Indian police on Wednesday cleared protesters trying to stop women accessing one of Hinduism’s most sacred sites, a hilltop temple forced by judges to open its doors to all female pilgrims for the first time.
The Supreme Court in September overturned a ban on women of menstruating age, between 10 and 50, entering and praying at the Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala.
This enraged traditionalists, including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with protests by thousands of people ahead of the scheduled opening on Wednesday afternoon.
In recent days groups of chanting women opposed to the court’s decision have stopped vehicles along the route and at Nilackal, the base camp below the temple, preventing other women from proceeding.
But early Wednesday police broke up the protests at Nilackal to allow hundreds of devotees, male and female, to proceed in buses towards the temple.
The final seven kilometres then be made by pilgrims on foot.
“We arrested seven people,” said police chief Manoj Abraham, in charge of 500 officers at Nilackal. “Anyone who wants to go to the temple will be able to do so without hindrance.”
“Stern action will be taken against anyone who prevents devotees from going to Sabarimala,” Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said on Tuesday.
But traditionalist demonstrators remained defiant, including Biju S Pillai, a local man in his 30s who said he returned from working in Dubai to “protect the sanctity of the temple” with his mother and young son.
“No one should be able to change the way this temple has functioned for centuries,” he told AFP. “If any change is made they will have to kill us and go over our bodies.”
“I am here to protest the Supreme Court decision,” said engineer Anisha S, 23, one of a group chanting religious slogans. “We want to save our traditions. Ayyappa needs to be respected.”
The centuries-old ban at Sabarimala reflected an old but still prevalent belief in some areas of rural India that menstruating women are impure, and the fact that the deity Ayyappa was reputed to have been celibate.
Women are permitted to enter most Hindu temples but female devotees are still barred from entry by some, despite intensifying campaigns by rights activists against the bans.
“It is our constitutional right, and we will stand up for it,” said Trupti Desai, an activist who planned to visit the Ayyappa temple despite receiving death threats.
“People are trying to bully me but I am not scared.”
Two years ago, activists successfully campaigned to end a ban on women entering the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra state.
Women were also permitted to enter Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah mausoleum, a Muslim place of worship, after the Supreme Court scrapped a ban in 2016.
The chief priest of the Sabarimala temple, 25-year-old Kandararu Maheshwararu Tantri, warned earlier this week that widespread “anger could easily escalate into violence if a few egotistical women try to enter”.
“I say ego because no devotee who has faith in Sabarimala will try to break the 2,100-year-old rule. Either you believe in the celibate deity or you do not. Moreover, there are other Ayyappa temples women can visit,” the Times of India quoted him as saying.
He added that several “scientists” had concurred with the view that the “positive energy” in a temple can be polluted by the entry of menstruating women.
Sarla K, a woman in her 60s, said she first entered the temple when she was a young girl in 1972.
“After that I waited (until I could enter again) and everyone else should wait too,” she said.