Photo: Noah Seelam/AFP
Sabarimala is one of south India's most sought-after Hindu temples, attracting an estimated 50 million people who visit its resident deity, Lord Ayyappa, each year.
The number might have been far greater, but for a 1500-year-old rule that the temple has clung on to: women are not allowed inside the temple premises post-puberty, until they hit menopause.
Responding to a PIL filed by several female lawyers belonging to the Indian Young Women's Association based in New Delhi, the Supreme Court asked Sabarimala a few hard questions: Why weren't women between the ages of 10 to 50 allowed? Was this not depriving women the constitutional right to worship? Did the institution have a right to prohibit entry?
The Sabarimala Sannidhanam believes this is not the way to look at it. The temple has a history, which must first be understood.
The story goes like this. Ayyappa was born to Shiva and Mohini (a female avatar of Vishnu). He was sent down to earth as a baby to kill the demoness Mahishi (sister of Mahishasur).
The King of Pandalam, Rajasekhara, found baby Ayyappa under a tree while he was out hunting, and brought him home to his wife, who had always wanted a child. The parents were thrilled and Ayyappa grew up to be a brilliant young boy.
The queen eventually had her own son, whom she wanted to be made king instead of Ayyappa, who was the King's pet. So one day, she feigned sickness and asked 12-year-old Ayyappa to go to the forest and bring her tiger's milk, because it was the only cure for her illness.
Ayyappa went to the forest, killed Mahishi in a fierce battle en route, and came back to the kingdom riding on a tiger ready to be milked. King Rajasekhara and the rest of the kingdom realised he was no ordinary boy, but God himself. It is then that Ayyappa, having revealed his true identity and accomplished what he was born to do, left the earth.
The temple that stands today is believed to have been built by King Rajasekhara himself, in honour of the 12-year-old Ayyappa.
The notion that Ayyappa is a 'brahmachari', an eternal celibate, who should stay away from women, is a prevalent one.
"The argument that Ayyappa's celibacy should not be threatened by allowing women devotees of a certain age is ridiculous," says Uma Shankar, professor of philosophy at Mumbai University. "How is my age a criteria for my devotion? If the concept of bhakti is supposed to cut across caste, class, language, why can't it cut across gender of all age groups?.A woman is repeatedly mentioned as a symbol of allurement and temptation, throughout many Hindu texts."
Many saints, such as Ramakrishna Paramhansa, have openly told their male devotees to beware of 'women and gold', or kamini and kanchanam. These were defined as the two biggest traps, not just for a spiritual aspirant, but for a Hindu God too. (Remember Indra, the rain god, on various mythological TV dramas? He was always seducing apsaras, drinking too much, getting embroiled in petty politics and embarrassing the Devas.)
If our gods were portrayed as weak enough to not be able to resist their latent urges, how do we expect Indian men to not molest women on the streets?
Added to that are vedic scriptures which proclaim that a woman need not aspire for spiritual progress through any arduous physical or mental efforts. Her assisting her husband in puja by being a true pativrata or being devoted to her husband alone is sufficient for salvation.
That Ayyappa, a 12-year-old celibate, might be distracted by female devotees thronging his gates, or that female devotees need not embark on such tough journeys, are both obnoxious, unintelligent arguments to make in 2016.
Murali Lakshmi Narayanan is a PR officer with the Sabarimala Sannidhanam. He says: "The reason we don't allow women is that they are unable to follow the 41 days fast that needs to be kept before undertaking the pilgrimage."
When women usually have their monthly menstrual cycle within 30 days, they are considered impure in the Hindu religion. This means the fast is broken before 41 days. Of course, it is worth asking the temple authorities about the candidacy of women blessed with a severe case of polycystic ovaries, delaying their periods by several weeks and months at times.
But Narayanan is in no mood for jokes. He puts it quite bluntly that the belief of the present state government in Ayyappa will determine how it responds to the Supreme Court.
"The top government official in charge of the temple is the commissioner, who is a political appointee by the ruling government. When the Left was ruling, they were non-believers, so they wanted women of all ages to be given the right to enter the Sannidhanam. But the present Congress government is a believer, and will abide by the traditions of the temple. It won't be so easy to change an age-old tradition that is accepted by all," says Narayanan.
Narayanan's statement captures the mood not only within the temple, but of Kerala's Brahmin community, which will shape the temple's stance.
Karimpuzha Raman, state president, of the Kerala Brahmana Sabha is very clear that an age old custom and ritual cannot be suddenly broken by civil law. "If this goes through, it is bound to create communal disharmony," he told Catch.
"Courts should ascertain the pros and cons before loosely making a statement. This is not the time for observation. It should respect the belief of the temple and the people, which stems from the Adhama Shastra, written by the Gods," he added.
Feminist historian Vijaya Ramaswamy, who is also the chairperson of the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, says women don't necessarily have to prove a point by visiting Sabarimala.
"Just as you can overtake from the right in certain countries and from the left in others, similarly, I feel there are certain institutional rules that must be respected. There cannot be a universality of rules. Women should be pilots, engineers and all that they want to. But the Sabarimala temple has had a certain tradition which they must respect," Ramaswamy said.
Ramaswamy also feels that this is no place for the Supreme Court to intervene. "Whatever has to be done has to be with the compliance of the temple authorities. This cannot be enforced top down. These things must be carefully negotiated with the institution, and perhaps, over time," she added.
But if the Hindu religion has evolved itself over time, banning practises such as Sati or allowing Dalits into temples, why can't it do the same once more?
"The Hindu religion has taken great pride in its ability to debate, introspect and reform itself. The Sabarimala PIL definitely presents one such opportunity," says Uma Shankar.
But do the people and, particularly, women who are Sabarimala devotees, really want it?
I was 6 years old when I watched my father embark on a journey to Sabarimala. An already devout Hindu, I watched him transform into a more austere devotee, abiding by the strict rules of the vrutham (fasting) ahead of the pilgrimage.
That meant no smoking or drinking, and eating a vegetarian diet prepared without onions and garlic. He also had to embrace a jet black veshti (lungi) and the smearing of vibhuti across his forehead and forearms during his evening prayers.
He had to abandon shaving, wearing footwear, and could only sleep on the floor. But it wasn't just that. It was also a vow to remain 'pure' for 41 days, which meant not touching my mother or me, even by mistake.
The journey itself had to be made barefoot. Upon crossing the river Pampa, it entailed walking a thorny forest path up the Sabarimala hill for 5 hours, all the while chanting "Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa", and finally reaching the 18 holy steps (pathinettampadi), which he climbed with great reverence, to reach Lord Ayyappa.
My mother had vowed that she would visit Sabarimala once in her life if my father quit smoking. He did. When she had her menopause, this was one of the things that cheered her most - that she would be 'allowed' into the temple.
She was 62 when she made the trip with her two sisters, aged 64 and 60. It was an arduous journey, especially at their age. I watched them pack strips of painkillers, which they would pop ahead of the journey. When she got back, she was fatigued for days, but deeply grateful.
That's the point - women devotees of Sabarimala don't seem to mind abiding by this rule.
"The fact that most women devotees of Sabarimala would themselves never argue and ask for this right to go to the temple at an earlier age is a sign of complete subservience," says Shankar.
And unless that changes, a PIL filed by a few privileged women lawyers might not be reason enough to instigate a revolution.
The next date of hearing is 8 February. In the meantime, will the real Lord Ayyappa please stand up?