Opening doors to women at Sabarimala

With a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court lifting the decades-old ban on women in the 10-50 age group from entering the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple, it is up to the Kerala government and the Travancore Devaswom Board to ensure that women who may choose to offer prayers at the temple during the coming pilgrim season are given protection. The season starts on November 18.

What did the court rule?

On September 28, Chief Justice Dipak Misra (now retired) and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar, Rohinton F. Nariman and D.Y. Chandrachud held that the ban on women in the temple was a smear on their dignity and the consequence of a hegemonic patriarchy. In her dissenting judgment, Justice Indu Malhotra took the position that the court could not impose its morality or rationality on the form of worship of a deity. Doing so, she felt, would negate the freedom to practise one’s religion according to one’s faith and beliefs.

What does the verdict imply?

The parties to the dispute are likely to seek a review of the verdict. A protest against the ruling is gathering momentum in the State. As things stand, there is no way of knowing how many women would turn up at the temple during the season. With the political colour that the issue has acquired, the State government is treading cautiously, hoping that there would not be a sudden inflow of women devotees. The police will deploy 500 additional personnel at the temple.

The temple is situated atop a hill in the deep forests of the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghats in Pathanamthita district. Steeped in legend, this ancient forest shrine, situated 210 km from Kochi, draws pilgrims from different parts of the country. With the development of road transport and communication facilities, Sabarimala has been witnessing a phenomenal increase in the number of pilgrims. The Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the temple, estimates that around 5 crore devotees had visited the temple during the last pilgrim season. The season normally begins in mid-November and ends in January. The revenue from the temple last year was Rs. 255 crore.

What are the challenges?

The biggest challenge is to create sufficient infrastructure to meet a possible increase in the number of devotees, especially women. The mid-August floods brought down several structures at Pampa, where the uphill trek to the temple begins. Among these were a temporary shelter, which could house 5,000 pilgrims at a time, three multi-storey toilet blocks, bathing ghats and three bridges across the River Pampa. The pumphouse of the Kerala Water Authority still remains buried under a huge deposit of sand, and the waterlines on the banks of the river are clogged with sand, badly affecting drinking water supply. The government and the Devaswom Board are racing against time to put the place back into some shape before the season begins.

What’s the government doing?

The State government has entrusted the task of rebuilding the Pampa river bank to Tata Projects. The foot overbridge that facilitates pilgrims’ passage to the trekking path and transport of goods to Sabarimala have been restored. The real challenge will be restoration of drinking water and sewage facilities and creation of sufficient temporary facilities for devotees, especially women, to stay before and after the trek to the temple. For decades, Sabarimala has almost exclusively hosted male devotees. With the Supreme Court extending the right of worship to women, the immediate challenge is to make it gender-friendly.

Radhakrishnan Kuttoor