By now most of us are familiar with the developments at the most famous and richest shrine in Kerala. There have been unprecedented developments in the last few weeks and even as you read this piece the standoff between the government of Kerala and the Ayyappa devotees who want to uphold the traditions at the hill shrine continues.
Among the thousand odd women who have registered for Darshan at Sabarimala, 3 of them have approached the Kerala High Court to request security for their visit to the temple. The Kerala govt has mentioned that it was contemplating having 2 or 3 days exclusively for the women devotees at Sabarimala, to keep the protesting devotees at bay. Things had spiraled out of control the last two times the hill shrine was opened post the Supreme Court verdict allowing women to enter the temple. More than a week after the temple has opened for the annual pilgrimage season, no woman in the 10-50 year bracket has been able to come for Darshan.
Most of the temples in Kerala are built as per the Tantra Shastra and the Tantri who installs the deity as per this automatically assumes the position of the Guru of the deity. He is the final word when it comes to the rituals at the temple. Various temples will have different regulations and rules as prescribed by the Tantri of that temple which the temple thereafter abides by. The Padmanabhaswamy Temple located in Thiruvananthapuram doesn’t allow a non-Hindu to enter and has a dress code. Similarly, the famous Guruvayoor temple also has similar restrictions and as does the thousands of temples across Kerala.
Every time there is a violation of the rituals associated with the temple a “Punyaham” ( purification rite) is performed. This may vary from temple to temple based on the rituals followed there. Apart from this a “Devaprasnam” (a ritual carried out to interpret the will of the gods) is also done at a later time. For example, in Guruvayoor when children urinate, someone vomits, spits, blood is spilt, or non-Hindus enter a Punyaham is done. I have myself encountered one such instance where in the midst of a Darshan at Guruvayoor, the inner sanctum had to be closed for a few hours because a child had urinated in the temple premises. The duration of the Punyaham again varies as per the remedial measures that is required. Very recently the Padmanabhaswamy Temple was closed on suspicion that non-Hindus had entered.
So, what happens next at Sabarimala is the big question. While the Supreme Court has granted permission for women of all ages to enter Sabarimala, it still goes against the ritual of the temple owing to the nature of the deity there who is a “Naishtika Brahmachari”. As per this the deity requires that he doesn’t come under contact, in any way even visually with women aged between 10 to 50. However as per the verdict women can now climb the divine 18 steps and enter the shrine for the Darshan. But interestingly they simultaneously would also be violating the temple ritual. As per the practice this would then end up in the temple being closed for the Punyham. How and when would depend purely on the Tantri. Each time the rituals are violated this would have to be then repeated.
The Supreme Court, the state government, police or the Travancore Devaswom Board (temple administration) have no authority over the rituals that are done at the temple. The decision of the Tantri is held sacrosanct here and unless he decides otherwise the process of women entering and the subsequent closing of the temple for Punyaham will continue leading to an impasse. Owing to the tense political situation at Sabrimala, the Tantri Kandaru Rajeevaru who is currently in charge has refused to comment on this though. Probably because the last time he spoke about closing the temple, it had angered the government.
Women Ayyappa devotees in the age group of 10-50 have all these years not been visiting, out of respect for the deity at Sabarimala who is a Naishtika Brahmachari. Someone who clearly understands the tradition would still refrain from coming here. Those who have in fact come this year have been a handful of women from other states who have come in without knowing this or journalists and activists who have taken this up as a challenge. Regardless of their background though, the law now permits them inside the shrine unless the review and writ petitions to be heard on 22nd January stays this verdict.
To a non-believer or an Atheist these rituals may sound funny or absurd and they would even question the logic behind this exercise. This would however bring us back to the question “If you don’t believe in a deity or the rituals of the temple, why would you want to visit it in the first place?”.