Sabarimala through the ages

The focus needs to shift from the entry of women to ecological destruction of the Western Ghats

January 10, 2019 12:15 am | Updated February 06, 2019 05:23 pm IST

 “The Travancore Devaswom Board, on>the pretext of meeting the needs of the pilgrims, has been pushing for urban development in the>core of the Periyar Tiger Reserve.” A devotee in Sabarimala.>PT

“The Travancore Devaswom Board, on>the pretext of meeting the needs of the pilgrims, has been pushing for urban development in the>core of the Periyar Tiger Reserve.” A devotee in Sabarimala.>PT

Public opinion on the question of women’s entry into Sabarimala is polarised. While some cite “age-old traditions” to explain why women aged 10 to 50 should not enter the temple, others believe that such a practice discriminates against women.

Sensing the unrest in the State following the Supreme Court judgment , the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress plunged into the protests against the verdict, led by the Nair Service Society. Though opposed to each other on all other issues, the two virtually became one as they fished in troubled waters. They exposed themselves as they shamelessly defended upper-caste beliefs in purity and pollution, and gender discrimination. They also seek to destroy the secular character of Sabarimala. It is believed that Lord Ayyappa had a close friend, a Muslim called Vavar, or Vavaraswami. In fact, a stopover at the Vavar mosque is an essential part of the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Many devotees also visit the Arthunkal church during their pilgrimage. That the mosque and temple coexist in Sabarimala shows the spirit of unity that these political parties, as well as upper castes through their belief in purity and pollution and exclusion, are trying to destroy.

On the other hand, the government and public intellectuals have sought to recall history to understand and implement the Supreme Court verdict and emphasise the progressive character of the temple.

Ownership of Sabarimala

The Sabarimala temple had a humble beginning. Forest dwellers used to flock to the spot where their tutelary deity, Ayyanar, resided. The Malampantaram, Ullatar, Mannan and Narikkurava tribes in the forest used to visit the shrine, nestled deep inside the forest, during Makara Sankramana (January-February). The tribals now stake claim to the temple, regretting their expulsion by the upper caste-led Travancore Devasvom Board. It is a fact that the forest-dwellers and tribals visited the spot with women and children.

The Pandalam royal house’s ownership of the temple gets exposed if we look at historical records. According to a document called the Pandalam Aṭamanam, in 1794, the royal house legally alienated the entire forest, including the temple and other establishments, to the Travancore king, to clear the huge debt incurred to money lenders such as Thachil Mathu Tharkan and Muralikrishnadas. This is how the Travancore Royal Devasvom Commisssion (TRDC), constituted in 1810 by Rani Lakshmi Bai on Colonel Munro’s advice, came to own the temple. In 1850, the TRDC was dissolved and the Travancore Devasvom Board was constituted. It became the sole custodian of the temple and its property and remains so till today.

Ever since the destruction of the temple by some people in 1950, and the construction of a new temple in the spot thereafter, there has been a steady rise in the number of pilgrims to Sabarimala. These pilgrims are largely from the lower middle class in the southern States. The number of pilgrims rose to more than a lakh by the nineties. Given this rise, the number of days of worship also increased. In the process, the temple, once the destination of tribals and lower castes, as well as the pilgrimage slowly came to be dominated by upper-caste beliefs, customs and practices. Pilgrim expansion turned Sabarimala into a veritable pool of wealth. Sabarimala is not just a pilgrim spot today, but a massive business.

The ban on women

There was virtually no restriction on women’s entry until the Kerala High Court upheld in 1991 the restriction of women aged between 10 and 50 into the temple. It said that this was in accordance with a usage from “time immemorial”. The court observed that women would be unable to do penance for 41 days due to menstruation. The ban was also based on the belief that Lord Ayyappa, a celibate, would not approve of young women flocking to Sabarimala. There is neither ritual sanctity nor any scientific justification for this stipulation. For the tribal people, menstruation was considered a symbol of fertility. Women and children went to the temple till the sixties. Archival records also show that young, upper-caste women from the Travancore region entered the temple till the eighties. While it is true that they abstained from entering holy places during menstruation, it is equally true that most male pilgrims today are least aware of the tradition of observing penance for 41 days. Many hardly observe the restrictions on meat, alcohol and sex. So, why are traditional observances binding for women alone?

Caste prejudices (and now even gender prejudices) are evident in the purification rites and rituals followed in the temple. Nampoothiri tantris considered Sabarimala, a temple in the forest with junior deities like Ayyan and Karuppa Sami, least amenable to purification through agamic rituals. They wondered whether any tantri who had knowledge of agamic rules would dare to undertake the responsibility of maintaining the purity of the Ayyappa temple with 18 hills as its boundary. This exposes the lack of textual tradition and professional legitimacy of Sabarimala’s Thazhamon tantric family. Traditions change over time; they are reinterpreted and even invented. Sabarimala is no exception to this sociological phenomenon. Most legends and traditions about the Ayyappa temple are fabrications of recent times with stock motifs from the epics and the puraṇas.

Environmental concerns

Amidst debates on fundamental rights and the need to preserve tradition, what is being ignored is the important fact that Sabarimala falls in a fragile region of the Western Ghats. A portion of forest land in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, a hotspot of biodiversity, was allotted to the Travancore Devaswom Board in 2012 so that the Board could implement its Sabarimala development plan. The Board, on the pretext of meeting the needs of the pilgrims, has been pushing for urban development in the core of the tiger reserve, paying little attention to environmental regulations. Land has been auctioned to hotels, shops and guesthouses. This violates not only the Kerala Forest Act of 1961, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, but also a series of verdicts, including by the Supreme Court.

Further, construction of permanent buildings in leased forestland violates the rules between the government and the Travancore Devaswom Board. Of the total land leased, 14.6% is privatised for the use of 9.5% of the total pilgrims, and 3.4% is extremely privatised for the use of only 0.1%. This is injustice. That the Travancore Devaswom Board is destroying the ecology of the Western Ghats under the pretext of pilgrim welfare is unfortunate and this issue is what awaits meaningful protests.

Rajan Gurukkal, a historian and social scientist, is a former Vice Chancellor of MG University, Kottayam

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