In the third of his new series of articles “The Human Angle”, Babu Gogineni questions the popular image of Kerala as a progressive and modern state, in the light of the government’s reiterated support for the ban on entry of young women to Lord Ayyappa’s temple on Sabarimala Hill. The Kerala situation has moved the legislature of neighbouring Karnataka state to protest, but it has left the pathetically backward leaders of the Travancore Devaswom Board unmoved. How long can this egregious violation of the fundamental rights of women be tolerated?
Men in Black
In 2003 there was a fire mishap in Kerala’s Sabarimala temple complex, and during a Sreeboothabali ritualistic procession in 2004 the temple elephant rejected thidampu, a replica of the Lord’s idol. Moreover, the conduct of temple affairs was not smooth in recent years. Could it be that the Lord was unhappy with the temple authorities and His devotees? The Travancore Devaswom Board which is charged with controlling and administering the temple’s affairs decided to find out, and appointed a ten member team of ‘experts’ to investigate. Held once every 12 years, the Ashtamangala Devaprasnam at Sabarimala’s Lord Ayyappa temple in Kerala is an ‘astrological procedure’ to ascertain Lord Ayyappa’s opinion as regards the temple’s affairs.
Lord Ayyappa’s temple at Sabarimala, situated at a height of nearly 1000 meters above sea level in the picturesque Western Ghats, is one of India’s most important temples and receives an impressive 40 million pilgrims annually. In fact, while the autonomous Devaswom Board administers 1194 temples in Kerala, of its total annual revenue of Rupees 1000 million, Rupees 690 million come from the Sabarimala Temple alone, even though the temple is open for less than four months in a year. Much of the temple’s revenue is from offerings by male devotees and sale of prasadam (holy food) to those who throng the hills during the pilgrimage season of November – January every year. They are easily recognisable as they are dressed in spartan black. They reach the temple after 41 days of penance and 18 observances which include cold water baths, vegetarian food, abstinence from cigarettes, alcohol and sex, wearing of rudraksha beads, walking bare feet, sleeping on a straw mat and no shaving or cutting hair. For these 41 days the pilgrims attempt to discard their identity, address each other only as ‘Swamy’, and chant Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa (Lord Ayyappa! I Come to Thee For Refuge!). They come to the temple carrying a small sack called irumudi which contains rice, coconuts, sacred ash and various herbs.
The Sabarimala pilgrimage has a significant impact on Kerala’s economy: the Devaswom Board estimated several years ago that the pilgrims who come from various parts of South India generated annually an incredible Rs. 30,000 million (USD 600 million) worth of commercial activity. Pilgrims come from Andhra Pradesh (31%), Tamil Nadu (27%), Kerala (26%), Karnataka (15%) and the remaining 1 percent from other states. Each pilgrim stayed an average of two weeks in Kerala.
In view of the importance of the temple, it is easy to understand why several eyes were on the happenings at the temple and on the results of the Ashtamangala Devaprasnam.
Reading the Betel Leaves
The ten ‘experts’ were led by the ‘renowned’ astrologer and scholar Parappanangadi Unnikrishna Panicker who had previously led such teams at other important temples like Tirupati’s Venkateswara Swamy temple, Palani’s Sree Velayudhaswami temple and Thrissur’s Vadakkumnathan temple. Panicker began a detailed examination of the thambhoolam (betel leaves) offered at the beginning of the tantric ritual, and claimed he and his team received “unbelievably concrete signals” that the Lord was angry with various matters ranging from improper conduct of rituals to serious violations of temple traditions.
The astrologers informed the general public that Lord Ayyappa was cross with the tantris (Chief priests) who have deviated from their ordained responsibilities and that the Lord gave ominous indications that if matters remained as they were, the tantris’ families would face serious consequences. Lord Ayyappa also expressed his displeasure at the bad quality of nivedyam (sacred offerings), the rapid shrinking of the temple’s forest cover from over 800 acres to the present 65 acres, and the several constructions in the temple’s vicinity. The Lord objected to the use of electricity to melt ghee (clarified butter) inside the sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum); and to the fact that instead of a dip in the bhasma kulam (the temple pond), priests were taking showers, and anointing the Lord with chlorinated water. Ayyappa was angry that the timing of the annual festival was changed without conducting the Naveekarana-kalasam. The Lord was upset that that there was a High Court case against a Petta Thullal ritual in the temple and desired an amicable resolution.
