The Sabarimala temple in Kerala opened on Friday for the two-month-long pilgrimage season amid a tense standoff involving social activist Trupti Desai in Kochi and a move by its administrator to seek time from the Supreme Court to implement its verdict allowing entry of women in menstrual age to the hilltop shrine.
In what is seen as a climbdown by the Left Democratic Front government, the decision by the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the hill shrine, to approach the court in a bid to prevent a repeat of violent protests from Ayyappa devotees and right wing activists was announced by its President A Padmakumar in Pamba, minutes after the temple doors were opened at 5 pm.
TDB is a statutory body under the Kerala government,
The temple and the surrounding areas came under unprecedented security for the season which draws lakhs of devotees from various parts of the country. A 20-member commando force also stood guard at the shrine.
Pathnamthitta District Collector P B Nooh said no woman in the 10-50 age group has so far approached the local administration seeking protection to visit Sabarimala.
This is the third time the temple is opening after the court verdict, though no girl or woman in the previously banned age group could offer prayers so far following stiff resistance by devotees and activists, opposing any change in the temple traditions. The apex court on September 28 lifted the age-old ban on entry of girls and women in the 10-50 age group.
Desai, a Pune-based activist, and six of her young women colleagues were prevented from leaving the Kochi airport for over 11 hours since their arrival early this morning by devotees opposing entry of women in the 10-50 age group to the shrine, about 120 km away.
A leader of the Bhumata Brigade, Desai vowed to offer prayers at the temple and sought the help of the state government and police to proceed to the shrine. But the police asked her to return.
Desai said she was returning but vowed to come again without giving any advance information.
The announcement on the TDB's move came amid mounting tension in the backdrop of the stand-off over protests by devotees against entry of the women in 10-50 age group to the shrine dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, a celibate.
"If possible, we will move a petition in the Supreme Court either tomorrow or Monday," Padmakumar said, adding the board wanted devotees to have a peaceful darshan.
The decision comes a day after the state government took a firm stand at an all-party meeting that it was bound to implement the apex court order and rejected suggestions by opposition parties that it seek time from the court.
The apex court earlier refused to stay its verdict and is slated to hear petitions seeking a review on January 22.
A never before restrictions were enforced for the devotees in view of the frenzied protests witnessed when the shrine opened briefly last month and early this month when at least a dozen women in the 10-50 age group were prevented from entering the shrine.
As the shrine opened at 5 pm in the presence of head priest Kandararu Rajeevaru, the large number of devotees present there chanted Swamiyae Ayyappa.
Braving chill weather, devotees carrying the irumedikettu (bundle carrying sacred offerings) rushed to climb the 18 holy steps leading to the Sannidhanam (main temple complex) as soon as the shrine opened.
Long queues of waiting devotees were seen on the hills.
The annual pilgrim season is observed in two phases, with the 41-day 'mandala puja' festival concluding on December 27.
It would reopen for the grand 'Makaravilakku' festival on December 30 and close on January 20, marking the culmination of the pilgrim season.
At the airport in Nedumbassery near Kochi, devotees, including women, whose numbers have grown since morning, squatted outside the domestic terminal building chanting 'Swamiyae Ayyappa' to block Desai's exit.
Rahul Easwar, President of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, spearheading the protest against the entry of women in 10-50 age group, said the devotees would "guard" Sabarimala against the entry of the women during the pilgrim season.
Leader of the opposition in the state assembly Ramesh Chennithala attacked the state government and the TDB for making inadequate facilities for the devotees who would be visiting the shrine during the pilgrim season.
Devaswom Minister, Kadakampally Surendran, however, said the government had done everything that was humanly possible at Pamba and nearby areas after the August floods which destroyed the infrastructure.
Pilgrims, however, said there was lack of adequate toilet facilities, causing immense difficulties especially to women, and rest rooms. Drinking water shortage only compounds the woes of pilgrims who visit the shrine.
Over 15,000 police personnel will be deployed in phases, besides a 20-member commando force, a special bomb squad with 234 personnel would keep vigil at the shrine and nearby areas, police said.
IGP Vijay Sakhare asked police personnel to strictly follow the dress code at Sabarimala, while exemption has been given to cops at the holy 18 steps and the sanctum sanctorum.
Police have decided not to permit pilgrims to stay back at the shrine after 10 pm.
Though there were reports that shopkeepers, hotels and 'prasadam' counters had been asked to down their shutters after the shrine closes, police later clarified no such direction had been issued.