Two women, who trekked 5 km towards the Shabarimala temple with 300 policemen in riot gear escorting them had to turn back after the temple priests threatened the rituals will be stopped if they entered the shrine of Lord Ayyappa nestled in the Western Ghats.
The women, including a journalist, were 500 metres from the 18 steps the golden steps that lead to the sanctum sanctorum of the famous shrine where no woman between 10 and 50 years has been allowed for centuries, when they decided to turn back.
On these steps sat about a dozen priests today, chanting and clapping, apparently to stop the women if they did make it through the last half km.
Last month, the Supreme Court overturned the ban on women of menstruating age entering the temple of Lord Ayyappa. But in the three days that Shabarimala has been open for the first time since the landmark order, no woman below 50 has made it to the shrine.
“I believe I’ve come here to enforce the Supreme Court order. Those women have the right to visit the temple,” said S Sreejith, the Inspector General of Police leading the police escort with the women. “I am also an Ayyappa devotee,” he told protesting devotees.
But his historic mission seemed to get progressively more challenging as the minister in charge of the Devaswom Board, which runs the temple, described the women as activists not devotees.
Devaswom Board minister Kadakampally Surendran told any genuine devotee who wants to go up will be given protection. “But we will not allow activists to turn Sabarimala into a place to prove themselves,” Mr Surendran said.
Kavitha Jakkal, a journalist with Mojo TV from Hyderabad, started the climb in riot gear and a yellow helmet, ring-fenced from protesters by policemen.
The other woman, wearing black clothes and carrying the traditional prayer kit irumudikkettu offered to Lord Ayyappa, walked separately.
Both started the 4.6-km climb from the base camp Pamba.
Protests by devotees in the last two days to block women from entering the temple led to violence and clashes at the base camps of Nilakkal and Pamba. Reporters were attacked, their vehicles damaged, and women who started the long climb forced to turn back amid threats and intimidation.
On Thursday morning, two journalists of the New York Times who tried to reach the temple had to return after protesters blocked their way.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has said no one would be allowed to stop women from going to Shabarimala.>