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  India   All India  12 Oct 2018  The Sabarimala Conundrum

The Sabarimala Conundrum

Published : Oct 12, 2018, 12:18 am IST
Updated : Oct 12, 2018, 12:18 am IST

The hysterical response of some women believers indicates that most of them don’t even realize they’re discriminated against.

An aerial view of Sabarimala. (File pic)
 An aerial view of Sabarimala. (File pic)

Talking about Sabarimala darshan is like going for a morning walk in a minefield. You need to tread carefully, for one wrong step could be your last. To go or not to go – that is the question.

The 2018 Supreme Court verdict means Kerala High Court was wrong in 1991. Thus an entire generation of women was unjustly restrained from worshipping at Sabarimala.

The hysterical response of some women believers indicates that most of them don’t even realize they’re discriminated against.  In fact we’re all creatures of a patriarchal structure where religious discrimination reinforces social discrimination and vice versa.

Those who are against women’s Sabarimala entry claim that the majority of women do not wish to enter the shrine. That’s a fallacy. The majority is always silent. The truth will reveal itself in due course, but for the time being even a single young woman is enough to break the taboo.

State force can no longer be used to prevent women from worshipping. Trupti Desai of Shani Shingnapur fame has already announced her intention to be present on October 17 when the temple opens. Swamiye saranam Ayyappa!

Actress Jayamala said that as a young woman she had entered the sanctum sanctorum and touched the idol.  Lord Ayyappa showered his blessings on her and she became a minister in Karnataka. Bureaucrat TKA Nair had his choroonu in Sabarimala and later became Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister.  I don’t think anything bad happened to his mom either. The Travancore Maharani went to the shrine in the prime of her youth and she was fine too. Women who want to visit Sabarimala need no further proof. No, the flood will not come!

What the Judges Said
Chief Justice Deepak Misra observed that the Devaswom Board had deposed before the High Court that women in the 10 to 50 age group used to visit the temple and their entry was restricted only during Mandalam, Makaravilakku and Vishu. The High Court had found that during the 20 years preceding 1991, women irrespective of age were allowed to visit the temple. The apex court observed that, “The respondents failed to establish that the exclusion of women from Sabarimala is either an obligatory part of religion or has been consistently practised over the years.”

Referring to Lord Ayyappa’s naishtika brahmachari status, Justice Chandrachud said, “There is an assumption here that cannot stand constitutional scrutiny...that a deviation from the celibacy and austerity observed by the followers would be caused by the presence of women...Its effect is to impose the burden of a man’s celibacy on a woman and construct her as a cause for deviation from celibacy.” He added, “To suggest that women cannot keep the vratham is to stigmatize them and stereotype them as being weak and lesser human beings.”

Case History
The TDB in a 1955 notification stated “In order to maintain the sanctity and dignity of this great temple and keep up the past traditions, it is hereby notified that Ayyappans who do not observe the usual vrithams are prohibited from entering the temple by stepping the Pathinettampadi and women between the ages of 10 and 55 are forbidden from entering the temple.” This did not restrain male devotees in any way. Nobody bothered to check if they were observing the 41-day penance or not.

In 1991 Kerala High Court went a step further and directed the Government to block the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 (S Mahendran vs The Secretary, TDB). Note that age 55 suddenly became 50. It seems the honourable judges failed to distinguish between age, menopause and sexuality. Perhaps they believed that bleeding stops at 50 and women become unattractive and celibate. What’s even more ridiculous was the naive assumption that 50+ women cannot damage the vows of the holy multitude of Ayyappans. In 2006 the matter reached the Supreme Court – and the rest is history.

Games Politicians Play
The Congress and the BJP in Kerala vied with each other to oppose the judgement ostensibly to protect the ‘sentiments’ of the believing public. A large number of local leaders maintained a deafening silence. At the national level, however, Congress and BJP leaders welcomed the verdict.   

Bindhu Krishna of the Congress expressed her desire to have Ayyappa darshan. CPM legislator M Swaraj condemned the “centuries old mindset” of the naysayers. Congress legislator V T Balaram’s FB post said it’s not surprising that many of those opposing women’s entry into Sabarimala are themselves women. He drew a parallel with the abolition of slavery in the United States, when many former slaves lamented that they no longer had a master.

Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, proved once again that he has a firm head on his shoulders. In a press conference on October 8 he reminded the public that after the 1991 Kerala High Court verdict the Government had been preventing women in the 10-50 age group from entering Sabarimala.  Now in the light of the SC verdict it would ensure that no woman is denied entry.  He also mentioned that Kummanam Rajasekharan of the BJP had written a letter to the tantri stating that the shrine was being used for cinema shooting, dancing and wedding ceremonies. Now that’s a revelation!

Amidst the churning of the religio-political ocean a peculiar argument is being propagated to rope in Muslim support, namely that the SC judgment is the first step towards a Uniform Civil Code, and that a major conspiracy is underfoot. This conspiracy theory is put forth by Rahul Eashwar, a young and eloquent scion of the tantri family, and a budding politician. He doesn’t name the conspirators, however.