Still speaking for the Lord, the team of ‘experts’ recommended that flower garlands meant for the deity should be made in the temple premises itself and that garlands made outside should not be used inside the sanctum sanctorum. They also recommended that flowers be properly disposed of in a pit meant exclusively for that purpose, that all devotees be given annadaanam (free food). The Lord also desired that a bathing pond be dug exclusively for the tantri, melsanthi and other priests in Sabarimala.
The Lord also revealed his considerable administrative and managerial insight when he gave other instructions as regards the conduct of temple affairs. Ayyappa also admonished the priests to prepare a code that clearly defined the duties and responsibilities of the tantri and melsanthi at the temple so that there would be no conflicts in the performance of rituals. The Lord also insisted that the bare-footed police personnel on Sabarimala duty – specially the ones who were posted on the gold-plated pathinettampady (18-steps, signifying the five indriyas senses, 8 ragas of music, and 3 gunas or qualities) leading to the sanctum sanctorum – be Ayyappa devotees who observe strict penance.
Perhaps being sensitive to the issue of contempt of Court, the Lord did not comment on the appointment of a Special Officer by the High Court – in the light of past bickerings between various departments in Sabarimala temple – to oversee and monitor the happenings at Sabarimala. It seems that the Lord also had no comment on the Kerala High Court’s recent orders abolishing the special VIP queue at the sanctum sanctorum so that His ordinary devotees too would be able to have a clear glimpse of him. The Lord, it seems, left to the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court the task of ensuring safety for the pilgrims: the High Court Bench directed on 20 Dec 2005 that the Special Officer in charge of the security arrangements take appropriate steps at Sabarimala to ensure security and safety – afterall 53 persons died in a stampede in 1999 because of lax security arrangements. Surprisingly, the Lord made no comments to the astrologers about the loss of His own that year.
It seems that not having the patience to micro-manage his affairs, the Lord also left to the division bench comprising of Justices R. Bhaskaran and M. Sasidharan Nambair the task of ensuring that the bananas used for the preparation of Appam at the temple was as per the ratio fixed by the Court. The Lord also spoke through the Court, it seems, when the Court ordered that no young women be allowed to conduct un-authorized business along the path taken by pilgrims from the river Pampa to the temple.
Scent of a Woman
The most sensational in the Lord’s revelations was, however, his distress that his idol has been defiled by the touch of a young woman. As is well known, Lord Ayyappa, one of three Saiva deities, along with Ganesa and Muruga, is a celibate and shunned the company of women. There are many legends associated with Ayyappa and his physical prowess, but everyone knows that he is the child of two ‘males’; Lord Vishnu who takes the avatar of the seductress Mohini in order to seduce Lord Shiva. The product of their union, Ayyappa has always remained a bachelor and has decreed that no woman of fertile age can visit his temple. So when Panicker revealed what the Lord had told him, there was utter disbelief – the temple authorities denied the possibility of this happening since there were four tiers of security filters which would prevent the entry of women. Panicker then shared with the media his view that the tantris may find it difficult to accept his conclusions because he was a ‘non-Brahmin’.
Why did the Lord not reveal his displeasure at the last Devaprasnam in 1994? Why did He wait till his astrologer and medium received a confessional fax, asked the better informed? Panicker did not disclose that he in fact was sent a fax from a god-fearing woman in Karnataka state. This was Jayamala who admitted to involuntarily touching the idol in 1987 when pushed by a crowd when she went to the temple as a 27 year old woman. She went there along with her husband to pray for the ailing husband’s health. The prayers do not seem to have helped her husband who later died, and she was – even after 18 years – still over come with guilt – hence the fax. Panicker denied seeing the fax and expressed ignorance of its contents as it was in English.
It seems that he came to know of this incident only through reading the betel leaves.
