By Lekshmy Rajeev
In October this year, the Supreme Court of India (SC) upheld the right of women of all ages to worship at the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala. However, women of menstruating age continue to be denied entry into the shrine that is currently being controlled by a nexus of conservatives, certain political parties and other vested interests.
The conflict around Sabarimala has created a vast rift in public perception across India. The most vociferous voices are those who claim women of menstruating age should not be allowed entry into the temple as it is part of temple tradition since the reigning deity Lord Ayyappa is celibate. Others have converted this issue into a political controversy, and have incited violent protests and a massive misinformation campaign to project the SC order as some sort of “attack on Hinduism”.
None of these are correct.
In this article, I will look at three different aspects of this issue. I will also share how speaking up about the truth of this matter has impacted my personal life in unexpected ways.
After the verdict, and in the face of the vicious and violent campaign to deny women entry into the temple, I wrote a letter to the Honourable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in which I highlighted the insecurity women face amidst the increasingly violent protests by religious fanatics, and cleared the historical background of the reigning deity’s so-called celibacy:
“The claim that the deity of Sabarimala is Naishtika Brahmachari or an eternal celibate is a story created by vested interests quite recently. On the contrary, there is enough evidence to prove that the deity is not bound by a vow of celibacy. The mantra for Dhyana (meditation), beginning with ‘Snigdhaaraala…‘ used in Sabarimala is addressed to Dharma Sastha, a god who is worshipped along with his wife and son. If the idol is of a sanyasi (sage) who is an eternal celibate, then the deity should be of saatvika character. Alluring flowers like jasmine and pichchi should be forbidden there. But in Sabarimala, such flowers are offered.”
I also talked about certain other rituals, motifs and images at Sabarimala that are definitely not meant for celibate deities, and in fact indicate a god with a wife or wives.
In fact, Malikapurathamma, a deity in the form a young woman, is enshrined within the Sabarimala temple complex. If Ayyappa’s Brahmacharya (celibacy) would be destroyed by women of the menstruating age group, the Malikapurathamma temple should not have been there in the first place!
Besides, there is evidence that women of all age groups were allowed at the Sabarimala temple in the past. Women in the 10-50 age groups would go there when the temple opened during the beginning of a Malayalam month, though they avoided the crowded Mandala Puja and Makaravilakku festivals.
The ban on a particular age group of women was introduced only after a High Court verdict in the 1990s. Even after 1991, women of all ages from influential sections were going to the temple secretly, mostly to pray for offspring or for the health of their newborns, with the silent support of the priests.
There are other 100-odd Ayyappa temples in Kerala where women of all ages are allowed. Are the pro-celibacy protesters implying that the Lord Ayyappa of these other temples is not celibate and only the Sabarimala deity is a Brahmachari? It is a contradiction that they have no answer for.
And isn’t it sacrilege to say that the mere sight of women in the menstrual age would disrupt the celibacy of an all-powerful God, not to speak of insulting womanhood?
The Sabarimala issue is also one of the Brahminisation of local temples and the imposition of patriarchal codes of conduct on otherwise gender-equal tribal communities.
Ever since the migration of Brahmins to Kerala, there was a relentless and systematic appropriation of local shrines into Brahminical modes of worship. In my book, Attukal Amma: The Goddess of Millions, I have explained in detail, how the Attukal temple, where the reigning Goddess was originally worshipped by the OBCs and Dalits, was hijacked by the upper castes. The priestly duties were taken over by Brahmin priests and the administration was usurped by the Nair community.
This Brahminisation has happened in the Kodungallur temple and many other Goddess temples. Another example of Brahminical usurpation is the well-known Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.
In Sabarimala specifically, the deity originated from the Mala Araya tribe. The representatives of the Mala Araya community have made it clear with supporting evidence that it was the priests from their tribe that performed ritualistic worship in the Sabarimala shrine for centuries.
It was only in 1902 that the Brahmin family of the Thazhamon Thantris usurped their position by displacing them and Brahminised the mode of worship with backing from the Pandalam royals.
The native Dravidian people of Kerala did not consider menstruation as impure and the ancient Goddess shrines of this land, known as kavu, had no such regulations against women. It was the Namboodiri Brahmins with their deeply patriarchal culture who imposed the taboo of preventing menstruating women from entering temples.
THE POLITICS OF RELIGION
Ironically, the very organisation backing the current violent protests against the SC verdict, RSS, had supported the entry of all women into the Sabarimala temple in the past and intellectuals connected with Sangh Parivar had written articles endorsing the idea. The RSS initially welcomed the Supreme Court verdict. So did its political extension BJP.
Then far-right extremist elements like Rahul Easwar, a self-proclaimed representative of Savarna upper castes, jumped into the fray making shrill calls for violent protests and started misleading devotees.
The community organisation of Nairs, the NSS and the Brahmin Thanthri family of Sabarimala might have feared that the entry of young women will later inspire lower castes to claim the right to perform priestly duties in the temple. The Pandalam royals also were apprehensive of losing their importance. All of these sections took to the streets.
As an exposed video has revealed, the RSS and the BJP seem to have seen this as a golden opportunity to carve out a space for them in Kerala’s political landscape where they have failed miserably to advance, through aggressive protests and polarisation.
The intention could be to worsen the law-and-order situation to make central government intervention possible. The RSS took a U-turn on their position on the issue only with the hope of making some political gains.
THE PERSONAL IMPACT
My entry into the battlefield of this burning issue was with the publication of my English articles supporting the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to enter Sabarimala, in the newspapers Hindustan Times, The Times of India and Deccan Chronicle. These articles attracted a lot of attention and I started writing Malayalam posts on Facebook too.
Some online sites and newspapers began to publish my Facebook posts without my permission and after adding what they wanted. I was forced to warn them about the violation of copyright.
Right-wing fanatic trolls started to target me on Facebook with abusive comments and Photoshopped pictures. James Clayton of the BBC interviewed me and I emphasised that menstruation is also a divine phenomenon. I was at the receiving end of both adulation from progressive and broadminded people, and hatred from religious fundamentalists.
And I must add: I am not affiliated to any political party.
One of my major areas of interest is the history and ritual practices of Kerala’s temples. I have tried only to expose the inherent injustice against the restriction on young women in Sabarimala, in the light of my research on temple traditions. I also managed to create an online petition to the Kerala Chief Minister that received wide support.
When I wake up every day, I confront 20 Facebook tags, 10 emails, 50 messages, 40 phone calls, a few threats, a lot of admiration and what not, related to the Sabarimala matter! My life has changed a lot in the last two months. There is loss of privacy and gain of some fame.
Everything happened unplanned, out of my spontaneous responses to an issue which I still feel passionate about from the depths of my heart. I am compiling a collection of Malayalam essays on the topic written by 36 prominent writers from Kerala, to be published soon by Amazon Westland.
I am happy that I have been able to create awareness on the issue, on a large scale, beyond my expectations, despite the impact it has had on my personal life.
Lekshmy Rajeev is the author of Attukal Amma: The Goddess of Millions (HarperCollins India)