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Claiming Sabarimala

Pathanamthitta/Kerala, 17/11/2018. Even as the various hindu organisations have called for a  state wide hartal , the Sabarimala temple witnessed a moderate rush on Saturday Morning. Though a heavy downpour was forecast for the area, pilgrims were greeted by a pleasant weather in the forests here. Photo:H.Vibhu/ The Hindu.

Pathanamthitta/Kerala, 17/11/2018. Even as the various hindu organisations have called for a state wide hartal , the Sabarimala temple witnessed a moderate rush on Saturday Morning. Though a heavy downpour was forecast for the area, pilgrims were greeted by a pleasant weather in the forests here. Photo:H.Vibhu/ The Hindu.

An unexpected fallout of the controversy surrounding the entry of women of all age groups into Sabarimala is the ownership rights of the Malayarayan tribal community over the hill shrine. The controversy has also led to arguments about the Brahminisation of at least some temples in Kerala, which some historians believe were either Buddhist shrines or in the control of the avarna castes. The United Malayaraya Mahasabha has now moved the apex court seeking ownership rights over Sabarimala temple. P.K. Sajeev, general secretary of the Aikya Mala Araya Mahasabha and a researcher, claims that the temples in Sabarimala and in adjacent Karimala were in the possession of the Malayarayans until the early 20th century.

The first priest there was Karimala Arayan, Mr. Sajeev says, whose name was reportedly embossed on the first of the 18 sacred steps that leads up to the sanctum sanctorum. Ayyappa, according to him, was the son of Malayarayan couple Kandan and Karuthamma. The legend surrounding the 41-day penance that Ayyappa devotees follow is believed to be related to an episode in their life. The 18 steps are a symbol of the 18 hills around Sabarimala. The Thazhamon Madhom, now hereditary chief priests (tantris) at the temple, snatched away the ownership of the temple from the Malayarayans, the community claims. The right to perform honey abhishekam and the ritual of lighting the makaravilakku at Ponnambalamedu too were taken away, they allege.

This brings to the fore the argument by historians such as Rajan Gurukkal about the avarna ownership of the temple. Ayyappa, an uncommon name in the Hindu pantheon, could be the tribal chieftain Ayyan or Ayyanar, who might have been worshipped as a deity by the tribal population, they point out. The introduction of savarna rituals and the ban on entry of menstruating women could be a recent phenomenon, as tribal communities do not have any such practice.

M.G.S Narayanan and other historians have also written extensively about how ancient Kerala did not have a culture of temples. Most were kavus, or sacred groves, and temples came into being in the 8th or 9th century CE. Archaeological evidence points to the possible presence of a Buddhist culture too, which was gradually appropriated by Hinduism.

As the Supreme Court takes up writ petitions against its order allowing women of all age groups to the Sabarimala temple, it might also trigger questions about the rights of those communities pushed to the margins by modernity and by upper castes. Kerala is one of the few States that extends reservation to Dalit priests in temples governed by Devaswom Boards. It remains to be seen whether Kerala society will also stand up to its celebrated progressive credentials by restoring the rights of Malayarayans.

The writer is a Principal Correspondent at The Hindu Kozhikode .


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Printable version | Aug 14, 2022 6:01:29 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/claiming-sabarimala/article25532342.ece