Sabarimala: If the pilgrims you meet on the trek to Kerala’s Sabarimala temple were participants in a television news debate, you would write their utterances off as politically incorrect.

The overwhelming opinion on the trudge up to the shrine is in favour of barring girls and women of menstrual age—someone fixed it as between 10 and 50, and it stuck. And it’s been the temple’s convention all their life, or that is what they are told.

Myth and plain politics have melded in Kerala to spark social conflict over Sabarimala.

A 28 September Supreme Court verdict ending the practice of keeping out women as discriminatory has made zero impact on their thinking, revealing the intoxicatingly religious mind in Kerala’s hinterlands, despite the state’s crowning success in literacy and other progressive social indices.

This divergence—the conflict between the religious-minded people of the hinterlands and the progressive liberals elsewhere—has put Kerala at a crossroads.

The men

The 6km, steep climb to the temple set inside a dark green forest protecting the tigers in the Periyar tiger sanctuary, is filled with bare-chested, ceremonial black dhoti-clad, salt-of-the-earth characters: men like Unnikrishnan who looks to be in his 30s and has come with a 14-year-old son.

He introduces himself as a carpenter from Changanassery, the seat of the Nair community in Kerala, who has made the pilgrimage many times since his childhood. We met early on in the trek. It was the noon after a large conservative Hindu group set upon a large police patrol escorting two women activists to the temple, forcing the women to abandon the trek and return to the base camp.

Unnikrishnan was one of the many devotees making the climb for a view of the idol of the deity ‘Ayyappa’—18 holy steps above the top of the hill. He says they were riled to see a woman choosing to “defile" the sacred mountain by their very presence there, which made them revolt.

They charged at the women and the police, surrounding them and yelling “Swamiye Ayyappa", a chant that is supposed to please the deity but which turned into a slogan of sorts—much like ‘Inquilab Zindabad’—by pilgrims.

The police tried to reason with the protestors, but the mob stood its ground. The women finally decided to abandon the trek, after some pleading by the police. Unnikrishnan had just learned about these developments from others when we met, and was seething with anger.

“These women should be ripped apart," he said, repeating—exactly— the words of a pro-Bharatiya Janata Party actor Kollam Thulasi during a ‘Ayyappa Nama Japa Yatra’, the given name to a popular gathering of devotees across Kerala to register their protest against women entering the temple. But unlike the actor, who was forced to apologise after public outrage, eventually landing him in a police case for degrading the dignity of women, Unnikrishnan is hailed as a hero by the mob around.

Magic mountain

Ayyappa, the forest god’s story is etched deep in the Keralan mind, even more so after a 1975 multilingual hit movie, Swami Ayyappan, where he was shown to have magical healing powers. Myths describe him as a warrior prince, born of love between two Hindu male gods, Vishnu and Shiva (or Ayya and Appa) when the former took female form. He was raised by an erstwhile royal family, but later renounced his way and left for the forest to meditate. However, every month, he takes a break from his seclusion and receives his devotees—for five days—apart from an annual pilgrimage in November-January. By convention, pilgrims wear a sacred Rudraksha chain, take vows for 41 days before making the annual pilgrimage. Vows include renouncing material comforts, abstaining from sex and not drinking alcohol. Today these conventions stand diluted. That’s an open secret.

It is said that he is a Naishtika Brahmachari, a celibate, and will be stripped of his spiritual powers by the presence of women of menstrual-age How rooted this belief is in Hindu shastras could not be proved conclusively in court. And locals say women may have slipped into the temple every now and then, as no one checked. But in 1991, things came to a head after the Kerala high court enforced a ban on women’s entry. Now, devotees, including many women, are stopping every bus to check if any women under the banned category are slipping into the temple.

Things we don’t know

I asked Ajayan T.S., who introduced himself as a welder, what inspires such strong sentiments among the pilgrims. “In the whole world, this is the only place we can come without kama-moham (sexual desire). The sight of women could destroy all that," he said. I wondered how many of my friends would think of it as deep misogyny.

“I once went to a Church’s procession. Oh my god, how women dressed there! And how men were ogling at them! Sabarimala should never become like that. One feels so spiritual entering Sabarimala, because there are no women," said a three-wheeler driver from Ernakulam, another Ayyappa devotee who goes to Sabarimala almost every year like Ajayan.