The once-famous-for-investigative-journalism Indian Express reported on 28 June 2006: “In what would remain as a permanent blot on the sanctity of the Sabarimala temple, Kannada actor-producer Jaimala on Tuesday confessed that she had entered the sanctum sanctorum of the hill shrine and touched the feet of the Ayyappa idol in 1987 … The Travancore Devaswom Board, however, kept mum about the shameful incident that happened with the alleged connivance of the Thantri who presided over the monthly pooja“.
While the simple minded wondered what was shameful about a human being entering the temple of the God she adored, it was revealed that another actress Sudha Chandran had visited the temple’s sanctum in 1986 when she danced at the temple – and that the High Court had fined her! Again, the simple minded would normally expect courts to uphold the fundamental rights of citizens, which includes the right not to be discriminated against as well as the right to worship. Yet another actress Girija Lokesh too revealed that she was at the temple in 1986 along with her young daughter and mother. As the debate gathered momentum, Karnataka State Assembly unanimously criticized the Kerala State for its practices and vowed to protect Jayamala, who hails from Karnataka, from anny eventual prosecution by Kerala state. S.S. Patil, a legislator said the practice at Sabarimala was an ”insult to the entire womenfolk and nothing but practising untouchability.”
Kerala’s Communists Take a Stand
Because of the wide publicity, the Travancore Devaswom Board undertook a foolishly proactive stance: it dispatched its Superintendent of Police to question Jayamala over the incident, preparing to prosecute the actress for defiling the temple, and readying to file charges of criminal trespass. The temple also intends to conduct purificatory rituals over the next two years and it is estimated that it will cost Rs. 20 million.
Kerala’s Communist government is never one to disappoint the card carrying rationalist. When asked in the State Assembly whether the practice of not allowing women in the Sabarimala temple did not amount to gender discrimination, Cooperative and Devaswom (Endowments) Minister Sudhakaran declared that the government did not intend to interfere with the centuries old customs of the temple and said that it was for the Devaswom Board to take a decision in these matters. He went further and ascribed the confession of Jayamala to the work of a mafia which was intending to harm Kerala’s interests.
This stand should surprise no one, for several years ago when our colleague and rationalist activist Srini Pattathanam (currently secretary of the Kerala branch of Rationalist Association of India) exposed fraudulent miracle claims at Sabarimala, he and his colleagues were beaten black and blue by the police. Srini Pattathanam caught redhanded the employees of the Kerala State Electricity Department while they were lighting the so-called divine light Makara Vilakku that appears across the temple on the Ponnambalamedu hill. In fact most pilgrims time their arrival in Sabarimala to witness this ‘divine lighet’ which appears thrice on 14 January. After the fraud was exposed, the then Communist Chief Minister of Kerala E.K. Nayanar claimed that the ‘miracle’ was in the interest of Kerala’s economy!
It did not occur to the Constitutional functionaries that the Devaswom Board – an organ of the State, and partly publicly funded – and its officers have an obligation to uphold the Indian Constitution, to guarantee equality between the genders, and to ensure freedom of religion and worship to all. India’s criminal procedure code imposes penalties on institutions and individuals that discriminate against women.
Historically, Kerala was at the heart of the movement which enabled temple entry to all, irrespective of caste. Periyar, the Tamil Humanist and Rationalist leader of the self-respect movement, chose Vaikom in Kerala to launch his movement. Sri Narayana Guru is still considered an inspiration for those trying to modernize Indian society. Indeed, Kerala (Travancore) was the first state in India to throw open its doors to people of all castes. It is the most literate state in the country and its health statistics are the envy of many a developed country. However, the latest developments relating to the rights of women are sure to shame the state for the blatant discrimination that is going unpunished.
Today, the Devaswom Board uses with impunity – and with the full backing of the left Government – the State’s police to perpetuate despicable acts of discrimination and treats women as if they were dangerous creatures – why else do they have a 4 tier security to keep off non violent pious and usually helpless human beings? Of course we can always wonder why women would like to go to see a God who does not want them in his presence – and the pious Jayamala has announced her intention to visit the Lord again, but this time after she turns 50 because the ecstasy of seeing and touching the Lord’s idol brought her indescribable joy!!!
