Defying protests, 51 women entered India's Sabarimala temple in January

Police protect a Hindu devotee after protesters block her entry into Sabarimala temple last month.

New Delhi (CNN)More than 50 women have entered the revered Sabarimala temple in India's southern Kerala state in recent weeks, defying protests from orthodox Hindus.

The protesters are opposed to a September order by the country's top court that scrapped a rule barring women of child-bearing age from visiting the temple.
Kerala's state government -- which backs the scrapping of the gender rule -- disclosed that 51 women had entered the temple in a submission Friday to the Supreme Court in New Delhi, B.G. Harindranath, the top official in the Kerala government's law department, told CNN.
"We provided them police cover because there were lots of people who were opposed to it ... certain political parties who did not want the women to enter and certain other groups," he said.
    On January 2, Bindu Ammini, 40, a law lecturer, and Kanakadurga, 39, a local government employee, made history when they became the first women to enter the shrine since the September ruling lifted the ban on women ages 10 to 50.
    Harindranath said all 51 women who had visited the temple went there in January and were younger than 50.
    India has been seized by an increasingly divisive national debate over the issue. Many, including the local communist politicians who govern Kerala state, said the rule was outdated and discriminatory and should have been scrapped.
    But others, such as women and politicians from both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party as well as the main opposition Indian National Congress, said the court shouldn't intervene in what they view as a matter of faith and tradition.
    "We knew that the communists do not respect Indian history, culture and spirituality. But nobody imagined they would have such hatred," Modi said during a recent political rally in the state.
    The debate is set to return to the Supreme Court on Tuesday when it considers petitions calling for a review of its September ruling.
    The disclosure that 51 women had entered the temple since the lifting of the ban came during a hearing Friday about whether local officials were doing enough to protect Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga.
      Kerala's government said it was providing security to both women, who were initially forced to go into hiding after visiting the temple -- a development that prompted statewide protests in which at least one person was killed.
      The Supreme Court said the state government should continue to provide the women with security, Vijay Hansaria, who represented the Kerala government in court, told CNN.