No one is really sure when women – going through menstruation - were banned completely from entering the Sabarimala temple. The question has become more relevant now with the Supreme Court verdict lifting the ban and the many devotees citing tradition as a reason for their angst. The ban has always been there, it is an old tradition, they say.
How old is old, asked writer NS Madhavan in a series of tweets recently. He questioned the claim that the ban has been in place for centuries. His tweets have resulted in angry responses and discussions on the origin of the ban on women.
“How old are ‘very old’ customs of Sabarimala? Entry of women to the shrine was banned by law only as late as 1972. Reason: some male worshippers took offence. Before that women used to go there for worship, more so, after roads were built for a Rashtrapathi visit.”
That is the first of NS Madhavan’s tweets. He then goes on to talk about a Tamil film song shot at the temple – as recently as 1986 – and said that women featured on the famous ‘18 steps’ leading to the deity in the temple. The song comes in a film called Nambinal Keduvathillai, featuring actor Jayashree at the temple.
How old are ‘very old’ customs of Sabarimala? Entry of women to the shrine was banned by law only as late as 1972. Reason: some male worshippers took offence. Before that women used to go there for worship, more so, after roads were built for a Rashtrapathi visit. 1/5— N.S. Madhavan (@NSMlive) September 29, 2018
The 18 sacred steps constitute the main stairway to the temple and following custom, only those pilgrims with ‘irumudikettu’ (double headed baggage with possessions and offerings for the deity) can climb them and reach the Sannidhanam (where the deity is).
Madhavan also writes about the visit of the Queen of Travancore in 1939, of choroonu ceremonies (first meal eating ceremony for children) where women were present.
There was an informal ban, but it was not enforced until 1972, Madhavan tells TNM. “It was an unenforced custom which was often not followed. But did the custom have the force of law? Not until 1972,” he argues.
In 1991, the Kerala High Court upheld the ban on entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50, following a Public Interest Litigation, he adds. This is mentioned in the writ petition filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association in the Supreme Court against the Travancore Devaswom Board in 2006.
In the 1991 case of S. Mahendran v. The Secretary Travancore Devaswom Board, Thiruvananthapuram and others, the High Court of Kerala had concluded among other things that, “the restriction imposed on women aged above 10 and below 50 from trekking the holy hills of Sabarimala and offering worship at Sabarimala Shrine is in accordance with the usage prevalent from time immemorial."
However, some of the instances that Madhavan posted about are also recorded in the writ petition that finally brought on the SC verdict on September 28. “We have included some of those incidents of women visiting the temple in the old days, before it was legally banned. There has, however been no clarity on the subject. We spoke to historians too, some of them would say yes, it has always been so, and some said no,” says Bhakti Pasrija, general secretary of the Indian Young Lawyers Association.
The petition says: “It is submitted that the religious practices and customs had changed during the last 55 years particularly after 1950, the year in which the renovation of the temple took place after the ‘fire disaster’. Even while the old customs prevailed, women used to visit the temple. The Maharaja of Travancore accompanied by Maharani and Divan had visited the temple in 1115 M.E. There was thus no prohibition for women to enter the temple in olden days. Many female worshippers had gone to the temple within the age group of 10 to 50 for the first rice-feeding ceremony of their children (Chottonu). A change in the old custom and practice was brought about by installing a flag staff (Dhwajam) in 1969.”
TKA Nair, former advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recently said that his Choroonu ceremony was done at the Sabarimala temple when he was on his mother’s lap and faced the deity. This was in 1939.
Historian MG Sashibooshan however differs and says that even if women had come to the temple in the past, it is only until the 18 sacred steps, that they didn’t climb it. “I have photos of the queen’s visit (mentioned by NS Madhavan) taken by her son. She came on her own wish but she too stopped before the 18 steps,” he says.
He also talks of incidents when women, without being aware of the restriction, used to come from faraway places. They too stopped at the sacred steps.
He is not sure when the informal ban came into place but he speaks about a memoir written in the 19th century by Lieutenant Colonel Ward in which he mentions that ‘women are not coming’ to the Sabarimala temple. According to archive.org, Travancore and Cochin were surveyed by Lieutenants Ward and Conner between 1816 and 1821. So that could mean an informal ban has been there, but not so strictly observed as in the latter half of the 20th century.
But even as the debate continues, the Kerala government and the Devaswom Board are getting ready to accommodate women at Sabarimala.