For the past one week, Pandalam, a small town in Pathanamthitta district of central Kerala, has been the epicentre of agitations led by several Hindu organisations against the Supreme Court verdict ending age-restrictions on women for entry at the Sabarimala temple. Apart from being close to the temple, Pandalam has another unique feature. It was the seat of the erstwhile Pandalam dynasty, which had cut away from the Pandya dynasty when the latter was attacked by the army sent by Alauddin Khilji.
The royal family of Pandalam has a strong bond with Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity at Sabarimala. According to the lore, Raja Rajasekhara of Pandalam, on one of his hunting expeditions, had found a small baby by the side of River Pamba. Childless, the king and the queen raised the baby, named Manikandan, who had divine powers and went on to become the ‘Yuvaraja’ of Pandalam. According to beliefs, it was Manikandan who asked his father to build him a shrine at Sabarimala and transformed himself into Lord Ayyappa.
For the royal family, Ayyappa is like one of their own. During the annual mandalam festival at the temple between November-January, the male head of the family has privileges to perform certain ceremonies. The ‘thiruvabharanam’ (sacred ornaments for the deity), stored in the palace vault, are taken in an annual procession every year for the mandalam festival and then returned.
In an exclusive interview, Sasikumar Varma, president of the Pandalam Palace Coordination Committee and member of the family, spoke to indianexpress.com about his reservations regarding the Supreme Court verdict and the repercussions it will have on the temple, his family and the larger Hindu society in Kerala.
The Pandalam royal family for ages has been closely interlinked with the lore of Ayyappa and the hill shrine of Sabarimala. As a member of the family and the current president of the co-ordination committee, what went through your head when you heard the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages at the temple?
A majority of the members of our family have been connected to the temple and its rituals for many years now. When I first heard the verdict, I was so shocked. We felt like an innocent defendant who realises that he has been sentenced to death. We are not only the true devotees of Lord Ayyappa but we believe that he makes everything right for us. More than a God, we see him as our family member. Our sentiments were similar to a father who feels that his son has been wronged. That’s how special the relationship of our family is with Ayyappan. (The verdict) was shocking, astonishing and unbelievable.
Did you anticipate such a verdict?
Never. During the early days of the trial, the arguments were in favour of entry of women of all ages. When we heard that, we thought our case is over. But when advocates like K Parasaran, who’s 90 years old, began arguments, the judges sat without blinking. At one point, they seemed to agree to his sensible arguments. Hearing that, we never thought such a verdict would arrive. Maybe the judges haven’t understood the case well or stepping all these aside, it may have been a predetermined ruling. We followed the trial word-by-word. We believe at one stage, there has been an upheaval to achieve a larger objective.
The stand taken by the last UDF government was in favour of temple traditions and customs. But the new LDF government changed its stand. Do you think it played a role that resulted in this verdict?
Maybe it did affect partly. There were a lot of petitioners in the case. The government’s stand is important. Constitutional values and gender equality was discussed here, never the importance of traditions and rituals. Aspects involving the social setup of temples in south India were never discussed (in court). Like a horse blinded on both sides of its eyes, it went ahead. This is not the ideal scenario for a heterogenous civilisation. The ruling should have encompassed these aspects.
Both the state government and the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), that administers Sabarimala, have stated they won’t go for a review petition. How do you see that?
The government, after being elected, had said they stood for gender equality, that’s their stand. Every political party has a stand. But the decision of the TDB is wrong. TDB officials may change with the change in government, but its policies must not differ. Because, when an official of the TDB takes oath, he/she promises to uphold the traditions and rituals of temples. I have been in close touch with TDB officials. To a large extent, they have promised to uphold those traditions. But at one stage, politics crept it. There’s no other choice for them. Either, listen to the government or get thrown out of his/her post. That’s why, I believe they had to listen to the government.
During the last few days, Pandalam and other cities have seen large protests by men and women against the verdict. Do you see these agitations as spontaneous?
