The Supreme Court’s declaration that there can be no bar on the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple, nestling in the Western Ghats, is a big blow to those practicing discrimination under the guise of religion. Reason has triumphed over prejudice.
The five-judge Constitution Bench’s verdict came two months after it concluded an eight-day hearing on a public interest petition filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association 12 years ago. The petitioners’ demand for removal of the ban on menstruating women was backed by the Happy to Bleed campaign.
Ranged on the other side were the Travancore Devaswom Board, which handles the administration of the temples which used to be under the control of the Maharaja’s regime in the erstwhile Travancore state, the hereditary Thanthri of the Sabarimala temple, the Nair Service Society, an organization of the powerful Nair community, the former Pandalam royal family, which had control over the temple before the creation of the Travancore state, the Ayyappa Seva Sangham, a body of Sabarimala devotees, and People for Dharma and Chetana, two conservative women’s groups.
The apex court ruling capped a season of landmark judgments by benches, presided over by the outgoing Chief Justice Dipak Misra, which essentially take India’s legal framework out of the confines of Victorian morality in which the British colonial rulers had firmly placed it. The major decisions included the decriminalization of adultery and homosexuality.
The penal code the British framed in the 19th century was, by and large, acceptable to the Indian caste elite as Victorian moral concepts were in line with its own practices. They could enact laws to do away with two evil practices, sati and child marriage, because enlightened Indians opposed them.
Contrary to the claims of orthodox elements, there was no legal bar on women’s entry into Sabarimala until 1991, when a Kerala High Court bench, comprising Justice KS Paripoornan and K Balakrishna Marar, accepted a petitioner’s contention that since the presiding deity, known variously as Ayyappa and Dharma Sastha, was a naishtika brahmachari (one practising celibacy), women in the 10-50 age group are barred by custom from visiting the shrine. After the judgment, the government posted policemen at the Pampa base camp to prevent women from trekking to the shrine.
The two judges barred women’s entry after personally hearing the Thathri and the head of the Pandalam family. The Tanthri told the judges it was not proper for young women to enter the temple. They relied on the Travancore State Manual for treating the Thanthri as an authority on the subject. The manual, however, only says he alone can authoritatively clear the air on spiritual questions.
People in the vicinity still remember families visiting the temple for the choroon (ritual first feeding) of children.
The Supreme Court’s stance on the issue is based on appreciation of the fact that whether or not women can enter the temple is not a religious or spiritual question, but rather a secular and social question.
The Devaswom Board attributes a history of only about 800 years to the Sabarimala shrine, based on the traditions of the Pandalam family, said to be descendants of the Pandyas of Madurai. After the collapse of the Pandya empire, they migrated to the Pandalam region and established a principality, which the ruler of Venad later annexed and made a part of the Travancore state he created.
Ayyappan, according to their tradition, was Manikandan, foster son of the Pandalam ruler who found him as an abandoned baby in the forest during a hunting trip. When the Pandalam legend was tied to mythology, he became the son born of the union between Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu in the female form of Mohini.
The Pandalam legend itself testifies to the existence of an earlier shrine at Sabarimala, Manikandan is said to have fought off brigands who had repeatedly attacked the shrine. A Muslim friend named Vavar (Malayalam form of Babar?) helped him in the battles. That puts the Pandalam story after the advent of Islam.
Chinese scholar Xuanzang (Huan Tsang in an earlier English rendering), who travelled extensively in India in the 7th century CE has written about a Buddhist monastery in the Sabarimala area. It is reasonable to assume that the shrine, which came under attacks and which Manikantan defended, was part of an earlier Buddhist establishment which changed hands after the Vedic community gained supremacy.
The name Dharma Sastha is also indicative of a Buddhist past.
Mala Aryans, a tribal community living in the neighbourhood, were conducting the Makaravilakku ceremony at Ponnambalamedu until the middle of the last century. The Pandalam royal family had granted rights to conduct Vedi Vazhipad at the Sabarimala temple to the Ezhava family of Cheerappanchira in Cherthala (to which former CPI-M Minister Suseela Gopalan belonged). Both these practices were stopped by the Devaswom Board, which came into being after Travancore’s merger with the Indian Union. The temple’s historical association with the Mala Aryans and the Cheerappanchira family are also evidence of its pre-Hindu origin.