Women in Sabarimala: belief system vs. rights issues

The taboo on women and menstruation is so deeply entrenched that it requires a lot of courage for a woman to come through.

On January 11, 2016 the Supreme Court finally took up a decade-old petition filed by four women lawyers questioning the legality of the tradition that bans the entry of women in the menstruating age into Sabarimala, most visited temple after Tirupati in South India. The apex court, visibly appalled by the practice, has sought an explanation from the Kerala Government which looks after the temple administration. The matter is coming up for hearing on February 8.

The Supreme Court’s interference would not have come at a better time than this. In November last year, the Travancore Devaswom Board President Mr Prayar Gopalakrishnan had told media that only after a menstruation detector was invented can the women be allowed to enter Sabarimala premises. Such was the regressive nature of his remarks that it created a wave of protests, both online and offline, the prominent being the #happytobleed campaign in social media networks.

The Travancore Devaswom Board runs the administrative and legal affairs of various temples of Kerala, including that of Sabarimala. There are several other Ayyappa temples across India and the world, where women face no restriction in offering prayers.

Legend of Ayyappa

Unlike other Ayyappa temples, Sabarimala is the abode of Lord Ayyappa, a place where he took birth to fulfil his life’s purpose - to destroy demoness Mahishi.Believers give varying reasons for restricting women in menstruating age from entering Sabarimala Ayyappa temple premises. Legend says Ayyappa is the son of Shiva and the Mohini roopa of Mahavishnu and was raised as the heir to Pandalam royal family. But after destroying Mahishi, Ayyappa renounced all possessions and vanished into the forests to lead a life of naishtikabrahmachari (a celibate for life).

When Mahishi was destroyed, she transformed into a beautiful woman called Malikappurathamma. Now that the curse was gone, Malikappurathamma proposed to Ayyappa, but he couldn’t commit since he is an avowed celibate. But he promised to marry her the day no more kanniayyappas (first time pilgrims) would come to pay obeisance to him.In tandem with the legend, it is considered indecorous if a woman in the menstruating age decides to come and pray at the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala. Many fear such an act would bring bad luck or a curse upon them.

Interestingly, there’s a man who wouldn’t visit Lord Ayyappa once he becomes the keeper of thiruvabharanam (the golden ornaments used to adorn the deity). He is the hierarchical chief of Pandalam family, and he is commonly addressed as valiyathampuran. Once he becomes the family chief, he would technically become the father figure to Lord Ayyappa. When the thiruvabharanam is taken out, the valiyathampuran wouldn’t bring it directly to the temple. It is believed that Ayyappa would then have to get up as a mark of respect, and it is considered inauspicious. So, the chieftain would send the ornaments through his representative.

The thiruvabharanam is believed to be made exclusively for Ayyappa by Pandalam king Raja Rajasekhara Pandiyan, who found him as a baby on the banks of river Pamba. He took the infant home and raised him as the heir to his throne.

Tradition vs. biology

Traditionally, in Kerala, just like in many other part of India, a menstruating woman is considered within her family as someone who is impure at that point of time just because her body is flushing out the lifeblood necessary for procreation. Strangely, the matters of womb are not just limited to Hindu religion. Other religions too restrict women from accessing places of worship. However, the interferences and subsequent debates are often limited to very narrow frames of reference.

The taboo on women and menstruation is so deeply entrenched that it requires a lot of courage for a woman to come through. This untouchability over a biological process is as disturbing as the social stigmas that exist towards religious and caste minorities in India.

A basic lack of scientific temper in India, cutting across believers of all religions, add to the ongoing crisis. The orthodoxy wouldn’t even mind making temporary tie-ups to fight progressive ideas.

Tradition versus rights

In its 1,500 year history, nobody is sure if a woman has ever prayed at Sabarimala. Nobody knows when exactly the practice of banning a section of women from entering the temple has begun. Legal experts trace the ban to the enforcement of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965. It endorses a restriction on women “at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship.”

While taking up the PIL filed by the Young Lawyers Association, the Supreme Court on January 11 said (as quoted by media), “The temple cannot prohibit entry (women), except on the basis of religion. Unless you have a constitutional right, you cannot prohibit entry.”

Strangely, the court also observed (quoted by media): “A mutt preventing entry of women into its premises is understandable. But how can a temple, which is a public place, be made out of bounds for citizens on the ground of sex, age or any other criteria.”

Way forward

On January 16, The Times of India reported a heartening story of a temple in Dehradun which junked its four-centuries-old traditions to throw open its doors to women and Dalits. It happened without a third party interference, when administrators of the Parsuram temple in Garhwal’s Jaunsar Bawar region felt the “need to move with the times”.

Probably, that’s the way ahead for religions and those who believe in a religion yet seek equal treatment before the god and at places of worship.

However, for India, and for several other countries, it would be a back-breaking journey before they find the peaceful path of harmony and consensus.

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