Thirty-seven-year-old Nagabhaskar clearly remembers the first time he visited the famed Meenakshi Amman temple in Madurai three decades ago. "I was 7 then. My parents had carried me to the temple to offer prayers," he tells TNM. The 7-year-old had by then lost motor skills in both his legs after contracting polio in 1983. In the years that followed, Bhaskar could never go back to the temple, despite it being a stone's throw away from his home in Madurai.
However, all of that changed for good on Sunday when over 100 persons with disabilities, including Bhaskar, made history by entering the Meenakshi Amman temple together. The group who was part of the Tamil Nadu Crawling and Differently Abled Federation (TNFDAC) had sought and received an RTI order which allowed them to park their vehicles inside the temple premises.
"Persons with disabilities were not allowed to park the 3-wheeled scooters inside the temple premises. We had to park outside and enter the temple through the West gate, past a heavily crowded street and 200 metre walk to the temple" Nagabhaskar who is the TNFDAC president of Madurai explains.
The temple had a policy which only allowed vehicles of staff and VIP cars and bikes to be parked inside its premises. All other devotees had to park their vehicles outside the temple and then enter the gate on foot.
"This meant that we had to use our wheel chairs or crawl till the outer entrance of the temple. The parking area is heavily crowded and difficult to manoeuvre by wheelchair. The rule made visiting the temple impossible for us," General Secretary of TNFDAC, Sorgam Raja says.
Raja adds that he and other persons with disabilities couldn't even access the shops inside the temple due to this rule. "There were many shops inside the temple premises, like there are on the streets outside. But devotees who are not VIPs or staff had to cross the entrance by foot and walk up to the shops," he says.
Following a two-year fight and two petitions to the Collector, members of TNCFDA finally received an order issued by the Joint Commissioner/ Officer-in-charge office of the Arulmigu Meenakshi Sundareswarar Thirukoil, which allowed them to take and park their vehicles inside the temple grounds.
"Considering the security of the temple, the differently abled are allowed to go inside the temple in their own Adopted Retrofitted Invalid Carriage Vehicle (ARICV), after the necessary security checks," the order read.
It further stated that ramps too had been erected in different places to make the temple accessible.
"In order to pray to the deity, a ramp has been set up wherever possible and wheel-chair facility is available in all four temple towers," the order stated.
Paving way for change
On Sunday morning, the members of TNFDAC were stopped outside the police check point before the temple and asked to enter only after parking their vehicles.
"We showed them the RTI order and they still refused to allow us inside. Then we asked them to call the higher authorities who finally let us in," Raja says.
The persons with disabilities were joined by over 50 student volunteers from 'Padikattugal', a youth volunteer NGO, who helped carry them to places which were inaccessible by wheelchair.
"In several places ramps were not there. We were carried by volunteers and family members till the sanctum. The ramp ends much before the sanctum. It is difficult even for aged devotees who come to pray," Raja adds.