When it serves their purpose, it seems, some are willing to break the traditions of Sabarimala

Sabarimalas traditions are not anti-women but have traditions always been respected
news Sabarimala Friday, January 15, 2016 - 09:25

The Supreme Court, which is hearing a petition demanding that women of all ages be allowed into the Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala, has set alarm bells ringing in the dovecotes of orthodoxy and kindled hopes in reform enthusiasts by asking the authorities to explain on what basis they are prohibiting the entry of women.

The shrine, ensconced in the Western Ghats, is the abode of Lord Ayyappa. It now attracts more than 50 million devotees each year, mostly from the southern states. A few Bollywood stars and cricketers are among the regular visitors.

According to legends, Ayyappa is the son of Siva and Vishnu-in-the-form-of-Mohini and was abandoned at birth in the forest. The ruler of Pandalam, who found the child while on a hunting trip, brought him up under the name of Manikandan.  After a life of high adventure, in which Vavar, a Muslim youth, was his chief aide, Manikandan returned to the forest to live a life of celibacy.

The Travancore Devaswom Board which manages the temple, the Thazhamon family whose members serve as its Tantris and the Nair Service Society, which speaks in the name of the largest group of beneficiaries of the caste system, have all come out against allowing women into Sabarimala, justifying their stand in the name of ritualistic practices and tradition.

They point out that there is no blanket ban on women’s entry. Only women of menstruating age are barred, and this was done in accordance with the wishes of Lord Ayyappa, a sworn celibate. They do not want the apex court to interfere in religious practices.

The bid to avert judicial intervention is a little too late. The current practice has behind it the sanction of a 1983 verdict of the Kerala high court directing the authorities not to allow women aged between 10 and 50 years to go to Sabarimala.

According to Tantris Rajeevararu and Mohanararu, tantra does not permit women of menstruating age to enter the temple as the idol has been installed treating the deity as a perpetual bachelor.

A spokesman of the Ayyappa Seva Sangham, an NGO which has impleaded itself in the case, asks why women in the 10-50 years age group want to break Sabarimala’s tradition when there are other Ayyappa temples where they can offer prayers. He sidesteps the question why Ayyappa’s celibacy acts as a bar on women only at Sabarimala, and not at other temples.

A common argument of all the orthodox elements is that Sabarimala has unique traditions. However, they offer no plausible explanation for its uniqueness.  There are gaping holes in their accounts of the temple’s history and traditions.

A remnant of the Pandyans of Madurai, the Pandalam family reached present-day Kerala as the Vedic community was establishing its authority and enforcing the caste system. One of the few ruling families to be granted the status of Kshatriya, it became a willing accomplice of the Vedic establishment.

The Pandalam tale tacitly acknowledges the existence of a shrine before its time. It says Manikandan coalesced with a pre-existing deity. What is problematic is their identification of that deity.

Chinese traveller Xuanzang (Huan Tsang), who was in India in the seventh century, mentions a Buddhist shrine in the south of the country near the sea to the east of “the Moloya (Malayala?) mountain with its lofty cliffs and ridge and deep valleys and gullies”.  References to a Buddhist nunnery in the hills are also available.

Clues to several of Sabarimala’s traditions lie in its Buddhist past. The very names Ayyappa and Dharma Sastha are giveaways. The terms were used to refer to the Buddha. The devotees’ chant of “Swami Saranam, Ayyappa Saranam” echoes “Buddham Saranam gachhami”. The 41-day abstention prescribed for the pilgrims is similar to the vows of Buddhists.

The ideals of equality and brotherhood practised by Sabarimala pilgrims set that shrine apart from other Hindu temples. Even when the caste system barred large sections of the population from the temples, all had free access to Sabarimala. The pilgrims address one another as Swami or Ayyappa, Such affirmation of equality is alien to the Hindu ethos.

“The famous Sastha temples now existing in Sabarimala, Thakkala and other places in Travancore were originally none other than temples dedicated to (the) Buddha,” says the 1931 Census Report of the princely state. “Besides these temples, several remains of Buddhist viharas and chaityas are still seen in different parts of this country. These are indications of Buddhism having been once the common religion in Travancore.”

In 1881, V. Nagam Aiya, head of the Trivandrum district administration, in a report to the Maharaja stated that the temple at Chitaral, near Kanyakumari, where there was an idol of a ‘muni’, was a Buddhist shrine.  The Maharaja wrote under it: “Your description is correct. The Brahmins have appropriated and adapted this Buddhist temple as they have done with many others. What you call muni is nothing but the figure of Buddha Gautama.”  

