Sabarimala: The elusive pieces of the puzzle

(An elaboration of the article published on 12 November 2018 in the Samakalika Malayalam Vaarika by C. Radhakrishnan)

Kerala is well known to be a progressive state. The women in the state are highly literate. Yet why is there apparent 'discrimination' against women of a particular age group for praying in Sabarimala? And why are the women folk putting up with it?

Famous Malayalam Author C. Radhakrishnan explores the conflicting scenario and gives valuable insights.



How the Sabarimala row began

It has been said that the paths to hell are often paved with good intentions, and innocence proves drastically cruel as much often. The ongoing Sabarimala drama can be cited as a classic example.

The Supreme Court gave a verdict in the light of Constitutional guarantees and legitimized the right of all women to enter all temples in the nation. On the face of it none can fault the decision. But the calm that ensued was no more than the harbinger of the storm that soon broke out. Genuine and spontaneous opposition to the verdict from devotees at Sabarimala snowballed into massive protest.

But then the State government hardened its stand and the Devaswom Board gave up the idea of filing any review petition. And Sabarimala, the vestige of serenity and divinity, turned overnight into an arena of conflicts, highhandedness even from the police, war-cries and atrocities.

Ideological undercurrents in Kerala that outsiders know little about

The first verse from Isavasya Upanishad - Isavasyamidam sarvam - means that the One God pervades here and everywhere in the universe in equal measure. For this idea to be elucidated further, there is the Upanishadic mantra "Tat twam asi" meaning 'That is you' or 'the God you look for is within yourself'. In Kerala, this great Upanishadic mahavakya is written and kept permanently on top of the entrance of the Sabarimala Sree Ayyappa temple itself. 


There is no distinction between suddhi (cleanliness) or asuddhi (dirt) as everything is pervaded by the One God; everything is noble. Women are no more impure than men. This was stressed by the great poet-sage Ramanujan Ezhuthachan of Kerala, the father of Malayalam language, when he wrote that a menstruating woman, a beggar, a destitute or a Brahmin having performed Agnihotra all are equally entitled to chant the name of the Lord (Harinamakirtana). So even during the dark ages when the kings sponsored the caste system for power, or afterwards when the British sponsored feudalism based on the same system for tax collection and ease of governance; this idea of the Universal God above all consideration of religion or race or caste was never forgotten by the common people.

It is also taught in the scriptures that there are so many diverse ways to reach God, and that no one has the right to criticize, confuse or pain any devotee, whatever be the path, faith, religion or deity he or she believes in.

Devotional diversity is a part and parcel of the cultural tradition of universalism long sustained by this small State. Religions, ideas and concepts from all parts of the world had freely come and mixed in this crucible. Based on the age old Upanisadic knowledge prevalent here, the people of Kerala saw everything as one and welcomed every thought and belief with respect. Keralites have let many customs and sankalpa naturally take their turns as time goes by but do not ape anybody in the name of modernization.

The doctrine of celibacy, abstinence and renunciation

As part of the cultural and devotional diversity in the state, there are the numerous temples in Kerala, and within them, each idol has its own special concept. The Sabarimala Ayyappa is unique in that it is the symbolic installation of a celibate deity. Traditionally men go to the hill-top shrine after observing a rigorous vrata for 41 days, observing certain customs such as abstaining from pleasures, avoiding contact with women of reproductive age group, adherence to pure vegetarianism and avoidance of violence. They try to follow the life of the celibate during this time, and they themselves are called Ayyappa, implying that they are the same as, and one with, the brahmachari (celibate) Lord Ayyappa Himself. They go to the Sabarimala forest and perform the teertatana (trekking) uphill on the mountain, through the tiger reserve there, for about 5 kilometres barefoot. After the Supreme Court verdict, the devotees are afraid that if women of reproductive age also join the trek, the concept itself would gradually be diluted and the customs of the temple would become common to any other temple.

Such a worship comprising of abstention from worldly pleasures and negation of materialistic thought happen only in Sabarimala. (Interestingly, women of any age can enter other Ayyappa temples in Kerala. As part of the diverse customs of worship, there are also temples in Kerala where women worship and men keep back.)

The concept of brahmacharya or ascetic celibacy with avoidance of women of reproductive age is not special to Sabarimala alone. There are Buddhist monasteries all over the world which restrict entry of women. Even in India many Sanyasi mutts do not allow women inside. (Menstruation is not the issue in any of these places.)


The Judicial Muddle

Anyone is free to believe or disbelieve this concept of the celibate deity at Sabarimala. But here the problem is that any woman of reproductive age group who believes in the concept of the deity in that particular temple would not want to break the concept and opt to go. This tradition had been in vogue even two hundred years ago according to news reports(link). This restriction on women of reproductive age is not a social custom in Kerala. It is an ascetic tradition followed only at Sabarimala, and is not related to 'menstrual impurity'. Women are neither thought inferior nor are they segregated in Kerala.

So before trying to change this one tradition at Sabarimala, it is a wonder why nobody cared to ask what the concerned women devotees thought about it! This is not old times, Kerala is one hundred percent literate. After all, this is a democratic country, isn't it?

