Protesters up ante, Sabarimala on the boil as temple gates open on Wednesday

															Police personnel tackling devotees protesting against the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala temple, at Nilakkal base camp in Pathanam, Kerala, on Tuesday.(Vivek Nair/HT Photo)

The failure of the talks has raised the tension in Kerala with devotees intent of stopping women from entering when the Sabarimala temple opens for monthly rituals on Wednesday. tags

A day before the opening of Kerala’s Sabarimala temple for monthly rituals, tension mounted over the entry of women of all ages into the hilltop shrine on Tuesday, after key talks on the contentious issue collapsed and protesters threatened suicides and stopped vehicles to thwart women of menstruating ages from going on the pilgrimage.

Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of Kerala’s Left government, reiterated that his administration will not file any review petition against last month’s Supreme Court order that allowed women between 10 years and 50 years to enter Sabarimala in what has been hailed as a landmark verdict. He said no one will be allowed to stop devotees from visiting the temple in the Western Ghats.

But chaos prevailed at Nilakkal, which is about 15 kilometres from Sabarimala base camp Pambha, despite heavy police presence. On a rainy Tuesday, believers of the centuries-old tradition threatened self-immolation and blocked women of reproductive age from visiting the 800-year-old shrine in south Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district since its presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is considered to be celibate.

Women protesters, mostly tribals, held pictures of Lord Ayyappa and chanted hymns, keeping a close watch on whether vehicles on the way to Sabarimala had women on board. A group of journalism students comprising girls was turned back. So were women journalists headed for Pambha, from where a five-km trek to reach the shrine begins. P Ratnamma, a leader of women devotees protesting against the top court order, threatened to hang herself. “We are ready to die for Lord Ayyappa. Come what may, we will not allow women to enter Sabarimala,” said Ratnamma, who has been leading a protest for the past week. The BJP and the Congress, as well as some fringe groups, have opposed the Kerala government’s stand on Sabarimala.

Several review pleas have been filed in the Supreme Court, which in a 4:1 majority verdict on September 28 said divinity and devotion cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender.

Protests erupted elsewhere after crucial talks held in capital Thiruvananthapuram among the tantri (supreme priest of Sabarimala), the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam (considered the custodians of the temple) and Travancore Devaswom Board, or TDB, which is responsible for the administration of the temple, could not find a solution.

“We want TDB to submit a review petition (against the court order) immediately. But officials said they will discuss the review petition on October 19. We’re upset that they are unwilling to discuss it even at the eleventh hour. We came out of the meeting because they’re not ready to hear our views,” said Sasikumar Verma, a member of the Pandalam family that supports the ban on the entry of women of all ages.

Earlier this month, the Pandalam family and the tantri turned down CM Vijayan’s invitation for talks.

After a weekly Cabinet meeting, Vijayan said the state will not allow anyone to disrupt law and order. “The government will ensure facilities to devotees to go to the temple and offer prayers. We won’t submit a review petition either,” he said.

“Some people are misleading a section of devotees. It is sad even the Congress is part of a movement being led by many Sangh Parivar outfits,” Vijayan said.

BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai said, “It seems the government wants a showdown with devotees...The government is fully responsible for the sorry state.”

Pathanamthitta parliamentarian Anto Anotny, in whose constituency the temple is located, requested the Centre to bring an ordinance to stop the entry of women of all age groups into the hill shrine.

“The Sabarimala temple will open for monthly pooja tomorrow evening (for the first time since the top court order). We all are very concerned. This time, the centuries-old pilgrimage to Sabarimala, which is a festival of all faiths, is in the shadow of conflicts,” the Congress leader said in Erumely, an important pilgrim centre linked to the Lord Ayyappa faith.

According to TDB, which manages over 1,200 temples in the state, 35 million people visited the temple last year during a three-month season beginning November.

First Published: Oct 16, 2018 23:13 IST

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