The Maharaja’s noting on the file has been quoted by the late Dr SN Sadasivan in his well-researched work “A Social History of India“. 

Piecing together available fragments of history and legends, a credible account of the Pandalam family’s link with the ancient shrine can be constructed.  Tribes from across the border seized the temple which was an important source of revenue to the royal family. Manikandan, with the help of Vavar, drove them out and restored control of the shrine to the family.

The Travancore Devaswom Board was set up to administer the temples of the princely state after it merged in the Indian Union. Political parties which have a decisive say in the choice of its members generally pick regressive elements as is chairman and members to placate caste organizations. As a result, more than 60 years after it came into being, the temples and the Board itself remain citadels of caste supremacists.

Traditionally, the right to conduct “vedi vazhipadu” (a form of offering) at Sabarimala was with the Cheerappanchira family near Cherthala.  According to the traditions of this family, which belongs to the Ezhava (OBC) community, Manikandan had studied martial arts at a centre run by it. While he was there, a young woman of the family was attracted to him. After he took to a life of celibacy she went to Sabarimala to join him in his spiritual pursuit. On his advice, she sat in meditation at a nearby place, where now stands the shrine of Malikappuraththamma.

The Devaswom Board extinguished the Cheerappanchira family’s privilege and auctioned the right to conduct “vedi vazhipadu” to raise its income. The High Court upheld the Board’s action.

According to the traditions of Mala Arayans, a scheduled tribe living near Sabarimala, they had control over the temple before the Pandalam family’s arrival. After losing the temple, they conducted the traditional rituals on another hill.

The light the Mala Arayans lit could be seen from Sabarimala, and pilgrims took it as a divine sign. A few years ago, the authorities ousted them from there too. Now the Kerala State Electricity Board creates the divine sign!

The Mala Arayans are a comparatively advanced group among the tribes of Kerala. This may well be the result of their Buddhist past.  The Devaswom Board has turned a deaf ear to their repeated pleas to restore their traditional rights.

There is no information in the public domain on how and when the Thazhamon family acquired the right to be Tantris of the Sabarimala shrine and theirs became the last word on its affairs.

By tradition, the male members of the family inherit the right to be Tantris. Before stepping down recently due to old age, Kandararu Maheswararu,  the senior most member of the family, made an unsuccessful bid to induct his daughter’s son, Rahul Easwar, as Tantri, breaking the tradition of patrilineal descent. The Devaswom Board blocked it.

Maheswararu’s move was allegedly motivated not by considerations of gender parity but by a desire to boost the income of his branch of the family, which was dwindling due to paucity of members of patrilineal  descent to perform the Tantri’s functions.

Apparently all concerned are ready to break traditions, but only if they stand to benefit in the process. Equity and gender justice are not issues that move them to action.       

As the route to the shrine lay through forests where wild animals abounded, the Sabarimala pilgrimage was once considered hazardous. Yet it was not uncommon for women to go there. Their prime destination, however, was not Ayyappa’s shrine, but Malikappuraththaamma’s.

Organized attempts by Hindu conservatives to discourage pilgrimage by women began in the 1960s. Their arguments based on the alleged traditions and the perils on the way are specious. The forests having been denuded, wild animals are no longer a serious problem on the route.

Sabarimala’s traditions are not anti-women. The concerted effort to block women must be seen in the context of abandonment of the ideals of Kerala’s renaissance movement by the political parties in their quest for power and the consequent reassertion of authority by remnants of the feudal elements. The linking of the issue to menstruation brings in an archaic concept of impurity which they know still has takers in Kerala’s pseudo-modern society.

The State government has placed contradictory arguments before the Supreme Court. The last Left Democratic Front government, headed by VS Achuthanandan, had in an affidavit endorsed the demand that women be allowed into Sabarimala. The present United Democratic Front, headed by Oommen Chandy, which stands squarely behind orthodoxy, has got the court’s permission to file a new affidavit.

The Supreme Court has lately shown signs of being ready to move forward on gender issues, but it is too early to rejoice since the institution is not free from the influence of Manu, whose idea of justice is grossly at variance with that of the Constitution. A computer search shows that the learned judges have invoked Manu’s name in judgments 326 times in the 66 years since the Constitution came into force.

The author is a senior journalist.

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