Kerala activists question ‘unwritten law’ banning women from scaling Agasthyarkoodam peak

The tribal community inhabiting the region says that traditionally, women are not allowed to scale the peak.
Kerala activists question ‘unwritten law’ banning women from scaling Agasthyarkoodam peak
Kerala activists question ‘unwritten law’ banning women from scaling Agasthyarkoodam peak
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The restrictions imposed on women entering certain places in the name of religion and tradition have been increasingly questioned in the country.

In Kerala, while the clamour for women's entry into Sabarimala has earned the attention of the national media, the Agasthyarkoodam peak or Agasthyamala where similar restrictions are in place is not so well-known.

The Agasthyarkoodam peak is part of the Western Ghats and lies within the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala. Some people climb the mountain as a pilgrimage. While there is no formal ban on women that exists, the tribal community living in the region opposes their entry in the name of tradition. However, for the first time now, women activists belonging to various organisations have come together questioning this tradition and demanding that they be allowed to scale Agasthyarkoodam which also happens to be one of the highest peaks in the state.There have been isolated requests and demands made from individuals previously but this is for the first time that such a concerted effort is being made.

Following the demands made by the representatives of the various organisations in a discussion with forest minister K Raju in January this year, permission was given for women to scale the peak. Accordingly, plans were made for a group of 51 women to begin their journey up the peak on February 25. However, the High Court issued a stay on February 20 following a petition filed by the Adivasi Mahasabha, a tribal outfit, which questioned the government order.

The tribal people, belonging to the Kani community, have traditionally inhabited the land and though there is no written rule in place which forbids the entry of women into the peak, the community is adamant that this should not be permitted. Speaking to The News Minute, YM Shaji Kumar, the Thiruvananthapuram wildlife warden, said, "There is no order which prevents it. But it has been followed like an unwritten law." Mohan Triveni, state president of Adivasi Mahasabha, explains the community's stance: "We don't have any animosity towards women. There are certain rituals which we have been following for ages. These don’t allow women beyond Athirumala, which is the base station in Agasthyamala. Even Kani women have never gone beyond Athirumala. Agasthyamala can be clearly seen from Athirumala. Our traditions can’t be trifled with."

The Kanis worships saint Agasthya at Athirumala though there is no temple at the location. The forest minister, K Raju, told TNM that the government's position on the issue is clear. “The government was not against the demand of the women. Now it’s the court order, I can’t comment on that," he said. There are two sanctuaries under Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve - Neyyar and Peppara.

The Forest Department has facilities to accommodate 200 people at a time at Athirumala, where trekkers halt, before reaching Agasthyarkoodam. It normally takes more than a day to cover the 26 km stretch of dense forests and slippery boulders and reach the peak. “The only thing is that we don't have separate facilities for women. There are three staff of the department present at Athirumala all the time and there is a wireless station as well,” said A Noushad, assistant wildlife warden, Peppara. Whatever be the limitations, the women's group is determined to fight till they win. “We will approach the court highlighting the fundamental rights ensured for women by the Constitution. Trekking to Agasthyarkoodam began back in the 1990s but no woman has been allowed there till date,” said M Sulfath of the women’s rights organisation Pennoruma.

Last year, the UNESCO had listed Agasthyamala among the world network of biosphere reserves. “We will write to the UNESCO as well in this regard,” added Sulfath. A diverse eco- system, the peak covers the Shendurney and Peppara wildlife sanctuaries, parts of the Neyyar sanctuary and the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve of Tamil Nadu. The Forest Department permits people’s entry to the peak from the time of the Makaravilak, a ritual in Sabarimala Temple that begins on Janurary 14 and continues till Sivarathri. 

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