Dangers of lifting Sabarimala ban on women’s entry

By K Raveendran

 The majority verdict by the Supreme Court lifting a ban on women of menstrual age entering the Sabarimala temple as demanded by feminists seeking equality before law in matters of worship will open a Pandora’s box, leading to the questioning of rituals and practices in several temples, particularly of Kerala, where temple worship is highly ritualistic. As Justice Indu Malhotra pointed out in her dissenting judgment, notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion or faith.

Tomorrow, if an overzealous judge or bench of judges, imbibed with scientific temper, which is a laudatory attribute by all means, asks for scientific evidence to prove Lord Ayyappa’s presence in his Sabarimala abode as different from other Ayyappa temples and refuse to accept the submitted proofs as irrational, there is nothing that devotees can do about it.

This is exactly what Justice Indu Malhotra must have meant when she said that issues which have deep religious connotation should not be tinkered with to maintain secular atmosphere in the country and argued how the right to equality cannot be the only touchstone to test religious customs and practises.

“Equal treatment under Article 25 is conditioned by the essential beliefs and practises of any religion. Equality in matters of religion must be viewed in the context of the worshippers of the same faith. In a pluralistic society comprising of people with diverse faiths, beliefs and traditions, to entertain PILs challenging religious practices followed by any group, sect or denomination, could cause serious damage to the constitutional and secular fabric of this country,” she wrote in her dissenting note.

If the age restriction on women’s entry is treated as a non-essential religious practice, as the majority judgment has held, the aggrieved ladies, alleging untouchability, can now demand the right to perform puja inside the sanctum santorum. There are several other ritualistic practices followed in Sabarimala that give special importance and confer decision-making powers to certain families and people and all this could be challenged on the ground of equality before law.

Unfortunately, Justice Malhotra’s solid reasoning failed to find favour with the majority and as such could not influence the final verdict. But the gravity of issues she raised will remain and maybe the future will reveal their significance. We need to examine if majority is the best method to settle such issues. Like a problem in mathematics can only be solved by the merit of the logic and it does not matter how many support or oppose a particular solution.

An immediate fallout of the decision could be on the restriction in the famous Guruvayur temple, where men perform circumambulation of the inner temple in a prostrate position by rolling on the ground, a practice which is debarred for women as it could expose and hurt their body. If women complain why they should be denied the special benediction of Lord Guruvaurappan to those who perform the ritual, which will amount to denial of their fundamental right to pray and worship, the temple authorities would be helpless. Similarly, if men insist on performing ponkala, a ritualistic cooking of rice at the Attukal temple, known until now as women’s Sabarimala as the practice is restricted to only women, they will have to be allowed. This is the world’s biggest ritual of its kind, finding mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.

There are typically several other rituals and ceremonies which are integral to the worship of deities at these temples and hence demand protection. The constitutional or legal status of these entities cannot be called into question as there are hundreds and thousands of them and it would be impossible to grade them in terms legal and constitutional protocol. They have to be accepted, or rejected as they could be under the new circumstances, with their own belief systems and rituals, many of which may be discriminatory and irrational.

Now coming back to Sabarimala, allowing women to enter the temple during the peak season would be a nightmare for the temple authorities, security forces, the administration and the pilgrims themselves. Already a darshan season extending to three months attracts upwards of 3 crore devotees. With women in 10-50 age group added, it would be anybody’s guess as to what would be the size of the crowd at any given point of time. Devotees have to stand in queues for durations exceeding 36 hours in a stretch to reach the temple situated on a hillock and it would indeed an uphill task for women to endure such hardships in the middle of the forest, falling within a tiger reserve and crossing elephant paths day and night.

Being a forest area, there is serious constraint for space for the temple complex and the presence of women in such large numbers without adequate sanitation and health facilities could be a disaster in waiting. The trip to the temple itself involves an arduous trek of about 4 kms of steep climb, some stretches almost at 90 degrees vertically. There are several vulnerable points on the course of the trek that have to be negotiated with utmost care if mishaps are to be averted. Miscreants could easily infiltrate the ranks and do great mischief. Even the access to the sanctum sanctorum, which is through 18 narrow steps, each step carrying a special meaning for the pilgrims, is going to be a tough challenge. There will have to be a special enclosure for women, which would mean further narrowing of the gold-covered passage. During the peak season, the pilgrims are virtually bodily lifted by the security personnel to ease the flow. The higher women turnout will add a new dimension to the crowd management problem.

The article was first published in IPA Newspack

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