Sabarimala temple opens amid protests

Sabarimala temple opens amid protests
Sabarimala: Devotees throng the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala on Nov 24, 2017. (Photo: IANS)

Sabarimala The Sabarimala temple on Monday opened at 5 p.m. for a one-day special pilgrimage amid tight security.

The temple will close at 10 p.m., and then reopen Tuesday morning before finally closing at 10 p.m.

According to figures till 4.15 p.m., 5,540 pilgrims had taken the pathway to the temple hilltop, compared with less than 1,000 devotees the same day last year.

The famed temple had witnessed massive protests against the September 28 Supreme Court verdict allowing hitherto banned age group of girls and women to enter the Lord Ayyappa shrine. On Monday, many devotees complained and shouted slogans as the police stopped them for checking in the morning.

At 8 a.m., the police opened the barricade and started allowing devotees to walk to Pamba — the base town of the temple. Hundreds of pilgrims at Nilackal and Erumely were seen arguing as they faced repeated obstacles from the police for advancing.

What irked them the most was the policemen’s insistence to check their identity proofs and the need to answer several questions as they tried to reach the sanctum sanctorum that would close at 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

At Erumely, all pilgrim vehicles were stopped. The devotees protested and shouted Lord Ayyappa slogans as they arrived at a bus depot of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), demanding transport to proceed to the hilltop shrine.

“We have been asked to wait since last (Sunday) night. We are all on a pilgrimage and we have no other intention. We are not particular that our vehicles should be allowed. The KSRTC should then operate the buses to take us forward,” said an angry devotee, as others echoed his demand.

Following the growing number of protesters, the police have agreed to allow private vehicles from Erumely till Nilackal.

Vishnu Das, 70, was angry at the way the police were managing the pilgrims’ progress. He said it was the first time in his 56 years of visit to the shrine that he has been put to such difficulties.

“The police are out to create trouble and the scene here is as if it’s a battleground. The police is very intimidating. Till last year, there were no issues at all.

The visit to Sabarimala is supposed to bring solace, but this time everything has changed,” said Das, as he walked towards Pamba.

The arrangements at the temple town are such that all pilgrims arriving by their vehicles have to get down at Nilackal and then take a KSRTC bus to Pamba, about 20 kilometres, and then start the trek to the temple, situated on a hilltop.

Sreekumar Varma of the Pandalam Royal family, the custodian of the jewellery of the Sabarimala temple, said he was hurt by the way things have unfolded.

“All along it has been a peaceful pilgrimage to Sabarimala. But today the temple has been turned into a ‘police station’. It pains us all,” said Varma.

Senior BJP leaders M.T. Ramesh and K. Surendran were spotted at the temple top and both of them said they are there as pilgrims.

“Our only request to the temple authorities is that the pilgrims should be given facilities, and we seek nothing else,” said Surendran.

The temple town is witnessing one of its most stringent security arrangements. There were more than 2,300 police officials posted at various points up the pilgrimage path after the state took over the shrine’s security on Saturday.

Several metal detectors have been kept at a various points and crowd combating arrangements are also in place. The media was allowed to go up the pathway at 9.15 a.m.

The Kerala government has announced it would implement the apex court’s ruling, pitting it against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and numerous Hindu groups which have been up in arms against the verdict.

Meanwhile, the Kerala Police on Monday installed mobile jammers near the Sabarimala temple to prevent the tantri and other shrine officials from interacting with the media and to dissuade live visuals.

From October 17 to 22, when the temple was open for the monthly puja, the temple tantri and officials said they would close the shrine if any female devotee in the 10-50 age group tried to enter the sanctum sanctorum, as it was against the temple tradition.

In a related development, BJP state president P.S. Sreedharan Pillai’s speech at a meeting of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha was played up by the ruling CPI-M and the Congress party, in which he was seen saying that when the temple tantri called him, he advised that if any lady (in the 10-50 age) tried to enter the temple, it’s best to shut the temple.

“Yes, I gave my advice, which I am entitled to as I am an advocate. Leaders of various political parties contact me and I have given legal advice,” Pillai told reporters.