These protests were not channelled by anyone. It started here in Pandalam. If temple traditions and rituals are not followed, it will bring ill luck to the temple and the devotees. The connection between the Pandalam royal family and the Sabarimala temple is irrevocable. If there is a discrepancy in rituals at Sabarimala, it will have a direct effect on us and the ‘tantri’ (priest) family. Naturally, small changes there will affect us. People may not believe me when I say this. In 1951, when there was a big fire at Sabarimala temple, the same day, our ettukettu (traditional homestead) made completely of teak was burnt to ashes barring a small prayer room where our forefathers used to light a lamp in front of our family deity. In those days, short circuiting is not possible because there was no electricity. We also have a small family temple here adjoining the palace. Many years ago, in another incident, the priest one day saw a line of ants around the saligramam (stone used for worship) and came to our family, suspecting some kind of bad luck. Shortly, a member of our family had died. Even the smallest of incidents at Sabarimala can result in big repercussions on our family. That’s why we are anguished. We have not indulged in protests or burning vehicles. All that we can do is say our prayers. Our family has always been sober and simple, never exceeding limits.
Several parties like the Congress and the BJP have supported the protests against the verdict. Do you look at their support with caution?
I can only laugh at this. On the day of the verdict, both the Congress and BJP welcomed it. They called the decision of the court historic and asked for the judgment to be carved in stone. I believe that the devotees at Pandala, who came out on the streets spontaneously, opened their eyes. There were at least 35,000-40,000 people, out of which 85% were women, most of those between the ages of 10-50. They called the verdict a move by people who are unconnected to the traditions of the temple. I was astounded to see the crowds. Now, all parties barring the Left, have come here to see me. There’s a queue of politicians who want to come here, hold a press conference, affirm that they are with us and then go on a different way. We don’t think they actually wan to help us, but still, we are happy to see their good hearts.
When the temple opens on the first day of the Malayalam month of Thulam, the government has promised to make arrangements for women. But several organisations have warned of violence and protests. Do you anticipate violence there?
I don’t believe the women of Kerala would throng into the crowds there. Those thinking of coming are doing so with a predetermined notion of following the SC order. There may be people heading organisations sympathetic to the stand of the government, they may come. It is not right for Sabarimala to turn into a conflict zone. Devotees are agitated right now and there is a chance of conflict if their sentiments are sparked. Violence is not a solution to this as people cannot be beaten up. If that happens, it will intensify into a much bigger problem. I hope that doesn’t happen. The government must take care to not let that happen.
Will your family get involved in filing a review petition before the court challenging the verdict?
Yes, certainly. Only the petitioners in the case can file a review petition, that includes us and organisations like the NSS. We have to examine the legal aspects.
TDB president A Padmakumar said a review petition won’t stand even in an open court?
I am speaking to legal experts. They said the case won’t come in open court. The TDB should have explored ways to at least file a petition, they didn’t even do that.
Do you see this verdict limited to just the Sabarimala temple or producing larger repercussions in the Hindu society in Kerala?
Yes, this is not limited to the restrictions on women between ages of 10 and 50. A line in the judgment says ‘This is applicable to all the temples in India.’ So this has national importance. There are thoughts of purity and impurity. Anyone can interpret the way they want. The menstruation period is considered impure, it’s scientifically proven as well. When we sneeze, the germs must be thrown out because it’s impure. With this verdict, anyone can enter any temple with any physical condition. This (menstruating women) can bring ill-luck to a place of worship, considered pure. Tomorrow, there may even be a court ruling asking for arrangements to be made at temples for women going through menstruation.
The priest family said if women between the ages of 10-50 enter the temple, it will affect rituals there. Do you believe that as well?
The ‘prathishta sankalpam’ (deity belief) at the temple is connected to the traditions. If the rituals are not performed, it will affect the strength of the deity. That’s what the tantric rules say. I believe that too.
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