The Sabarimala Temple: in the Eye of a Storm

Lines outside Sabarimala Temple. Credit: India TV 

Update on January 8, 2019: 

A few women have entered the temple and their actions have sparked protests of various kinds across the state of Kerala. Confused about what the Sabarimala temple issue is and what people are so upset about? Read on for our brief on the issue in November 2018. 

Sabarimala is a Hindu temple. It is located on a hilltop in Pathanamthitta district in Southern Kerala and is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. It is open for a limited number of days and draws approximately 50 million devotees in a year.

Why has Sabarimala been in the news so much recently?

Some of the devotees at the temple complained because women were allowed onto the premises of the temple and took the matter to the High Court. In 1991, the Kerala High Court ruled that women between the ages of 10 to 50 would not be permitted inside the temple, a custom that had been followed for many years since.

Why aren’t women in that age group allowed inside the temple?

In part, we have to understand the legend of Lord Ayyappa. There are many legends that explain why women (of all ages) are not allowed inside. The most popular one is that the Lord is not interested in romantic love with a woman so that he can focus on answering the prayers of all his devotees. It says that he will remain this way until the day new devotees stop coming to Sabrimala. So the legend says that women in general shouldn’t go to the temple as it will distract Lord Ayyappa from helping others.

What else is going on here? What does this age group restriction mean? Women’s bodies are especially designed for having babies. Women go through a menstrual cycle, where every month, eggs in a woman’s body are released along with a lining that the body forms to cushion a fertile egg. The lining and eggs are not needed if the eggs are unfertilized, and the body let’s it all go. This starts happening in girls’ bodies somewhere around the age of 10-13, and continues until women reach somewhere around the age of 50. This is a completely natural process, without which natural human reproduction would not be possible.

Some traditional Hindus believe that this phenomenon makes the body impure. As a result they don’t want women in a sacred place, like a temple, during this ‘impure’ time. At Sabarimala, the High Court decision impacted all women in that age range, whether or not they were menstruating at the time.

Got it. So what has happened now? Fast forward to 28th September, 2018. The Supreme Court of India stated that there was no ‘logic’ behind the earlier law, and that there was no proof that women had not entered the temple in older times. The Supreme Court allowed women into the temple. This decision by the Supreme Court has led to fighting among the two sections of devotees – those who support the decision and those who believe this is against their custom.

The temple has become the site of clashes. In October, when women tried to enter the temple and pray, they were not allowed in. Sabarimala opened again on 5th November for special prayers, and the Kerala Government deployed a huge number of police to maintain law and order. However women in that age range were again kept out, though the use of force and intimidation by several right-wing groups. The newspapers and police reports said that of more than 7,000 people who visited the temple earlier this week, only 200 were actually there to pray! The rest were all part of various devotional and right wing groups. And of course, the police forces.

Women are outraged at this denial into a place of worship, and it has become a big issue for women’s rights groups.

The temple will open again on November 16, and it remains to be seen what kind of suitable solution can be worked out.

Written by: Preetika Soni. Preetika is a freelance content writer and transcriptionist. Her interests are photography, crochet, and finding answers for her 3 year old son’s ‘But Why’ questions.

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