Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.
Soren Kierkegaard

Sabarimala temple’s historic ban that prevented women of menstruating age (10-50 years) from entering the shrine for decades has now been lifted. A legion of devotees are not satisfied and are threatening to not come back. The protesting quarter includes many women, who are also Lord Ayyappa’s staunch devotees. There have been roadblocks and checks at specific spots to deter any women of menstruating age (10-50 years) from entering.

Women have been trying to request entry into the temple for decades. This verdict has received a mixed response as many are torn apart between religion and gender equality. Those for gender-equality hailed this decision as nothing more than a needed change in an evolving society that no longer projects women to prejudice in their right to worship. They feel that denying women’s entry simply because of their innate ability to menstruate is ridiculous and age-old. A woman of menstruating age may not even be menstruating during her pilgrimage but, she will not be allowed to enter the shrine simply because of her God-given nature.

On the other hand, many devotees have heavily criticized the Supreme Court’s verdict as they strongly feel that the individuals, who provoked this dispute, have an ill agenda of hurting the sentiments of Hindus in general. They collectively believe that this goes against the tradition and is hurting the religion and the devotees. Another group feels responsible to protest this decision because they need to protect Lord Ayyappa, a celibate.

Sabarimala shrine

Truth be told, I had initially stalled in writing this piece because I am not a devotee of Lord Ayyappa, and religion, as we know, is a delicate subject. I thought I should refrain from commenting on something that I am not well-versed about. I have also been warned that this is an inflammatory topic and can cause an uproar due to its divisive nature. However, recent developments pertaining to this issue sparked an urge within me to address this subject. I did my homework to ensure that I do not give a half-baked piece.

What compelled me to write this article is the reaction of many people and the chain of events that followed the stimulus: the removal of the historic ban.

Policemen try to reason with protesters at the Nilakkal Base Camp. (REUTERS)

I will not say I am surprised with the aftermath because taboo surrounding menstruation is nothing new. Many devotees have stated that menstruating women are ‘dirty’ and ‘impure’.

The situation escalated when three women tried to enter the shrine soon after the ban was lifted. They were not welcomed with open arms as devotees stood by objecting their unwarranted entries. More than 100 policemen protected them from stone-throwing protesters. But, they had to return after being denied entry into the shrine at 500 meters away. What boggles my mind, even more, is that even the Head Priest of Sabarimala threatened to halt prayers and close temple rituals if the women were allowed to enter the shrine.

Devotees protesting against the verdict.

Besides that, many more felt that it is wrong to intervene in one’s customary religious practices. I agree with that but, all that has changed is the mere inclusion of younger women to tens of millions, who already throng the temple annually. To make things worse, politicians of famous parties have also weighed in on this controversy and some blatantly showed their misogynistic shade.

I do not wish to comment on the practices of the devotees nor their devout rituals. What is baffling is that centuries later, women are still being told when they can and cannot go to a temple. I have never liked the notion that ‘menstruation is dirty’. Women bleed because it is natural. How can a God-given trait be viewed as impure by a God-loving person?

A BBC team was forced to leave as protests turned violent.

Hindus started raising slogans like ‘Save Hindus’ and ‘Save Sabarimala’ during their protests. I guess they fear the possibility of courts and lawmakers intervening in religion and traditions hereafter. It is too far-fetched and will not be the case as India is driven by religion in most things. Religion in India is an incredibly sensitive topic.

In addition to that, some male devotees feel that women entering the temple will spoil their belief and the sacred rituals. Forgive me but, I do not see how one’s personal quest in completing one’s prayers and religious rituals can be marred by a separate entity’s presence. Is one’s faith really that fragile to be blemished by the mere presence of another person?

Two women – journalist Kavitha Jagdal and social activist Rehana Fathima – managed to reach the main temple premises.

Furthermore, the faith and religion of the said women, who tried to enter the shrine, became a hot topic. A known filmmaker expressed his dissatisfaction on Twitter by saying, “Please stop the ruckus and allow us the devotees to pray. The women in question – Why don’t you challenge the quirks and age-old traditions in your religion before being nosy about wanting to correct ours?” That statement threw me off. How is playing tit for tat apt here? People are getting enraged when the norm is challenged but, are not enraged by the very practice of the biased norm.

Not wanting Sabarimala to turn into a tourist spot is understandable. It shall be a place for only devotees but, allow younger women, too. Some claim that the women’s stunts were rather for the sake of challenging the protestors and gaining publicity. Truth be told, I really do not know. All that I know is that women devotees deserve to complete their pilgrimage just like their male counterparts do. Do women not deserve to visit one of the holiest and heavily thronged temples in the world? An estimated 17 to 20 million devotees visit this temple annually. The temple’s website reads “the temple is open to all, irrespective of caste, creed or religion”. All but, women from the age of 10 to 50. Most women menopause by the age of 50. There will be a series of changes that happen to all menopaused women and it typically makes them a little weaker. Is it physically feasible for women above the age of 50 to complete a rigorous pilgrimage that requires one to tread difficult uphill paths through the jungle preceded by weeks of fasting? Allowing women after the age of 50 is unreasonable for the journey to Sabarimala is one that challenges a person physically, mentally and emotionally. Not to forget, there has been an unfortunate event of a stampede that killed hundreds.

18 steps leading up to the shrine

As a Hindu, I sincerely do not reckon that Hinduism champions discrimination against women and views menstruation as an impure phenomenon. I am not a typical traditionalist or an orthodox. I value my tradition and faith but, never have I ever placed them above humanity or equality.

Prayers are beautiful, personal moments between oneself and God but, biased traditions and customs have not made it easy for women. Devotees claim that the ban is not because of menstruation and the taboo surrounding it. They feel that the ruling goes against the wishes of the deity, Lord Ayappa, himself. Lord Ayyappa was a celibate. But, not all devotees are echoing the same sentiment. Many have made rather cynical and disparaging remarks about women and their ‘dirty state during menstruation’. A controversial statement by the temple’s former chief, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, in 2016 gave rise to the protest that eventually led to the ban being revoked. He went on to suggest there should be an invention to detect the purity of a woman to allow them to enter the shrine. In a recent interview to NDTV, he said that his daughters will not go to Sabarimala and that his decision is his daughters’, too. Oh, Mr. Prayar is still defiant and has recently said: “If essential, the scanner (to detect the purity of women) shall be given a thought.”

The shrine is shut at present. The aftermath has turned out to be really volatile as even a death threat was sent to a local politician. With the temple set to reopen to public come 5th of November, police officers have been deployed in the temple town to avoid any possible melee and protect female devotees. Over 1500 officers have been stationed as a mean of beefing up security.