Two women from the southern Indian state of Kerala entered the hill-top Sabarimala temple in a first three months after the Supreme Court lifted a ban on women devotees in the age group of ten to 50.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan confirmed the incident.
Following the incident, temple priests closed the doors of the sanctum sanctorum around 10.45 am for purification rituals which lasted an hour. The temple doors were reopened after completion of the purification rituals.
The temple’s deity is Lord Ayyappa, a celibate god, and according to centuries-old traditions, women of menstrual age are not allowed in to offer prayers.
Bindhu, a Maoist, and Kanakadurga, a state government employee with leftist leanings, in their early 40s offered prayers at the Sabarimala temple at 3.48 am after the temple doors were opened. Police officers in plain clothes escorted them to the sanctum sanctorum.
Hours later, television news channels aired videos of the two women entering the shrine.
Since the Supreme Court ruling allowing temple entry to women of menstrual age became a sensitive issue that divided people, a high alert has been sounded across the state and police have tightened security.
Days ago, the two women, escorted by police, had reached near the sanctum but they could not offers prayers as protesting devotees blocked their way.
The two women’s temple entry comes hours after the leftist government in Kerala organised a 620-km human chain involving women in support of gender equality.
Since the pilgrimage season opened weeks ago after the historic court ruling in September, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had arrested several Ayyappa devotees who blocked women “activists” from entering the sanctum-sanctorum of the temple.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which supports Ayyappa devotees, lashed out at the LDF government calling the two women’s temple entry as a plot hatched by Communist leaders with the help of state police.
BJP leader PS Sreedharan Pillai said the incident exposed the leftist government’s plan to destroy the faith of Ayyappa devotees. Their “treachery” has hurt the Hindu psyche deeply and the faithful will hit back in a democratic way, Pillai said.
Ramesh Chennithala, president of the state unit of Congress party, said Vijayan was hell-bent on breaking the temple rules and he won for now.
After their failed attempt to enter the temple, the two women were in police custody for days. On Wednesday, under the cover of darkness, they were led into the sanctum-sanctorum through a special passage without the travel pouch of offerings pilgrims usually carry on their heads. This was a gross insult to Ayyappa devotees, Chennithala said.
Senior Communist leaders Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Kanam Rajendran questioned the action of the Sabarimala priests, who are in the pay roll of the state government, to close the doors of the temple for purification.
The government said such unilateral decisions are unwarranted. It is considering action against the priests.
Women activists welcomed the temple entry of Bindu and Kanakadurga by calling it a historic victory for democracy and judiciary. They said parties aligned with Hindu fringe groups were trying to politicise the Sabarimala issue.
Trupti Desai, a Pune-based social activist who had made a vain attempt to enter the shrine earlier, welcomed the step taken by Bindu and Kanakadurga. Desai said the temple priests, instead of purifying the temple, should first purify their minds.
In the meantime, Kanakadurga’s brother, Bharath Bushan, alleged a conspiracy behind his sister’s temple entry. He said a top police official in Kottayam had been constantly in touch with his sister and he has the audio recordings to prove it.
When reports last came in, Bindu and Kanakadurga were heading towards Thrissur in a police van. Police personnel have been posted around their respective homes in northern Kerala in anticipation of attacks by Hindu fringe groups.
Violence erupts across state
By noon, violence erupted across the state. State capital Thiruvananthapuram witnessed pitched battles between the protesters and Communist party workers. Police intervened and fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the warring groups.
As the news of the two women’s temple entry spread, Ayyappa devotees took out protest marches in Kochi, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram cities and staged a sit-in on roads blocking traffic for an hour.
In a major security breach that embarrassed the police, four women Ayyappa devotees marched into the secretariat and came near the chief minister’s office before they were stopped by guards.
Protesters across the state blocked road traffic, hurled stones at state-owned and private buses, forced closure of shops and government offices and burned the effigies of the chief minister.
The BJP has called a shutdown on Thursday. Private shop-owners, who are fed with such protests, have decided to keep their businesses open.
The Congress party, although BJP’s arch rival at the national level, will observe Thursday as a ‘black day’ in protest against the entry of the two women into the shrine.