Now I’m personally in favour of a Uniform Civil Code. If I can’t have four husbands, I don’t see why some men should be allowed to have four wives. I’ve always envied Muslim males their special privileges, especially those of the triple talaq variety. In my next life I’d like to be born a Muslim man – in India, of course.

Justice Chandrachud recently made a remark that the Constitution is essentially feminist. I simply love that one! I’d like to throw this at Rahul Eashwar who in his numerous TV debates makes the word ‘feminist’ sound like a swear word.

Why TDB needs a New Head
The neck of the bottle is always at the top. The Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran tries to run with the hare and hunt with the hound. The moment the verdict was announced he deftly passed the buck to the Travancore Devaswom Board.

No wonder TDB president Padmakumar was emboldened to take a ridiculous position which he thought he could get away with. “No woman from my family intends to go to Sabarimala,” he told the media. What did he mean? That in typical patriarchal fashion he would be the one deciding on behalf of all females in his house? Or as a henpecked husband was he merely following his wife’s orders when there were no orders from the minister?

The SC judgment affects all women, not merely Padmakumar’s women, or Malayali women or even Indian women. This embarrassing incident showcases the absence of women members on the TDB, a glaring omission by the otherwise right-thinking Left government.

Some hard truths

Who filed the review petition? The tantri family, which is a Brahmin family, the NSS, which represents the Nair community and the Pandalam royals who are upper caste Hindus. The lower castes, Dalits and others have no stake.  
Can the State pass legislation or ordinance to subvert the SC judgment? Not unless it wants to cut a sorry figure when the law/ordinance is struck down. Can Parliament pass a law? Same answer. What chance does a review petition have? Negligible. Can a larger bench overrule the verdict of the 5 member bench? Yes, but...

Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra dumped a 400-year-old anti-woman tradition following a Mumbai High Court judgment. Haji Ali shrine in Mumbai did likewise.  

The thaen-abhishekham ceremony, a privilege of tribal people, was a Sabarimala tradition that has quietly disappeared. Thulabharam is a new tradition that has appeared. I suspect hard-nosed economic interests are at the bottom of these disappearances and appearances.

100 years ago a woman could not enter Padmanabhaswamy temple unless she exposed her breasts. That tradition was broken. The Travancore Maharaja’s 1936 Temple Entry Proclamation is legendary. Until then lower castes were barred from temples. Is there anyone today who would like to reintroduce these traditions?

How did the gruesome practice of sati go away? Delhi Sultan Mohammed bin Tughlak tried to ban it in the 14th century. The Portuguese tried, the French tried and finally the British brought the 1829 ban. Yet sati did not disappear until the late 20th century. It took hundreds of years. Today no one would dare to suggest that a woman be burnt on the pyre of her dead husband.

When the devadasi system was outlawed, when child marriage was abolished, when temples were opened to Dalits, when Sree Narayana guru installed an Ezhava Sivan, there was resistance. Ayyappa did not make the rules, the priestly class did. If all traditions are good, then triple talaq and polygamy cannot be faulted. The arguments go on.


I would like to ask the ‘Ready-to-Wait’ brigade: How do you know you will live to cross age 50? Have you ever thought of women with terminal illnesses who might have a desire for Sabarimala darshan?  Would you tell them to ‘go to other temples’?
Until a generation ago women were isolated and ‘untouchable’ during their
periods, thanks to peculiar notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution.’  Would you like to reintroduce this ‘tradition’? If women are impure because bleeding makes them impure then shouldn’t they be barred from temple worship altogether? Why only Sabarimala? Don’t you think Lord Ayyappa is strong enough to maintain his own celibacy? Does he really need your help?

If menstruation makes women unclean then why is it that phlegm, urine and
faeces don’t make men unclean, not to mention bleeding wounds, pus, and other body fluids? Why is it that menstrual blood is unclean while semen is clean?
For the many misguided males like K Sudhakaran, who insist that women are unclean during the period I have a question: Can you touch your heart and
swear you have never approached a woman for sex during her period? My dear sisters who are hitting the streets in order to preserve the chastity of Lord Ayyappa, pause for a moment and ask yourselves whether your partner has
never asked for sex during your period or during his 41-day vratham? I have no further questions.

The way forward

There’s a simple solution to the dual problem of protecting women worshippers from male predators during the trek to the hilltop, and protecting the celibacy vows of the male devotees when attractive females are around. The Government can allot separate days for men and women to enter Sabarimala (an idea they seem to have considered and rejected). The Supreme Court judges are receiving richly deserved encomiums.  The members of the Young Lawyers’ Association who fought the legal battle must be honoured and the role of former Devaswom minister, G Sudhakaran, must be recognized. Women who welcome the verdict must remember that in matters of social justice the Left is often right. Those who now speak of discussion and consensus-building would do well to remember the words of former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher: The Old Testament fathers did not say, ‘Brothers, we need a consensus.’ They said, ‘This is my faith. This is what I sincerely believe. If you believe it too, then come with me! ’    

(The author is an IT professional)

Tags: sabarimala, kerala high court