is not a pro-woman, anti-woman issue. If it had been, would so many women turn up to protest? People here understand that this tradition (of keeping out menstruating women) is linked to the state of this deity — the Ayyappa in Sabarimala is considered to be a Naishtika Bhramachari or eternal celibate,” says Varma, 46.
“Anyway, Pandalam has become famous because of all this,” smiles Thampurati. Around 15 km from the ‘palace’ is Chengannur, a town in Alappuzha district that bore the brunt of the recent floods. It’s also home to Thazamon Madham, whose members are the main priests of Sabarimala. The priesthood is a strictly family affair, passed down male members.
Sitting in his living room that has prominent photographs of three generations of Sabarimala thantris, 26-year-old T M Mahesh or Kantararu Maheshwaru, who was thantri a year ago and whose uncle is now the head priest, says the restriction on women is “not superstition, but science”, bolstering his assertion by naming Orientalists such as John Woodroffe and Max Muller. “All these scholars say all our rituals are scientific in nature. If people think there is discrimination against women, they say so because of their inferiority complex… Also, when people call this gender discrimination, they probably don’t know that there are temples in Kerala where Brahmins can’t enter, others where men can’t enter and one where sanyasis, the most refined of souls, can’t enter,” says Mahesh, a 2nd year LLB student at a Chennai college.
“If women of menstruating age enter the temple, there is no going back. All that we do, our rituals, will be meaningless,” he adds. At his home a few metres away, chief thantri Kantararu Rajeevaru says he is too tired to talk. The temple opens in a couple of days and he has a lot to do. But just as we leave, he darts a tricky one to test the waters: “So, will I see you at Sabarimala?”
At Erumeli, the other base camp for the trek, that has been peaceful so far, pilgrims trickle out of the cheria ambalam (small temple) for the Nainar Masjid across the road. Inside, they walk along a tiled path around the mosque, some stopping to offer a coconut at a designated spot, and proceed on to the “big” temple down the road before beginning the trek to Sabarimala.
“This is a model for communal harmony unlike any. The pilgrims do it out of faith, nothing else. Earlier, the Sabarimala trek from Erumeli was very tough. And even then, the discipline of people was remarkable,” says P H Shajahan, president of the Mahalla Muslim Jamaath, which administers the mosque.
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A few metres from the mosque, Chinnaponnu, 52, is with granddaughter Harini, 9, and other family members from Tiruvallur near Chennai. Dressed in the traditional black that Sabarimala pilgrims wear, she says this is her first visit. “How can young women go to Sabarimala? I waited all these years. What’s the hurry?” she wonders.
Writer and critic Sunil P Ilayidom isn’t surprised that women seem to be overwhelmingly in support of following the Sabarimala restrictions.
“Our middle-class families are the den of patriarchy and religious superstition. Most of the women protesting are from such savarna families. So while we are all liberal outside, drive cars, have our affiliations etc., inside, we are deeply orthodox. And we fail to see this contradiction. Kerala became a modern state after it reconstituted its familial values through some very major reforms. But over the last 30 years or so, there has been no such attempt to look at reforms within our internal social spaces. That has been a failure of parties such as the Left,” he says.
In a world far removed from the legends, four youngsters sit in the food court of a mall in Thiruvananthapuram, arching their eyebrows for selfies. Tineeshya Rahul, 21, her husband Alby Chandran, 22, Abhilash M V, 22, and Neetu Vinod, 26, work in different fast food joints at the mall and have just wound up their shifts.
“Don’t even get Tineeshya started on Sabarimala. It’s all she talks about these days, If she were a Hindu, you would have seen her on TV, going up the shrine. I am Christian too, but I think it’s a bad idea to throw the shrine open to everyone. It’ll soon become another selfie point,” says Alby, a civil engineering dropout who has just quit his job at Hyper.
