Regardless of the Supreme Court directive and Kerala Government’s willingness, the furore over the entry of menstruating women in Sabarimala continues, even in COVID times
It's the Sabarimala pilgrimage time these days though in the COVID-19 year of 2020. COVID or no COVID, the pilgrimage has a constancy. Call it what you will. It's the 'period'. It's the 'curse'. Half of the humankind among Hindu believers is stuck with it — normally for one week every month (this time only for a few days) for well nigh 40 years for the fair half of them. Women having periods are simply barred. No running away from it. The mother of mankind is biologically stuck with it. A humongous inconvenience. But lots of them have to bear it.
Sabarimala in Kerala is home to the Ayyappa Temple where worshippers gather every year for a pilgrimage but where entry is barred to women between the ages of 10 and 50 on the ground that they are unclean during the week of their monthly periods. That is the kernel of the ban, though the issue has been wrapped and camouflaged in myriad other spiritual, intellectual, holy, and even in party political myths.
There are several other temples devoted to Lord Ayyappa but Sabarimala is unique in its mythology. The deity or godhead here has a special character — 'Naishtika Brahmachari' (everlasting or perpetual celibate). It includes an exclusive and unique insistence on a 41-day 'Vratham' or self-denial or austerity ritual before a worshipper embarks on the pilgrimage. It is said that the austerity measure applied even to Lord Ayyappa himself.
There is no similar insistence in such a stringent form of celibacy as a pre-condition in scores of other temples devoted to Lord Ayyappa. There is no such restriction on the entry of women to other Ayyappa temples. They are open to all comers. Only Sabarimala has its exclusive brand of celibacy pre-condition.
In recent years, the issue has acquired a political, even communal, colour. The State's ruling CPI(M) — Communist Party of India(Marxist) — would like to open the Sabarimala Temple to all as a matter of equality of all worshippers, overriding the 'periods' ban as periods are manageable and not unclean in modern times. The Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, whose current term of office started in May 2016, has said that his party (LDF — Left Democratic Front) has always stood for gender equality and therefore will provide facilities and protection for women pilgrims to Sabarimala. A Supreme Court judgment upheld the LDF
view allowing all women to visit the temple. But most visitors seem to follow the old traditional ban, some prevented by fear or obstacles and hurdles.
The opposition BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) — a comparatively minor opposition player in Kerala where it has never won a majority in over 70 years since Independence, has accused the CPI(M) of greed for collection of temple offerings or funds. But the BJP has a much greater all-India voice as it has been the ruling party in India since 2014 and for another six years earlier under PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The BJP projects itself as the voice of the country as a whole and rejects Communist Party's intervention in religious, temple affairs. The Communists interpret the BJP stand as not just regressive, status quoist but pandering to backward, communal politics, supporting an untenable 'period' ethos in today's modern, medical era.
Diehard defenders of the legend believe, what others regard as taboo, that menstruation is impure (thereby making women of menstruating age from about ten to fifty 'impure' ), and that it is a sin to visit a Hindu god while they are impure. What's worse is that the issue has fallen into the hands of demagogues and peddlers of prejudices of some of the lowest kind parading themselves as temple priests and preachers.
The choice is yours, the holy worshipper. Take what you will.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of ' India and Britannia — an abiding affair' and other writings. Views expressed are personal