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OPINION | 18 Steps for Women, Giant Leap for Womenkind: Kerala Crawls Out of Medievalism With Sabarimala Verdict

As Sabarimala grew as one of India’s most well-known Hindu pilgrimage centres, there was general acceptance among Kerala’s subdued women on the ban on entering the temple. No woman openly questioned it.

Binoo K John |

Updated:September 30, 2018, 12:34 PM IST
OPINION | 18 Steps for Women, Giant Leap for Womenkind: Kerala Crawls Out of Medievalism With Sabarimala Verdict
File photo of a procession by devotees at the Lord Ayyappa temple in Kerala’s Sabarimala. (PTI)

The Supreme Court judgment allowing women to enter and worship in the Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala is the first direct attack on Kerala’s entrenched patriarchy. It will give women the much-needed confidence to capture spaces which have been denied to them, question religious practices where they are permanently ‘impure’ and, in the long run, help Kerala economically, too, as women assert themselves and give themselves ambition.

The reason is that Kerala, despite its modern revolutions over the last century, is steeped in religious lore, myth and superstition, and this has stood in the way of Kerala embracing modernity wholeheartedly.

Kerala has always taken two steps backward after taking one forward, and religion and the social ecosystem with its patriarchal rules is the main force holding Kerala back. Unlike in other states, Christianity and Islam, too, are majorly entrenched (roughly 50 % of the population) and women are chained every which way you look.

The logic of banning women in Sabarimala is because of the belief that the reigning deity is a bachelor with all its male implications. Here, too, the female is seen as the eternal temptress, like in other religions, and thus banned. It is a bit ironic that the lone women judge on the bench, Indu Malhotra, dissented quoting the age-old excuse that faith has no rationale.

The legend of Sabarimala Ayyappan “forms a fascinating eclectic tradition, involving a romance between Shiva and Vishnu (as Mohini), a Muslim associate who is commemorated in a nearby mosque and as aspiring bride who awaits Ayyappan in her own temple,” according to author Manu Pillai. Even as this eclectic tradition grew, women found no place in the entire narrative. They were banished as impure.

As Sabarimala grew as one of India’s most well-known Hindu pilgrimage centres, there was general acceptance among Kerala’s subdued women to the ban on entering the temple. No woman openly questioned it. Significantly, other Ayyappa temples in the state do not bar women.

It was a lady from outside the state, Trupti Desai, who finally summoned the courage to question this practice and, thus, score one of feminism’s greatest victories in the history of modern India.

The hold that orthodox religion has had on the state can be seen from the fact that the other great and revolutionary temple reform happened in Kerala way back in 1936 when the maharajah of Travancore opened all the temples to the ‘lower castes’ as well in what is known as the Temple Entry Proclamation. It has taken 100 years for the next bit step — the entry of women into this one temple — to be effected.

Though the issue has come up off and on, no political leader or party has had the guts to take a stand, be it the Leftists or the Rightists or the Centrists. It is because politicians and the priestly classes always go hand-in-hand that this retrograde belief stood for so many years.

It is no surprise that to cement the Hindu vote, Marxist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan announced last year an airport project in Sabarimala so that India’s super rich can fly in to get their sins absolved, rather than undergo the physical ardour of a climb up the hills.

Intertwined with all this is Kerala’s peculiar positioning in the larger Indian mindscape. Lying in southernmost tip and with only 20 MPs, no one really bothers about it. The rest of India has only two physical links with the state, again ironically lying on opposite side of the social spectrum: the Bacchanalian pleasures of a touristy trip and the pilgrimage to Sabarimala which is a search to assume purity.

Such trips are linked with a trip to Tirupathi and maybe to the southern tip of Kanyakumari as well, making it a three-stop purification ritual. As a ripple effect, other temples in the central districts of the state, too, have now emerged as major pilgrim centres, like the Etumanoor temple in Kottayam district, right on the way to Sabarimala.

Others to benefit are the many eateries in the central districts, which hang newly painted ‘Veg Only’ boards during the pilgrimage season. So the Marxist state tops in offering spiritual succour, though the women were kept out of this.

Sabarimala also imposes a 40-day abstinence on pilgrims, including no shaving, no meat, fish, alcohol and no sex. The local wag will tell you that Kerala women encouraged their husbands to go to Sabarimala, which gives them much-needed relief at least for a month. A well-known criminal case in Kerala involved a man stabbing his wife to death after she refused sex during the abstinence period.

So this entire notion of becoming a new man or a purified man after a Sabarimala trip (unlike other temple visits) can now be appropriated by the women too. They too can now claim purity by undergoing the 40-day vritham (penance), walking up the hills and then meeting the bachelor Ayyappan with a irrumudi kettu (offering) on their heads. When the first women climb the 18 steps to the sanctum santorum, it will be a climb out of medievalism.

Typically men in Kerala have tweeted after the verdict that there is no question of their wives or daughters making the trip. Here, too, no one asked the women. The big tragedy is that no one ever asked Kerala’s women. Now with the Supreme Court having spoken, no one need ask.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)

| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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