38-year-old K Dhanya Sanal, spokesperson for the Defence Ministry in Thiruvananthapuram, is set to become the first woman to scale Agasthyarkoodam peak, since an unofficial ban on trekking for women was lifted. The Hindu reports that 100 women signed up for the 47-day trekking season, amongst the 4,700 individuals who have signed up for the trek, which will continue until March 1.
The group was instructed by the Forest Department to assemble at an assigned point near the Bonacaud estate by 7 am, following which their identity cards and registration were checked. They were then divided into five groups of 20, and the first group began trekking around 8 am. Each group is accompanied by a Eco-Development Committee.
Indian Express Malayalam reports that canteens and other facilities are available to trekkers at Bonacaud and Athirumala base camps. All trekkers have been provided medical insurance. Women guards have also been deployed for the safety of women trekkers.
Access to the peak, located in Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, had been unofficially banned for women trekkers due to the belief of the Kani tribals that it is the final resting place of the sage Agasthya, who, similar to the god Ayyappa at Sabarimala, is an eternal celibate. Kani tribals contend that allowing women to climb the hill violates their religious customs and practices.
Until 2017, few attempts were made to flout the ban on trekking up the hill. In 2017, womenâ€™s rights group Pennoruma secured permission from the Forest Department to make the trek, but this was challenged by the Adivasi Mahasabha in the Kerala HC, following which the HC issued a stay on the Forest Departmentâ€™s order.
On December 9, 2018, the Kerala High Court passed an order barring gender-based restrictions on trekking to Agasthyarkoodam. Based on the petition by Pennoruma (Kannur), Women Integration and Growth Through Sports (Malappuram) and Anweshi womenâ€™s counselling centre (Kozhikode), the order read that â€śno grounds exist to interdict the entry of women into the area in question.
Despite the HC order, Kani tribals have planned to hold peaceful, non-disruptive nama-japa protests during the trekking season this year to register their protest at women making the trek to the hill.