“Of course I would have gone. If the court and the government give you an opportunity for reform, why wouldn’t you take it up? Why hang on to age-old beliefs? Sati and other such practices had to go, didn’t they? But of course, our dear Neetu won’t agree,” says Tineeshya.
Neetu smiles and insists “po-ki-lla (won’t go)”. “I am married to a Christian, but there are certain things that don’t change. If I want to, I’ll go when I am older,” she says.
In the breezy lawns outside the mall, Jayashree Madhavmurthy, 26, and Sadia Alby, 30, talk about how Sabarimala has “taken over our lives”. The two work in different companies at Technopark, the city’s IT hub. “We are constantly talking about it, at work, in WhatsApp groups. I am confused. I think certain things need to change, but I also understand how violated people in those parts feel. I am a Christian from Thiruvananthapuram, yet I felt deeply hurt when the sanctity of the Padmanabhaswamy temple was violated and its treasure chests opened.”
Sugatha Kumari, poet and activist, who has led several feminist and environmental movements in Kerala, however, dismisses the Sabarimala issue as “verum bahalam (just noise)”. “Women know where to go and where not to. There are many more burning issues facing them — dowry, domestic abuse, child rape. As if the most important thing for a woman is to go up this shrine. Are they going to get some special status? In fact, I am more worried about the environmental damage. This is part of the Periyar tiger reserve and there should have been certain restrictions. In fact, I would say, why women, limit the number of men who go there,” she says.
Biji, 39, has bigger problems. At the only eatery in Nilakkal, behind the shed where the protesters are singing Ayyappa bhajans, Biji doesn’t have a minute to spare. Her cotton gown held off the ground with a tight knot at the waist, she bursts out of the smoke-filled kitchen to the dining area outside, waiting on tables and then running back in. Her husband died over a year ago and she lives here with her 10-year-old daughter.
Biji usually does all the work herself, but for the last few days, her neighbours have been pitching in. Occasionally, she ropes in the protesters, policemen and media personnel who drop in.
The last few days have been good for her. “Today, I will make around Rs 10,000. In Sabarimala season, I make between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 a day. But the rest of the year, I get almost nothing. I depend on my neighbours. I also go out for daily labour.”
She is worried about the court case that’s coming up. The Sabarimala case? “Oh no, who has the time for all that? It’s my case… My late husband’s brothers have gone to court asking that I give up my claim to this ‘hotel’, but I won’t. Who will look after my daughters? But if I win the case, I’ll go somewhere else with my daughters.”
So what does she think about the Sabarimala case? “Chechi, I have dosas to make,” she says, rushing off.
A story of unconsummated love
There are numerous tales and traditions about the origin of Ayyappa, the Lord of Sabarimala, and his eventual retreat into the forest. Among the many stories is one that speaks of unconsummated love, crucial to the current controversy.
Ayyappa of Sabarimala is worshipped as a celibate god. Pilgrims assume the identity of Ayyappa once they take the initiation vows for the pilgrimage. They are expected to practise celibacy and abstinence during the 41-day vratam. The belief is also linked to Ayyappa’s relations with Malikapurathamma, a minor deity, who resides close to his abode atop Sabarimala. She fell in love with Ayyappa and asked him to marry her. He recalled his vow to remain a brahmachari, and promised that he would marry her the year no kanni ayyappan (a first-time pilgrim) visits him. Beginning with Makara Vilakku festival, Malikapurathamma leaves her shrine three successive nights to inspect if the time has come for Ayyappa to fulfill his promise, and every year, she returns disappointed. This legend is believed to be one of the reasons behind restricting the presence of women at the shrine.
Ayyappa is also popular in Coorg and among castes and tribes of the west coast, many of his temples originally inside sacred groves. But while Ayyappa appears to be a forest deity at all places, barring in Sabarimala, there is no restriction on the presence of women at his shrines. At the same time, Sabarimala stands out among Kerala’s temple spaces for its accommodation of all devotees irrespective of religion and caste. This has helped it evade the rights test when it comes to women.
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