Hundreds of devotees started a trek to the Sabarimala temple in Kerala on Saturday, on the first day of the 41-day annual pilgrimage, as the state government heightened security arrangement in and around the hilltop shrine.
Police personnel sought proof of age as some elderly women began the trek amid a heavy rush of devotees in the base camp of Pambha, which is 5km away from the temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa.
The chief priest or tantri of the Sabarimala temple, Mahesh Kandarau, will open its doors at 5pm for the three-month pilgrimage season two days after the latest verdict of the Supreme Court and threats by some women activists to worship at hilltop temple.
At least five women of childbearing age were sent back by the police. When they insisted, a senior police officer said they have strict instructions not to allow women in the age group of 10-50 to the temple.
The state government has said it won’t provide protection to women devotees but many activists have announced their plan to enter the temple. The Sabarimala Karma Samiti, a top body of Hindu outfits, said it will block women if they try to enter the temple.
“In the first one hour, more than 10,000 pilgrims passed the police check post,” said a senior police officer in Pambha.
Though there is a big contingent of police personnel, barricades are not visible this time at Pambha and Nilakkal, the two base camps of the hill temple.
“We have made all arrangements. There are no prohibitory orders this time. But we will deal with trouble makers with a heavy hand,” said Pathanamthitta’s collector M Nuhu.
Bhoomata Brigade’s leader Trupti Desai and Chennai-based group Maniti Sangam have announced their plan to worship at the temple. Apart from them, 45 women devotees have also applied at the temple’s online portal for a ‘darshan.’
The CPI(M) state secretariat had asked the government to go slow on the issue and not to hurt believers sentiments. It would be ideal to wait and have more clarity before taking a final decision, senior leaders have said.
The opening of the Sabarimala temple comes after a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court had referred a clutch of petitions seeking a review of its order last year, which paved the way for the entry of women of all ages into the shrine to a larger seven-judge bench by a majority 3:2 ruling.
The seven-judge bench will re-examine the Sabarimala issue as well as that related to the entry of women in mosques, the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) among Dawoodi Bohras and the denial of access to fire temples for Parsi women, who marry outside the community.
The September 2018 verdict triggered protracted protests in Kerala. Devotees have blocked attempts of younger women to visit the temple. Many of them were threatened and pelted with stones during protests against the ruling.
Only two women have succeeded in praying inside the temple’s inner sanctum under police protection since the court’s order last September even as about a dozen attempted to do so.
Traditionalists maintain that women of childbearing age should not be allowed inside the temple because the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappan, is celibate.
Both the Congress as well as its arch-rival, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have backed the protests by traditionalists, citing the sentiments of the devotees.