A temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala opened its doors to women for the first time in centuries Wednesday, but no women made it over the threshold.
Protestors lined the streets surrounding the centuries-old temple and congregated in groups at multiple entry points to stop any woman between the ages of 10 and 50 from making their way into the structure.
In a landmark ruling handed down last month, the Supreme Court overturned an age-old tradition prohibiting women of menstruating age from making the pilgrimage to the Sabarimala temple, triggering public outcry in the state.
Devotees, thousands of whom turned out this week, believe that the entry of women would desecrate the temple.
Protestors gathered at a base camp Tuesday 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the temple and systematically checked state buses entering into the area to ensure that women were not making their way in.
Attacks on police, TV crews
State police clamped down on the district Wednesday morning, deploying a 1,300-strong contingent of officers to ensure the safety of any women wishing to visit the temple.
By late afternoon, however, the force appeared insufficient as thousands more violent protestors flocked to the base camp, assaulting the police and damaging their vehicles, causing security forces to respond with baton charges.
“They attacked the police vehicles and the policemen,” said Director General of Police Loknath Behera. “We had to resort to physical intervention.”
Female journalists from Indian news channels were harassed and, in some cases, assaulted as they tried to report on the protests. A car with a crew from CNN affiliate News18 was attacked, with the team and its female reporter forced to turn back.
Single female devotee
Amid the chaos, only one female devotee, who had traveled more than 600 miles from the state of Andhra Pradesh, attempted to make her way through the checkpoints with her two children.
As the police escorted her, devotees lining the street heckled and abused her.
“We went a little ahead and then there was hooting from all these people who were devotees and she decided to turn back. We offered her protection but she declined,” said Behera.
The protests have received support from the state unit of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party, whose senior leaders have come out against the Supreme Court verdict.
The current government is “insensitive towards the sentiments and religious beliefs of devotees and they will be responsible for the consequences,” P Muralidhar Rao, the party’s national general secretary, wrote on Twitter.
The Sabarimala temple, which pays homage to the deity Lord Ayyappa, is built on the premise that he was celibate. It’s believed that, if women of menstruating age enter the temple, this will disrespect and sully his purity.
“The deity’s concept is eternal celibacy. It is the root of Sabarimala,” said Rahul Easswar, a Hindu activist. “This is the reason the temple was built. You should not be in proximity of people of that age and (female).”
Every time a woman has secretly entered the temple, the temple has been purified by the priests, a ceremony that led Supreme Court advocate Bhakti Pasrija to file the petition.
“We wanted a discussion,” she said. “People should introspect and we did not want it to be by force. We wanted a healthy discussion where people should talk about this issue.”
Pasrija’s petition reached the Supreme Court in 2006 and after years of deliberation, in a majority opinion, the court ruled that the constitution “protects the equal entitlement of all persons.”
Stating her dissent, Indu Malhotra, the only female justice on the bench, said that religious arguments shouldn’t “ordinarily” be dealt with by the court system.
“In a secular polity, issues which are matters of deep religious faith and sentiment, must not ordinarily be interfered with by courts,” she said.
The leader of the right-wing nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) party, Mohan Bhagawat, threw his support behind the protests, saying that he was in favor of gender equality but that the decision should have been made in consultation with all parties.
Criticizing the lawyers who had filed the case in the court, Bhagwat said, “We are ready for change but change… should come step by step and it can be brought by working alongside (the devotees).”