A spate of judgements passed by the courts of law in India in 2018 has turned the southern state of Kerala into a hotbed of conflict. Two landmark verdicts, both pronounced within a span of two months, allowed women to enter sacred spaces in Kerala, which were earlier customarily inaccessible to them.
While the September 28 judgement by the Supreme Court allowing women of all ages entry into Sabarimala temple has torn the state in two and hogged the public discourse, the Kerala High Court’s verdict in December, which let women trekkers climb the Agasthyarkoodam hill in the Neyyar wildlife sanctuary in Thiruvananthapuram, has triggered a low-intensity protest among the Kani tribals in the region.
As per the customs of the tribal community, women are not allowed on top of the hill and can only view it from Athirumala, located at the base of the Agasthyarkoodam or Agasthyamala. The men who climb up the hill, to pick up rare herbs or for pilgrimage, undertake a penance before they climb up the hill, much like the Sabarimala pilgrimage.
Barring a few differences in the practice of their customs, both these agitations revolve around the same idea of the celibate god and the hill shrine. While the Sabarimala issue, hijacked by political groups, led to violent agitations in the state, the protest around Agasthyarkoodam, fortunately, has been peaceful.
But considering the very political nature of the debate around this lesser-known hill shrine and the similarity it bears with that of Sabarimala, the Agasthayarkoodam or Agasthyamala could well become the next hotbed of religious conflict in Kerala.
With the hill opening to trekkers on January 14 - the same day as the Makaravilaku season begins in Sabarimala - the Kani tribal members will take out a march on Monday at 10.30 am from Government Ayurveda College to Secretariat in the state capital, demanding that Kerala government take action to protect the traditions of the hill.
The Agasthyarkoodam legend and why women are not allowed
Mohan Triveni, the state president of the Adivasi Mahasabha, which opposes the entry of women to the Agasthyarkoodam, says that the hill holds special significance in the hearts of Kani people.
It is the second highest peak in Kerala and it is believed to be the resting abode of the mythical sage Agasthya. The legend goes that Agasthya Muni, who is a Brahmachari or a celibate, chose this hill from the whole of Kandahar (in present-day Afghanistan) to Kanyakumari, to perform his penance. The deity on top of the Agasthya hill is a ‘celibate’, much like the deity of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala is believed to be.
“Women usually stop at Athirumala, which is at the base of the Agasthyarkoodam. From here, you can see the whole of Agasthyamala and the flora as well,” Mohan said.
Those who visit the shrine to worship take a 21-day penance, wear a rudraksha mala or a garland made of Tulasi seeds and climb up to the hill. But unlike in Sabarimala, where devotees are required to wear black attire, men can wear Kavi or saffron and climb up the Agasthya hill, according to the customs of the Kani.
The hill is also home to several, rare and unknown medicinal herbs, which are highly protected and sacred to the community, Mohan added.
“Even those who go to collect these medicines are not supposed to make noise for fear of destroying the herbs,” he says. The belief of the tribe also states that a woman on her menstrual cycle, who climbs up the hill, could destroy these herbs - a discrimination focused on notions of purity, which several women have now chosen to call out.
When women challenged the unofficial ban on trekking
Somewhere around the 1960s, the Agasthya hill and the forests surrounding it, mainly populated by members of the Kani tribe, were converted into the Agasthya Biosphere Reserve in the Neyyar wildlife sanctuary. Trekking was officially permitted to Agasthyarkoodam by the 1990s. However, women were only allowed to go until the Athirumala while men could do the 26-kilometre trek up the Agasthya hill.
Until early 2017, only isolated attempts were made to breach the unofficial ban on women scaling the peak. However, this changed when women’s rights group Pennoruma pushed for a change in the status quo. After securing permission from Forest Minister K Raju, a group of 51 women prepared to scale the peak the same year. However, the Adivasi Mahasabha, which Mohan heads, moved the High Court against this, citing that it was against traditional rituals for women to climb up the peak. Following this, the High Court issued a stay and Pennoruma moved the court challenging this.
However, the Forest Department issued guidelines as directed by the High Court to permit women to trek to the peak but the government did not make it an order.
In November 2017, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests issued guidelines, which stated that women above 14 years of age, who are mentally sound and physically fit, will be permitted to trek, subject to the discretion of the Forest Department.
Finally, on December 9, 2018, the Kerala High Court passed a verdict allowing women trekkers to climb up the Agasthya hill. Based on a petition by Pennoruma (Kannur), Women Integration and Growth Through Sports (Malappuram) and Anweshi women’s counselling centre (Kozhikode), the order read that “no grounds exist to interdict the entry of women into the area in question.”
The judgement also stated that no trekker will be permitted access to the area where the idol is located or to offer any worship.
In addition to the march, the Kani have begun the Agasthyarkooda Gothra Achara Samrakshana Yagna, a prayer offering to protect the traditions of the Gothra community at Agasthyarkoodam and to oppose the entry of women when the hill opens to trekkers on Monday.
“We cannot defy the court’s orders and we are not against women. But we will protest as this violates our generations-old custom,” Mohan added.