“I usually visit during the ‘Mandala’ kalam (annual pilgrimage)," said Ajayan, “This time I came early because I was worried if some women will enter and destroy the sanctity," he said.

Like the men, the women too are bound by a strong faith on the deity’s divine powers and their link to the celibacy vow. For some, the pilgrim season is a truly peaceful time. In a state that has one of the highest per capita consumption of liquor, women in families try hard to keep their men away from liquor for at least a day. And here’s a god who asks for 41-days abstinence, to whom their men listen to. I know of a woman who unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide, after suffering at the hands of an alcoholic husband. The family, however, rejoiced in peace during every Sabarimala pilgrim season, as the husband, an Ayyappa devotee, would take the abstinence pledge.

Ajayan honours the Supreme Court, but thinks the north Indian judges do not understand local culture. Plus, he believes the ruling Marxist party is in undue haste to implement the order. “They are atheists; they want to destroy our temples so that they can spread communism." Somewhere along the journey to the top, the carpenter who had set out with his grouse against women had also begun to articulate the protests as a much bigger fight, against the communists.

And then, just near the sanctum, his fight took a radically different colour—now his anger was directed against a woman with a Muslim name who tried to visit the temple that morning.

Near the sanctum of the temple, which is open to devotees of all religion, there’s a small structure in honour of the deity’s close friend Vavar, a Muslim. It is customary for devotees to pray before Vavar after visiting the deity, seen by some as a monument of the temple’s secular roots. The seat of Vavar is manned by 72-year-old Ustad Abdul Rasheed Musliar, the current head of a Vavanoor Muslim family in Kerala.That’s the tradition going back to long years in the family.

“Why don’t you ask your women to first fight for their rights in Muslim mosques before coming here?" Unnikrishnan asked the Ustad provocatively.

“Don’t ask me things I don’t know," the Ustad replied.

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When streets swelled with protesters after Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict

Midway through the trek to the hilltop, I met two activists of Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, even after the police directed them to leave the district following the violent protests at the Sabarimala temple premises.

The two were not an exception, rather “a part of a battery of men and women ferried from across the state by the BJP and its front organizations to the temple site to block and evict women aged between 10 and 50 years from the temple premises", said one of them, a state-level office-bearer of Yuva Morch, seeking anonymity.

But what about the “voluntary protests by thousands of devotees" spilling over to the streets just after the SC verdict?

“We have an influential presence in temples in every taluka of Kerala right now. After the SC verdict, we asked each of those temple office bearers to gather at least 40 people to carry out street protests as part of the Nama-Japa-Yathra," he said. “The turnout beat our own estimation. In my assembly seat alone, 400 people participated."

In the second stage, for the bigger rallies, he said they hired more volunteers from spiritual organizations, such as the one of Mata Amritanandamayi, the Kerala-based guru who counts millions of people as followers.

Besides, there were many devotees who came on their own. “We only had to ask, there were so many willing to come."

Interestingly, two of the people arrested by the police for breaking prohibitory orders on Thursday were Stalin and Lenin--names clearly inspired by the communist ideology.

In fact, the father of the second activist, who is a district office bearer of the Yuva Morcha, wrote for the Janayugam, a newspaper run by the Communist Party of India’s state unit. “In ordinary protests, we would wish to get back home as early as we could. But in this one, we are begging the police to send us to jail. That’s going to give us a hero’s welcome back home...If only we can drag this until the election," the second person said, also requesting anonymity.

The youth, however, vouched that creating violence was not their way to protest. They blamed the violence on Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad (AHP), a breakaway faction of the BJP formed by former pro-BJP Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia. The BJP had suffered a major setback when Pratheesh Vishwanath, a lawyer turned VHP leader in Kerala, chose to side with the AHP.

BJP’s state unit comprised a section of workers who believed in moderation, while there was a violent group led by Vishwanath. But all that changed with his joining the AHP. “The organisation’s Ernakulam district president, for instance, has three murder cases and at least 23 criminal cases against him," said the second person quoted above. Vishwanath is in jail for breaking the prohibitory orders at the temple site, and could not be contacted.

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