Kerala is in turmoil after two women, Bindu and Kanakadurga, in the reproductive age group, defiantly visited the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala earlier this week allegedly breaking an age-old taboo.

Hindutva outfits under the umbrella organization “Sabarimala Action Council” shut down the State on Thursday with a call for a dawn to dusk hartal.

The State Congress also joined the protests and announced that it is observing Thursday as a “Black Day”, leaving the CPI(M) led government hold the fort against a mounting conservative offensive.

Even as BJP worker died in the stir, the temple was closed for “purification” rituals.

The on-going agitations for and against the entry of women of reproductive age into the Ayyappa temple are due to two factors: (1) a long-standing dispute over “tradition” (2) a contemporary need to gather voter support for the April 2019 Indian parliamentary elections in Kerala.

To take the second first, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is fully and conspicuously behind the movement to retain the “tradition” of not allowing women of reproductive age (10 to 50 years) to enter the 800-year old temple.

In the April 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP got no seat in Kerala. But in the 2016 State Assembly elections, it got one. With sizeable Muslim and Christian populations jockeying for power with the Hindu majority in Kerala, the BJP is hoping to increase its footprint using the temple entry issue as a plank.

The BJP has activated all traditional “Hindutva” and caste-based organizations to defend “tradition” at the temple, which is arguably the most famous shrine in Kerala attracting devotees from all over South India.

The Sabarimala Karma Samithi (SKS) had called for a 12-hour hartal (general shut down) on Thursday, January 3. The Antharashtriya Hindu Parishad had also called for a hartal on the same day. The Nair Service Society (NSS), an outfit of Kerala's powerful Nair community, condemned the violation of Sabarimala's “centuries-old tradition” and said it would continue its legal battle to protect the faith of Ayyappa devotees.

The Indian Supreme Court, which on September 28 ,2018, struck down a 1965 Kerala law on restricting entry into temples, is to take up the NSS’ review petition on January 22 this year.

The opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress is vying with the BJP to get the Hindu vote. Unlike the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), the UDF plays communal politics when it is expedient. Therefore, the UDF has been part of the “ban women” movement to pander to the conservative sections of Kerala society.

In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the UDF got 12 out of the 20 parliamentary seats in Kerala and would like to retain the lead. In the 2016 State Assembly elections, however, it got only 47 seats as against 91 bagged by the LDF. Thus the UDF has to work hard to beat the LDF, and the temple issue has come in handy.

As far as “tradition” goes, there are different and clashing views on it. While the powers-that-be at the shrine insist that there has been a ban on women of reproductive age (10 to 50 years) ever since the temple was established eight centuries ago, others, including scholars, say that women of this age group had been visiting the temple till Kerala passed a law against in 1991.

The traditionalists say that Lord Ayyappa is a celibate and that his celibacy has to be protected from women of the reproductive age group. Others say that he is gender neutral as he was born of the union of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu in the form of Mohini, a seductress and that gender should not be an issue with him.

But the current argument is between the need to maintain the sanctity of a hoary tradition and the need to enforce a constitutional right to gender equality. The conflict is between traditional religious rights and the unconstitutionality of the barring of entry on the basis of gender.

Although the issue of women entering the Ayyappa shrine is an old one beginning in 1950, the present agitation for and against the ban was triggered by an Indian Supreme Court judgment in 2018, which declared the ban on women as a violation of the constitutional right to equality.

According to some accounts, in the past, women were barred only on three occasions in a year. Others say that they could go up to a point but not the sanctum sanctorum. They are only forbidden to take the most holy 18 steps towards the sanctum sanctorum. But Malayalam writer N.S.Madhavan says that as recently as 1986, a dance sequence with actress Jayashree was shot on the 18 steps for the Tamil film Nambinal Keduvadhillai.

It is pointed out that the State government officially banned women’s entry only in 1991 under a 1965 temple entry restriction law. But it is asserted that even after the official ban, women have been visiting unofficially, till September 28 last year when the Supreme Court unleashed a reactionary movement by declaring the ban on women as a violation of the Indian constitution.

According to historian A. Sreedhara Menon, there was no bar on entry of women till 1950 and that it was imposed due to the Hinduization of the Ayyappa temple and the Ayyappa cult.

Menon points out that the Ayyappa cult has more to do with Buddhism than with Brahmanical Hinduism with its casteism and exclusivism. Also, unlike Brahminical Hinduism, the Ayyappa cult demands abstemiousness.

“Ayyappa devotees strictly follow non-violence, vegetarianism and abstention from sex during the two months before the pilgrimage. It resembles the Ahimsa principles practiced by Buddhists”, Menon is quoted as saying in a recent published article.

M. Sreekala Nair writes in Introduction to Kerala Studies that Ayyappa is a representation of the Nilakantha Avalokiteswara depicted in the Buddhist Puranas.

Unlike Brahminical Hinduism, the Ayyappa cult is non-discriminatory and syncretic. Ayyappa devotees visit a shrine for a Muslim devotee of his called Vavar (or Babar), en route to the Ayyappa shrine. Devotees also visit a church to return their malas (string of beads) which they had worn for the sake of Lord Ayyappa it is pointed out.

The “Hinduisation” of the ancient and indigenous Ayyappa cult began in 1950 when a major fire damaged the temple. The Hindu Mahamandal called for a hartal (strike), and a ceremony to re-install the idol and purify the temple was conducted on June 25, 1950. Under the leadership of Akhila Bhartha Ayyappa Seva Sangam, an ‘Ayyappa Jyothi’ was ceremonially taken around Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Later, restriction on the entry of women was enforced, albeit, fitfully and imperfectly, under Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965.

However, all indications are that court or no court, government rules or no government rules, the controversy and agitation politics over women’s entry into the Ayyappa temple will be active and will only intensify till the April 2019 parliamentary elections in Kerala.