The shrine of Lord Ayyappa, Sabarimala Temple, is located atop a hill 3000 meters above sea level and is surrounded by mountains and dense forests, at Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. Unlike other Hindu temples around the country, Sabarimala temple is not open to the devotees the year-round but only for the first five days of every month in the Malayalam calendar. Apart from these days, it also remains open during the annual ‘mandalam’ and ‘makaravilakku’ festivals between mid-November to mid-January. Although there is no clear evidence as to when the Sabarimala pilgrimage began, many believe that in 1821 AD, the kingdom of Pandalam was added to Travancore, and the idol was erected in 1910.
Everyone who has heard about the Sabarimala Temple knows that women were not allowed to enter the temple, and it always had me thinking “Who placed the restrictions on women entering the temple and why only women?” And my mother told me that it was Ayappa himself. The story behind this is that Ayappa was celibate so he could focus on answering the prayers of his devotees. And he had said that he would remain celibate till the day first-time devotees stopped coming to Sabarimala.
On 17 October 2018, the Hindu shrine opened its gates for the first time since 28 September, after the Supreme Court struck down on the rule that banned the entry of women of menstruating age. The judged ruled the ban as discriminatory and, therefore, unconstitutional. And if you were to think that the decision would be welcomed with open arms, you should know that it triggered a public outcry in Kerela – not just amongst men but women too – with some female devotees saying it was important we follow religious traditions than be led astray by notions of gender equality.
You would think that Sabarimala is the only place of worship that has restrictions on women entering. Well, many mosques and temples have placed a full or partial ban on women, non-adherents, foreigners, and the improperly dressed from entering.
As a woman myself, I find it appalling that menstruation which is a natural thing is considered a negative experience, and not just by men but by women too. I understand that men would find it awkward to talk about menstruation but you’ll be surprised to know that women find it uncomfortable too. I mean shouldn’t women stand together at times like these. We have been told our entire life that when we’re menstruating, we aren’t supposed to enter a temple or wash our hair on the first day. Because of what has been passed on for generations, many women have started believing that they are unclean when they are on their period so they have to stay away from places of worship. Shouldn’t we question the superstitions that have been engraved in our minds since our childhood?
It is high time we begin to understand that these practices are not only a violation of human rights but also regressive. We will not be able to create a world which supports gender equality till the time women are being treated as impure for going through a biological process. Let us know through your comments what you think about the step taken towards allowing women to enter Sabarimala Temple. And is this the step in the right direction or are we still going to end up right where we began?