Amid tight security, thousands of pilgrims offered prayers at the Lord Ayyappa shrine on Saturday, the first day of Malayalam month Vrischikom, even as a hartal against preventive detention of a right wing woman leader caught devotees unawares and disrupted life in Kerala.
The Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine, said it would move the Supreme Court on Monday seeking more time to implement the apex court order allowing women of all age groups to pray at the temple.
The temple had opened Friday evening for the two-month-long annual pilgrimage season as a stand-off continued over entry of menstrual age women into the shrine.
All regular pujas began on Saturday morning under the new Melshanti (chief priest) Vasudevan Nampoothiri's supervision.
Pilgrims, including children, queued up in large numbers since the temple opened at 3 am.
Police is maintaining strict vigil in and around the temple complex and are using drones to monitor the movement of pilgrims at Nilackal, the base camp.
Elsewhere, life was disrupted following the dawn-to-dusk shutdown called by Hindu outfits over the preventive detention of Hindu Aikya Vedi state president K P Sasikala early Saturday.
Though shops and hotels were functioning in and around Sabarimala, pilgrims coming from far-off areas were put to hardship as food joints and petrol pumps had downed shutters.
Director genral of police Loknath Behara met Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and briefed him about the law and order situation.
"Security arrangements are in place to ensure the safety of the devotees so that they can have a smooth darshan, keeping all rituals intact," IGP Vijay Sakhare said.
Besides, he said, Sabarimala was one among the five religious places in India which is under threat of terror attack. "We need to ensure the safety of the devotees coming here," he told PTI at the temple complex.
About the entry of young women, he said "The Supreme court has given a verdict.We will have to act accordingly."
On the large presence of police personnel, Pathnamthitta collector P B Nooh said "there are many khaki clad policemen around. That is for the safety and security of devotees.
Many are projecting Sabarimala as a 'war zone'. But everything is at peace here. All security arrangements are here for the safety of devotees," he asserted.
The temple complex and nearby areas had witnessed protests from devotees when it was opened for monthly pujas for eight days in October and early this month against the Left Democratic Alliance government's decision to implement the apex court verdict allowing women of all age groups to pray at the shrine.
Social activist Trupti Desai, who arrived at Kochi airport Friday en route to Sabarimala, was forced to return to Maharashtra following over 13-hour protests from devotees.
About 500-odd women in the 10-50 age group had booked for darshan through a police online portal. However, police sources were tightlipped when asked if any women had sought protection to offer prayers.
The Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine, said it would move the apex court Monday seeking more time to implement the apex court order.
"We will move the supreme court Monday through Advocate Chandra Uday Singh," TDB president A Padmakumar said.
State-owned and private buses and autorickshaws were off the roads in most parts of the state due to the hartal.
At various places, hartal supporters forcibly downed shutters of shops, prevented vehicles from plying, causing hardship to long distance travellersreaching railway and bus stations.
Sasikala was taken into preventive custody at 2.30 am Saturday after she allegedly defied directions not to spend the night near the temple complex.
Police had decided not to allow devotees enter the temple premises when it was closed for the night.
Sasikala, who was on a fast at the Ranni police station, protesting her detention, was later produced before the sub-divisional magistrate, who is also the Thiruvalla Revenue Divisonal officer, and granted bail.
She later told reporters that if her health permits, she wouldlike to go to Sabarimala.
Several of her supporters, held "nama japam" protest (chanting of Ayyappa mantras) in front of the police station and later at the RDO's office, protesting her detention.
Devaswom (temple administration) minister Kadakampally Surendran hit out at the Hindu outfits and the BJP, saying the hartal was a "proclamation of war" against Ayyappa pilgrims.
Normally during the pilgrimage season, Pathnamthitta district, where the temple is located and areas near the shrine, are exempted from such shutdowns. "No such consideration was given to the devotees this time," he said.
Slamming hartal supporters, Opposition leader in the state assembly, Ramesh Chennithala described it as "needless" and "unpardonable" and flayed BJP for extending support.
BJP president P S Sreedharan Pillai said the detention of Sasikala and others was "illegal".
As the shrine opened, thousands of pilgrims, mostly from neighbouring states, offered prayers. But later in the day, the usually crowded "nadapandal" (approach area to the shrine) was almost empty, probably due to the hartal.
On criticism regarding lack of basic infrastructure, including toilets, causing difficulties to pilgrims, the Pathanamthitta collector said there were some shortcomings due to the deluge in August, but now all facilities were in place.
The BJP, the Hindu Aikya Vedi and the Sabarimala Karma samithi took out a march to the DGP's office to protest the action against Sasikala.