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Women at Sabarimala

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16.03.2019

The Sabarimala temple, an immensely popular place of pilgrimage, is situated atop the hills of Kerala and is devoted to a Hindu god, Ayyappa. Till recently, the temple was open only to men. There is a police station on the way to the sacred complex where women police personnel can stop women devotees from proceeding, and in case women manage to slip by, the shrine’s security guards will not allow them to enter. It is not only the face that will easily help identify a woman; the pilgrims are traditionally expected to enter the inner sanctum with their chests bare.

Ayyappa is usually considered a celibate god (though in some places, not Sabarimala, he is depicted with wives). In the reckoning of the temple authorities, visits of women of menstruating age could be a distraction on the deity’s path of purity. “Menstruating age” is considered as the period between 10 and 50 years. These limitations, however, ought now to be a closed chapter. On September 28, the Supreme Court ruled that the shrine should open its doors to all women pilgrims, irrespective of their age. While implementation of this ruling could take some time, the temple fund authorities may yield to the judgment as in the case of other Hindu temples.

Sabarimala’s history is as tangled and diverse as Indian history and society itself. Ayyappa is believed to be the son of two other male deities, Shiva and Vishnu, and this unlikely communion was made possible when Vishnu took the female form. Ayyappa is therefore also called Hariharaputra, “the son of Vishnu [Hari] and Shiva [Hara].” Ayyappa, mainly worshipped in southern India, could also have been a pre-Aryan deity, a god worshipped before the culture of the Aryans spread throughout the subcontinent. Later his cult was possibly absorbed into the Aryan pantheon, and, if that assumption is true, the story of Shiva-Vishnu parentage would have to be a later addition.

If that is not diverse enough, the story of Ayyappa also has a Muslim strain within its tapestry.........

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