Sabarimala, the abode of Lord Ayyappa, is the most important of the 1,304 temples under Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB). And by far the highest revenue earner, having netted around Rs 200 crore last season. The annual pilgrimage to the hill shrine finds devotees from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu outnumbering those from the home state, Kerala. It is estimated that around four crore devotees visit the temple in a year whereas the number of women is only six lakh.
The reason: There is a restriction on the entry of women in the 10-50 age category.
For some time, there have been debates on why all women cannot be allowed but things came to a flash when Naushad Ahmed Khan, president of the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association (IYLA), filed a public interest litigation on the issue in 2006. On October 13, the Supreme Court referred the matter of restricting women “on a biological factor exclusive to the female gender” to a five-judge Constitution Bench.
TDB president and former MLA Prayar Gopalakrishnan speaks to Express reporter Chandrakanth Viswanath on how the temple management looks at an array of issues that have led to the current stand-off.
Q What is your major opposition to women aged between 10 and 50 being allowed to visit Sabarimala temple?
A. According to belief, Ayyappa, the deity at Sabarimala, is a ‘naishtika brahmachari’. The unmarried can be termed celibate, while ‘naishtika brahmachari’ is one who recites mantras akin to respiration. Here, Ayyappa is placed in the ‘yoga thapasya’ mode. A temple’s rule is decided by the tantri (chief priest) after being consecrated in a ritual called ‘paditharam’.
This is the basis of the temple which cannot be changed. Here, the tantri has restricted the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 as a rule of the temple. Even though the tantri can make amendments, he cannot change it as a whole.
Q. Is the 41-day ‘vrata’ the only thing that stands in the way for women in the barred age-group?
A. The pilgrimage demands a 41-day ‘vrata’ that requires celibacy and abstinence. Due to biological reasons, women between the particular age-group are barred.
Q. In your opinion, how strictly do men observe the ‘vrata’?
A. To my understanding, pilgrims from outside Kerala who account for a majority, are strict about adhering to tradition. However, a large number of people from Kerala do not seem very keen to observe the ‘vrata’. This may be due to the influence of some political parties vouching against beliefs and a kind of hypocrisy which does not allow party workers to follow their beliefs in public. Hence, we are taking steps to propagate a period of abstinence from ‘Vrischikam’ to ‘Makaram’, the period of pilgrimage among the Hindu faithful, according to the Malayalam calendar.
Q. Is it only the legend of Ayyappa being a ‘naishtika brahmachari’ that restricts the entry of women, particularly as strenuous travel by foot and crossing dangerous terrains like forest land are no longer required?
A. It is the base. However, there are various factors which restrict the entry of women. Moreover, the journey through the hilly terrain, the long time pilgrims have to spend in the queue for darsan, the number of women security personnel to be deployed and the toilet facilities to be set up for them are the other major points to be considered.
Q. Your comment about Sabarimala not being allowed to be turned into a ‘Thailand’ has stirred a hornet’s nest. Comment.
A. Sabarimala cannot be seen as just another temple, like the one in your village or town. The pilgrimage demands a lot of mental and physical sanctity. When everyone is admitted to such a place, we cannot prevent non-believers. I am sure it will spoil the sanctity of the pilgrimage.
Q. Do you suspect that there is a vested interest or conspiracy afoot to tamper with the tradition of Sabarimala which runs on a unique model?
A. Certainly. There has been a conspiracy to tarnish the image, belief and glory of Sabarimala. This is evident from the fire of 1949. However, it is not going down. Instead, its glory is going up. Last year, we had pilgrims from 33 countries, with some even taking chartered flights.
Q. Do you fear the pilgrim flow will reduce and thus negatively impact the earnings if women of all age-groups are allowed darsan?
A. We wish nothing goes against the tradition. As a constitutional institution, TDB will adhere to the ruling of the Supreme Court. However, it is up to the devotees to decide on how to practice their rituals. Any kind of damage to Sabarimala, and any fall in its revenue, will result in the damage of all temples under TDB, including 22 other major ones and their revenue.