The Sabarimala Temple in Kerala is reopening for the first time on Wednesday since last month’s Supreme Court order setting aside age restrictions on the entry of women.
Many rights’ activists had welcomed the decision. However, protests against the order have gained momentum over the past few days.
As the temple reopens to mark the beginning of the Malayalam month of Thulam, we take a look at the mythology, and beliefs associated with this revered shrine, and what the current controversy is about.
Legend, Mythology, And Beliefs
Legend has it that the king and queen of the Pandalam royal dynasty which ruled over the present-day parts of Pathanamthitta district (where the temple is located) were childless.
One day, while hunting in a forest, the king, Raja Rajasekhara, found a crying infant and bought him home. The baby with a radiant glow and a gemstone around his neck was named Manikantan (Mani meaning gem and kantan referring to “around the neck”). He grew up to become the prince of Pandalam.
After a few years, the queen developed a mysterious illness which could only be cured by the milk of a tigress. Manikantan, then a 12-year old, is said to have gone to the forest and returned to the palace riding a tigress, along with several cubs.
Later, Manikantan renounced the kingdom, luxury and all material wealth to become an ascetic.
The Sabarimala Temple
The king dedicated a shrine to him which is now known as Sabarimala. It is believed that Manikantan achieved a divine form here as Lord Ayyappa. The temple is located on the slopes of the Western Ghats, on top of a hill that is at a height of about 3,000 m above the sea level.
According to another belief, Sabarimala is the place where Lord Ayyappa meditated after killing the powerful demon, Mahishi.
Yet another account from mythology says that Parasurama Maharisi lifted Kerala up from the sea by throwing his axe and installed the idol of Ayyappa at Sabarimala.
The temple does not remain open round the year. Pilgrims can only visit the temple during the first five days of every month in the Malayalam calendar, in addition to the annual ‘mandalam’ and ‘makaravilakku’ festivals.
Devotees only dress up in black or deep blue colours for praying in the temple.
Courts And The Sabarimala Temple
A custom of restricting the entry women who were in their reproductive age was allowed by Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act, 1965.
In 1991, the Kerala High Court upheld the restriction on the entry of women between the age of 10 and 50 years.
A public interest litigation challenging the restriction was filed in the Supreme Court by the Indian Young Lawyers Association (IYLA). The case was taken up for hearing in 2016; it was subsequently transferred to a five-Judge Constitution Bench.
In September this year, the bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra delivered a verdict allowing the entry of women of all ages into the temple. The court held that the rules disallowing women in Sabarimala were unconstitutional.
Reaction Against The SC Verdict
The Kerala government and rights groups supported the verdict arguing that the earlier custom and rules violated the rights of women.
The Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous entity that administers this and several other shrines in the state, however, opposed the verdict. The board maintained that religious places all over the country did not allow menstruating women to enter temples.
On Tuesday and Wednesday morning, a large number of people and devotees protested against the verdict, stopping females from proceeding towards the Sabarimala Temple.
Several organisations, including political parties, have participated in the protest against allowing women to enter the shrine.
Protests continued along the route to the temple despite a heavy police presence. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan , however, assured that all necessary facilities were being made available to devotees irrespective of their gender and age to visit the temple for offering prayers.
The Travancore Devaswom Board met with the supreme priest of the temple, the Pandalam royals and other organisations to discuss the matter collectively on Tuesday but the meeting failed to yield results.
Photos courtesy: sabarimala.kerala.gov.in