Women take historic step into India shrine


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Kaviyoor Santosh

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The women had tried entering the temple in December but failed

Two Indian women have made history by entering a prominent Hindu shrine in the southern state of Kerala, following months of protests against their entry.

The Sabarimala temple was historically closed to women of “menstruating age” – defined as between 10 and 50.

The Supreme Court overturned that ban but protesters then attacked women and stopped them from going in.

Bindu Ammini, 40, and Kanaka Durga, 39, devotees of the temple deity, Lord Ayyappa, entered around dawn.

“We arrived early in the morning and we had a darshan [saw the idol] for a few minutes,” Ms Ammini told the BBC.

Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, whose government supports the Supreme Court ruling, told reporters that the women’s entry into the temple was a historic moment.

On 1 January, his left-wing coalition government organised a “women’s wall” – in which women from across Kerala formed a 620km (385-mile) human chain to protest against the ban.

Temple officials say the women have “defiled” the temple. It was closed for an hour in order to perform “purification rituals” but has now re-opened.

Women stand in a line to take part in a 'women's wall' protest in Kochi in Kerala on 1 January 2019.Image copyright
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Women in Kerala formed a “human chain” in support of gender equality

How did these women get into the temple?

Ms Ammini told the BBC that they began trekking up the hill on Wednesday morning around 1.30 local time (20:00 GMT Tuesday) and reached the shrine in two hours.

“We had no trouble trekking to the shrine and the officials were co-operative,” she added. “We left before the protesters spotted us.”

She said that plain-clothed police officers accompanied them. Given the early hour, it’s likely there were no protesters and only a few devotees. The presence of the police also helped as temple officials would be breaking the law by refusing to let them enter the temple.

The shrine sits atop a steep hill and every year, millions of male devotees make the trek, often barefoot, to visit it.

One of the ways to enter the temple is to climb 18 holy steps – a sacred activity requiring a rigorous 41-day fast.

Hindu women devotees and activists shout slogans praising the Hindu God Ayyapa during a protest against the Supreme Court verdict revoking a ban on women's entry to the Sabarimala temple.Image copyright
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Many of the protesters against women entering the temple are women themselves

Ms Ammini said they did not climb the steps because they did not want to attract the attention of too many devotees and feared they might be attacked.

The women, who are now under police protection, can be seen leaving the shrine in videos that have been circulating on WhatsApp.

Why are women of a certain age not allowed to enter Sabarimala?

Hinduism regards menstruating women as unclean and bars them from participating in religious rituals.

While most Hindu temples allow women to enter as long as they are not menstruating, the Sabarimala temple is unusual in that it was one of the few that did not allow women in a broad age group to enter at all.

Devotees climbing the steps to the temple.Image copyright
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Every year, millions of male devotees climb the steps to the temple

According to the temple’s mythology, Lord Ayyappa is an avowed bachelor who has taken an oath of celibacy. Devotees say the ban on women of “menstruating age” was in keeping with the wish of the deity who is believed to have laid down clear rules about the pilgrimage to seek his blessings.

Women who had tried to enter following the court ruling had to turn back because of protesters. Police arrested more than 2,000 people in October for rioting and unlawful assembly.

Why has the issue become so political?

The Kerala state government supports the court verdict and Mr Vijayan has repeatedly said his government will provide the security to enforce it.

But India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has argued that the court ruling is an attack on Hindu values.

The issue has become increasingly contentious in the run-up to India’s general election, scheduled for April and May. Critics have accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of pursuing a religiously divisive agenda to court the BJP’s mostly-Hindu support base.

Additional reporting by Imran Qureshi and Ashraf Padanna.