Written by Rajan Gurukkal
Sabarimala, which derives its name from Sabari, the epic sage known for her life of austerity destined to attain Rama’s blessings, is topical for the Supreme Court verdict that lifted the ban on the entry of young women into the Ayyappa temple there. A critical appraisal of the present struggle in defence of the constitutionally ordained rights of women calls for a recollection of the past traditions of the shrine. Originally a cult spot of forest-dwellers’ tutelary deity called Ayyanar, it became a small shrine around the 15th century CE. According to legend, Lord Ayyappa, a prince of the Pandalam ruling house, but born to Mohini (Vishnu) by Lord Shiva, was sent into the forest by his scheming stepmother to get a tigress’s milk for her fake illness. Subsequently, the prince is said to have sat before Ayyanar, and got absorbed by the deity. This legend entrenches the cult spot’s ownership by the Pandalam ruling family.
An insignificant shrine deep inside the forest, it used to be visited during the annual Makara Sankramana (January-February) by tribal people, a few low-caste people living on the forest’s fringes, and some pilgrims from Tamil Nadu.
Because the temple lay outside the agamic tradition, the Namboodiri tantri (ritual authority) families of Vedic ritual tradition never cared much for it. The temple had inferior deities like Ayyan and Karuppaswamy and wasn’t amenable to purification by agamic rites. No priest with the knowledge of agamic rules would dare take responsibility for sustaining ritual purity in a forest temple with 18 hills as its boundary (antyaprakara). Only the Thazhamon, a family with no tradition of Vedic rites and agamic rituals, would take up the job.
Rise in pilgrims
After the Pandalam house surrendered its rights over the shrine and the forest to the Travancore ruling family, the temple came under the management of the Travancore Royal Devaswom Commisssion (TRDC). In mid-June 1950, poachers set the Sabarimala shrine on fire and broke the idol of Ayyappa. A new temple was constructed by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) that had come into being after the TRDC was dissolved.
Pilgrim numbers rose steadily after the reconstruction, reaching several thousands in the Seventies and Eighties, from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, and stand at a little over 50 lakh now.
From the Seventies onward, the numbers of upper-caste pilgrims began to rise, and this led to the introduction of upper-caste values of exclusion and differentiation, and the marginalisation of the tribal and lower-caste peoples. Consequently, the fraternity among pilgrims that was nurtured in the course of their hazardous journey through the forest, began to decline.
Some are seeking to upset the secular identity and religious symbiosis by disapproving of Ayyappa’s association with Vavar, a Muslim. The temple is open to people of all castes, creeds, and religions, but this is being systematically challenged through the imposition of rigid rules and conventions.
Question of women
Traditionally, there were no restrictions on the entry of women. The ban on the entry of women between the ages 10 and 50 came through a High Court judgment as recently as 1991. The implicit presumption behind the age restriction is that menstruation precludes the observance of purity for 41 days, and that the celibate Lord Ayyappa would not like young women.
There is no ritual sanctity or scientific justification for this restriction. While upper-caste households did observe menstrual pollution, for the tribal people, menstruation was auspicious and symbolic of fertility. Tribal families with women and children of all ages flocked to the temple until the Sixties. And there is archival evidence of upper-caste young women entering the temple till the Eighties.
Culturally uprooted masses clap their hands and shout “saranam” with militant fervour to protect the Ayyappa “tradition”. It is actually the anxiety of losing their savarna caste status, rank and identity, which brings them out on the streets. It is not clear what they want to protect and how, if tradition itself is re-invented from time to time.
What one forgets
The Sabarimala temple premises lie in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, under the jurisdiction of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. The TDB, under the pretext of meeting the urgent needs of pilgrims, has been pushing urban development into the core of the reserve. There has been deforestation and diversion of forest land, and violations of the Kerala Forest Act, 1961, The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, and The Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.
Several orders of the Supreme Court, and of the Central and state governments, have been violated. There is gross distributive injustice in land use. Of the total land leased, 14.6 per cent is privatised for the use of 9.5 per cent of pilgrims, and 3.4 per cent is marked out for the use of only 0.1 per cent. The dilution of the traditional egalitarianism of the pilgrimage has progressed in step with the apathy for the site’s ecological vulnerability. A heavy price will have to be paid in the near future.