History of Sabarimala: Why Women Weren't Allowed Into The Lord Ayyappa Shrine
Lord Ayyappan and Sabarimala (Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

Twenty days since the Supreme Court of India passed the verdict on women’s entry into Sabarimala Temple; the situation has turned increasingly volatile in Kerala. On September 27, the apex court challenged an antediluvian tradition, that prohibited women from entering the shrine for Lord Ayyappa, which is located in the Western Ghat ranges of Pathanamthitta district in Kerala. Women in the menstruating age group were not allowed to enter the temple premises for centuries. But the SC ruled in favour of many Right to Pray and gender equality activists, opening the doors of the temple for everyone. But as expected, the conservative factions didn’t waste much time to let their disappointment be known.

A wide majority of the population called it a move to meddle with the religious sentiments of the people. But the Left Front government of the state hasn’t bowed down to mounting pressure and has refused to submit a review petition to the Supreme Court. The government has sworn to go ahead with the SC order and CM of Kerala Pinnarayi Vijayan has beseeched the people to maintain law and order in the state.  Women's' Entry In Sabarimala Shrine to be Delayed? Temple Board May Seek Time to Implement Supreme Court's Order.

The intense backlash against the verdict proves that even an authoritative institution like the SC cannot interfere in the matters of faith in India. Devotees, a sizeable part of whom are women, have taken up vigilantism in the state, harassing females headed towards Sabarimala. Despite which, many women are planning to visit the shrine after undertaking a 41-day vratham.

Folks outside Kerala are still not sure what the fuss is all about. After all, why should the temple prohibit entry to some only on the basis of somebody’s gender? To fathom this, one should know the history of the temple and Lord Ayyappa’s story.

Born to Two Men

Lord Ayyappa is also known as Harihara Putran or Harihara Sudan, meaning the son of Hari and Hara (Vishnu and Shiva). According to legends, the buffalo-demoness Mahishi, sister of Mahishasur, asked for immortality from Brahma after a penance. When the lord creator refused to grant her the wish, Mahishi placed a condition – that only a person who is born of two men can kill her. She cleverly twisted her words to gain immortality, and Brahma couldn’t refuse her the second time.

Worried about the havoc Mahishi could wrack, Vishnu reincarnated as Mohini the temptress and seduced Lord Shiva. A child was born of their union, who was then discovered by the King of Panthalam wailing in the forest. The infant was named Manikanthan (mani means bell and kanth means neck in Sanskrit) since he was found with a bell around his neck.

The child was brought up in the royal household and was loved by everyone. Manikanthan had proved his mettle to be a capable ruler and at the tender age of 12 was considered an heir to the Panthalam throne.

But his foster mother, the queen, was swayed by an evil minister who poisoned her ears and told her that her own flesh and blood should be the rightful heir to the throne not a foundling like Manikanthan.

The queen feigned stomach ache. The court physician, who was in on the ruse, told the king that only the milk of a tigress could cure her pain. They knew that Manikanthan would volunteer to venture into the jungle for the milk and may be killed by the tigress in the process.

At the forest, Manikanthan encountered Mahishi and slew her, ridding the world of the demon. In doing so, he fulfilled his very reason why he was born.

Manikanthan or Lord Ayyappa (Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons)

When Mahishi was slain by Manikanthan, a beautiful woman emerged who had been cursed to live her life as the she-demon. She suggests that Manikanthan marry her but he turns her down, saying he’ll be ready to marry her the day when kanni swamis (first-time visitors to Sabarimala) stop coming in. He swore to be celibate until that day.

To everyone's surprise, Manikanthan also rode back to the palace from the forest straddling a tigress. The king and the queen soon recognised that Manikanthan was no ordinary boy but a divine being. In honour of his adopted son, the king decided to build him a shrine. Manikanthan removed an arrow from his quiver and shot it. The present Sabarimala shrine is said to be built at the place where the arrow landed, 30 kilometres away from the palace.

The Celibate Lord

Some say that Lord Ayyappa will remain a Naisthik Brahmachari (eternal bramhachari), because every year, the temple is visited by thousands of new devotees on two major seasons – Mandala and Makaravilakku. People from different walks of life, castes and even religions pay a visit to the Shasta (guru) twice every year. They undertake a rigorous 41-day vratham, abstaining from alcohol, meat and sex, and living a celibate life. They grow their hair and beards long and wear only black clothes during the vratham. In the olden days, men used to undertake a perilous journey through forests and ravines to catch a glimpse or darshan of their favourite deity.

Despite Sabarimala's egalitarian nature, it prohibits the entry of women into the temple. This has been a bone of contention between activists who challenge the tradition and the conservatives who uphold it.

To respect Lord Ayyappa’s decision to stay a Naisthik Brahmachari,  the temple authorites prohibit women in the menstruating age groups from entering the temple premises or undertaking the vratham.

Why People Challenge It and Why Some Uphold It

The Right to Pray movement gained momentum ever since a young woman breached the barricade at Shani Shingnapur Temple in Maharashtra. But even before that, a group of female lawyers working with the Indian Young Lawyers Association had filed a PIL against Sabarimala's tradition, which they believed was unfair to women. Sabarimala Verdict: Why These 5 Arguments in Favour of Restricting Women’s Entry Into the Ayyappa Temple Are Baseless.

The movement to allow women into the temple was backed by many activists, including Trupti Desai,  Indian gender equality activist and the founder of the Bhumata Brigade. Many were of the opinion that the tradition was unfair and should be banished as part of religious reforms. Sabarimala Verdict: I'm a Woman, I Bleed And The Right to Pray is Mine as Much as It's Yours.

Rationalists and gender rights activists alike argue that no religious scriptures support the banning women from the temple, saying that it's a man-made law which was relevant to the ancient times. The route to Sabarimala was fraught with many dangers, inhospitable terrains, dacoits and wild animals. Women were considered far too fragile to undertake such a perilous journey. Things are obviously different today.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are not too keen to trifle with a tradition that has been upheld for centuries without questioning. They argue that women are not barred for discriminatory reasons but out of respect for the deity.