The two women lawyers who were behind the filing of the case in the Supreme Court, Bhakti Sethi and Prerna Kumari, were neither approached by the women devotees of Ayyappa for this, nor did they even know them. Sethi and Kumari filed the petition because they came to know through some media reports in 2006 – particularly an article by Barkha Dutt – that a purification ceremony was conducted in Sabarimala because Jayamala, an actress, had entered the temple. But one of the petitioners, Kumari, changed her mind later(link). She says, “When I filed petition in this matter, I was not fully aware of the facts of this case. Further, I am not from Kerala. Justice Indu Malhotra has also said that no petitioner is from Kerala and hence petitioners cannot give a real picture of the case(link). I think she is right because after I filed the case I received a letter from a woman devotee. The devotee told me that there are many Lord Ayyappa temples in Kerala where women are allowed to enter and can worship. Further, there are woman priests also in Kerala. Importantly, she told that women in Kerala are themselves not interested in entering the temple so why was I taking the initiative for them? I then did some study and felt that I might have unintentionally hurt the sentiments of the devotees there. I tried to withdraw my petition but the Supreme Court had already been seized of the case." "The State changed its stance three or four times. So it was clear that the issue was more than just religion, it was a politically coloured matter. And I feel I might have been wrong in filing the case.”

Once the verdict came, the women devotees themselves came out in large numbers to block the women activists from reaching the shrine! The fundamental rights issue involved here have to take to account the right of the believing woman also, to rest assured that the sanctity of the premises is not destroyed by the forays of unbelievers there! A verdict given with the best intentions for the right to pray for all women became the source of major distress for thousands of women devotees of Ayyappa in Kerala and also helped a few activists to further hurt their sentiments!

Another problem that came up with implementing the Judgment is that it is not possible to prescribe any screening test for devotion. Law enforcers have no means to test whether anyone has true devotion or not. A woman turning up demanding darsan can well be an activist looking to make a name or even a saboteur. The obvious inference possible is that any one who turns up is out to break the ascetic sankalapa and therefore a non-believer of that particular deity in that temple! But the apex court could not realize this factual layout of the emotional mosaic.

The feminists failed as the women in Kerala remained largely unconvinced that observing stringent vratha and doing the kilometres long tedious trekking barefoot to the mountain top to pray at a temple as the men do would prove gender equality. It was unproductive and a not an equality issue anyway, and there were many other real women's rights issues elsewhere waiting to be addressed properly.

To crown it all, the State government made use of thousands of Policemen to try to forcibly implement the verdict using a few young female activists. Even the law and order situation began to deteriorate.

In the end it was all simply a tremendous waste of time, money, effort and valuable resources for post-flood Kerala. Even if they could have succeeded in getting a young woman to the mountain top and making her pray, each such 'victory' would have been seen as an 'insult' to the devotee and the temple customs. Any such violation or even provocation greatly intensify communal sentiments.

The decision by the Devaswom Board to file a petition for an indefinite period of time in implementation of the verdict in view of practical difficulties was a most welcome act. There is peace stemming from the non-confrontational approach and everyone can turn attention to the real pressing and pending needs of the State.

The solution

It is ironic that the Lord who taught us 'Tat twam asi' is in the centre point of this muddle. That is a pointer. Why does anyone want the Court's permission and thousands of Policemen to pray to God? Isavasyam idam sarvam - The One God is omnipresent. Wherever one turns, there is That. Ayam atma brahma - My soul is God - says the Upanishad. Who can block the prayer from within, or even know that the person is praying? 'I am stationed in the hearts of all' (Gita 15:15).

There are lot of options to worship God with such a wider insight and an all encompassing philosophy. A large amount of literature is present in the ancient Indian system which will help with the search. There is much information about the practical ways of life using the Upanishad system.

If there is a need for improvement, be it in any religion or in any custom or tradition, the demand should come forth from within the concerned people. Those views can be discussed in an open and non-confrontational manner, and meetings and peaceful debates can be conducted. That is how betterment is gradually carried out in a democratic setup. Use of force will undoubtedly fail in the modern world.

In this age, true reform must focus on realizing that God is above all sectarian religions. Instead of a tiny spot on the globe, a true seeker's vision would encompass the entire universe. Till that culture of worshipping the nameless and formless Omnipresent God gets precedence, these types of political games, confusion, police action, court orders and tensions between religious groups are bound to continue.

Sabarimala is a mountain temple situated deep within a tiger reserve forest

The petition by the Devaswom Board which pleads for more time in implementation of the verdict also calls for more forest land to be given for infrastructural development at the mountain shrine. This brings to focus some serious issues. No more forest land should be used for developmental projects; the precious forest has all along been devastated enough for making money; it is high time to save some forest for a change! If further atrocities against nature continue unabated even after the devastating floods in Kerala, the next disaster could prove to be no less than annihilation!


According to legend, Lord Ayyappa forsook all worldly pleasures and came to dwell in the heart of this deepest of virgin forests, at peace and totally cut off from the busy outside world; and it is indeed preposterous to now erect large cement buildings around this place and entertain and encourage the overcrowding there. Sabarimala is situated in the middle of the jungle - right at the centre of the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Crores of rupees are being generated as income at the shrine every year from the devotees, and this has lead to the governing bodies to consistently ignore the environmental damage. There are even plans to build airports and railway stations there!! Real estate is already quite active in anticipation! The governing body had also expected to double the revenue once young women also start to come to the shrine, but that desire has backfired now.

Countries like Japan protect their heritage sites with utmost care. No advanced nation would use these places to generate revenue disregarding everything else.

Once the crowding comes down at Sabarimala, the money making would also end. There are so many other Ayyappa temples in Kerala, numbering even more than a hundred and away from the jungle and easily accessible, where devotees can go instead. Anyone is free to go to those temples, whether man or woman, of any age group. All these shrines have the same Ayyappa pratishta, only the disposition varies.

Aside from His Muslim friend Vavar, Ayyappa’s best friends were tigers. This forest is a wild life sanctuary now; Sabarimala is neither a picnic spot nor a tourist centre. The fast disappearing treasures of nature have to be protected on an urgent footing.


Let the great temple reside in the middle of the natural forest in all serenity as a pointer to the dangers accruing from super-materialistic culture; let it invite all to weave themselves with Nature instead, and also let it flourish as the world’s most lustrous star of religious harmony.