“No women will make an attempt to go to the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple this year,” says a senior police officer on bandobast duty at Pamba below Sabarimala in Keala. Ask any of the officers if they are expecting women to make an attempt to visit the temple, they would all give the same reply. The police officer adds that the Kerala government's announcement that a woman should obtain a court order for police protection has ensured that women would not want to do the trek.
But what if a woman chooses to visit the temple without a court order? The officer states, “We will be able to take action only if something happens to her. All citizens are equal and no one gets special treatment. But the law will take its course if someone resorts to violence." The officer thereby made it clear that police will not give any protection unless there was trouble.
At Pamba, most police officers look bored, one officer was overheard saying to a colleague, “I wish it was just a 2-hour shift instead of 4." The Kerala police has deployed a large force at the temple as a preventive measure. Most of those who instigated the protests last season are not camping at Sabarimala this season after the SC decision to refer the case to a 7 bench judge. Apart from a minor confusion on Saturday related to 10 women from Andhra Pradesh being stopped from entering, things have been eerily calm at Sabarimala.
“By the time some woman applies for a court order and comes here, the season will be over,” opined another officer.
It’s not easy to get to Pamba, there exists only one route that has a tarred road leading up to the foot of the hill from where the pilgrimage begins. One can choose to climb the hill or try to get on one of the tractors doing supply runs to drop you off at the hilltop, of course for a fee. For a female within the age group of 10 to 50, reaching the foot of the hill itself is a task.
All modes of transport drop the pilgrims on the banks of Pamba, two bridges connect the pilgrims to the other side of the river from where they make the climb to the temple.
Both the bridges are manned by police and even if women manage to cross the police, reaching the foot of the hill would require them to make their way through a sea of men devotees many of whom may raise objections or perhaps resort to violence. The women, if at all they choose to arrive without a court order would be stopped at the foot of the hill.
“There is one other way where the women would directly reach the Sannidhanam,” says a police officer on duty and that is to travel through the Periyar Tiger reserve forest where security is a big concern, “All those who take the forest route are advised not to begin their trek into the jungle after 3 pm, they will not be able to make it out on the other side of the forest before sunset,” he added.
Apart from using the main road, pilgrims often trek to Pamba beginning their two-day journey from Erumely through the Periyar reserve forest walking through Azhutha via Mukkuzhi. They would eventually have to climb over Karimala to reach Pamba. “It's a 60 to 58km walk but the women, if they choose this route, would eventually end up at Pamba where they will be stopped,” said the officer, “Also if they get spotted in the forest by the devotees and the situation goes out of control, there would be nothing that the police can do, the women would be on their own,” he adds.
Another option is through Vandiperiyar via Sathram Pulmedu and Paandithavalam. “Its a one day trip in a jeep but the trip is physically exhausting due to bad roads. It gives you bad body pain. Apart from a police check post at the beginning of the route, there are no police personnel stationed across the route, so again safety for a woman, if she gets spotted, is a problem,” he added.