India’s flashpoint temple, off limits to women

Agence France-Presse
India’s flashpoint temple, off limits to women


Those wishing to visit undergo a 41-day period of introspection and detachment – vratha – abstaining from sex, meat, intoxicants, and even shaving

SABIRAMALA, India – The stage is set for a fresh showdown in India with traditionalists aiming to prevent women from gaining entry to the Sabarimala temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest sites.

In September India’s top court ruled that women of all ages could enter. But when it re-opened in October, hardliners stopped women from getting to the site. (READ: India court says women have equal right to enter temples)

Some 700 women are among the hundreds of thousands of devotees who have registered online to pray at the temple in a two-month holy period that began on Saturday, November 17.


The gold-plated Sabarimala Sree Dharma Sastha Temple complex sits atop a 3,000-foot (915-meter) hill in a forested tiger reserve in the southern state of Kerala.

It contains a shrine to Lord Ayyappa, believed to have been the Earth-born son of two of Hinduism’s three main gods, Vishnu (in his female avatar) and Shiva.

Legend has it that Ayyappa was found abandoned as a baby. A king of the Pandalam dynasty, which is still active in temple operations, found and raised him. 

At 12 Ayyappa showed his divinity when he emerged from the forest rode a tigress. The boy fired an arrow which landed at the site where the temple now is.

No sex or shaving

Those wishing to visit undergo a 41-day period of introspection and detachment – vratha – abstaining from sex, meat, intoxicants, and even shaving.

After this period many devotees, wearing ritual bead necklaces, walk barefoot for dozens of kilometers including, and especially, the final steep climb.

The pilgrims now mostly take one of two routes – one steep and short and the other easier but longer – through dense forest to the top.

Only those who have observed the vratha and carry the irrumude, a symbolic offering, can enter the main courtyard up 18 divine golden steps.

The sacred offerings, tied in a cloth usually carried on the head or shoulders, include coconuts, rose water, rice and pepper.

Offerings are made by smashing the coconut at designated stops along the trek, chanting the mantra “Swamy Sharanam Ayyappa” (“God, I come to your feet”).

Marriage proposal

Legend says that the goddess Malikapurathamma asked Ayyappa to marry her. He said he would only do so once no first-time pilgrim visits him – which has never happened.

Believers celebrate a festival each year when a procession of the goddess is taken to a spot close to the temple three times – and she is forced to wait.

The reason for Ayyappa’s refusal is because of his celibacy – one of the arguments against allowing women of menstruating age to enter.

Currently, only females younger than 10 years old and over 50 can enter. Women can access most other Hindu temples in India.

Legal wranglings

The Supreme Court order is opposed by supporters of India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The September ruling was one a string of recent decisions to have eaten away at some of India’s traditions, including outlawing a ban on gay sex and on adultery. (READ: Radicals attack Hindu retreat as gender protests mount)

On November 13, the Supreme Court agreed to hear challenges to its decision from January 22, but said that until then its September ruling stood.

However, the board managing the temple is to ask the Supreme Court, likely on Monday, to be allowed to delay implementation, citing a “lack of infrastructure”. –

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