In 1999, the Left Democratic Front government amended a previous government’s legislation that only Hindu MLAs “who have faith in temple worship and God” could elect or nominate members of the Devaswom Boards. Electors and members of the Board had to declare in writing that they had faith in temple worship and God. This writer considers the existence of Government appointed Dewasvom Boards inappropriate, and indeed an undue interference by the state in religious affairs – and indeed very often as in the present case, will result in promotion of religion. One is also stunned that the High Court has interpreted the law against the fundamental freedoms of women. In any case, the then Left Democratic Front government’s actions were an unwarranted interference in the affairs of Hindu Religious institutions, trying to fill them up with atheists. Today’s government speaks in two tongues: it refuses to intercede on behalf of the women, but is willing to ‘interfere’ with Devaswom affairs when on 27 June this year it decided to implement 33 per cent job reservation for scheduled castes and backward classes in the Travancore Devaswom Board.
Monumental Fraud, Despicable Crime
Makara Vilakku, the divine light that appears three times on the Ponnambalamedu hill across from the temple on every 14 January is due to the collusion of the government in perpetuating a fraud on the devotees. It is in itself contrary to the Indian Constitution’s exhortation to all citizens to promote the scientific temper. Continuing to prevent women between 10 and 50 years of age from entering this particular temple (while Ayyappa temples elsewhere allow women to enter) is a crime that needs to be dealt with as such. Despite protests form progressive forces, the Devaswom Board has held on to the outrageously lame explanations as to why women cannot be allowed. It does not occur to them that their suggestion that a fertile woman in the presence of their Lord would weaken the resolve of their Lord is a blasphemous thought. It does not occur to them that the explanation that the trek to the temple was too arduous for women to undertake is an obvious lie: if they were so concerned about the safety and welfare of women, would they welcome girls below ten (pre-puberty) and women over 50 (post-menopause) to climb the hill, neither of whom would have the strength to climb? In any case, a dolly service is available for old people who cannot walk. Why cannot women use that?
Women in God’s Kingdom
The fact is that the Devaswom Board is filled with orthodox Hindus ready to uphold the despicable degradation of women – they dare suggest that a woman in menses is an impure person, not worthy of the sight of the God they adore. After several decades of social and religious reform and near 100% literacy in the state, the Travancore Devaswom Board which today employs 10,000 peple has only 6 Dalits on its payroll. And not a single one is employed as a shanti (priest). This is the true character of the Devaswom Board and of Kerala state’s committment to genuine reform. As Jonathan Edwards once wrote “Temples have their images … but in truth, the ideas and images in men’s minds are the invisible powers that constantly govern them; and to these they all pay universally a ready submission.” The temple at Sabaraimala is a crass reflection of a primitive image of women held by the religious mind. It is a mind that sneers at the concept of human dignity and hides itself between spurious claims of freedom of religion.
What prevents the temple authorities at Sabarimala who boast that their temple is open to all castes and indeed to all religions (because one of Ayyappa legends says he was friends with an Arab and a Christian) from opening this one single temple to women, except their hideous orthodoxy? If they do decide to prosecute Jayamala or the other women who claim to have visited the temple, they will be exposed as fools living in another era.
Women have never had their rightful place in any religious minds: they were looked down as corrupting, lustful, devious and wicked – and that is when they were considered human! Most organised religions taught men and trained women to look at women as debased and lowly. Some may have looked at women as goddesses, but rarely as women.
History has shown it. Tradition has affirmed it. Myth has reinforced it. Women have no place in God’s Kingdom.
There is perhaps, therefore, no irony in the fact that Kerala’s tourist department promotes Kerala as God’s Own Country.
Please send your protests to Ms. Girija Vyas, Chairperson of India’s National Commission for Women at firstname.lastname@example.org; to Kerala’s Chief Minister The Honourable V.S. Achutanandan at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org; and to Kerala’s Minister for Cooperation and Endowments The Honourable Mr.G Sudhakaran at email@example.com. Please copy your mails to