Sabarimala through the ages

The focus needs to shift from the entry of women to ecological destruction of the Western Ghats

Public opinion on the question of women’s entry into Sabarimala is polarised. While some cite “age-old traditions” to explain why women aged 10 to 50 should not enter the temple, others believe that such a practice discriminates against women. Sensing the unrest in the State following the Supreme Court judgment, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress plunged into the protests against the verdict, led by the Nair Service Society. Though opposed to each other on all other issues, the two virtually became one as they fished in troubled waters. They exposed themselves as they shamelessly defended upper-caste beliefs in purity and pollution, and gender discrimination. They also seek to destroy the secular character of Sabarimala. It is believed that Lord Ayyappa had a close friend, a Muslim called Vavar, or Vavaraswami. In fact, a stopover at the Vavar mosque is an essential part of the Sabarimala pilgrimage. Many devotees also visit the Arthunkal church during their pilgrimage. That the mosque and temple coexist in Sabarimala shows the spirit of unity that these political parties, as well as upper castes through their belief in purity and pollution and exclusion, are trying to destroy.

On the other hand, the government and public intellectuals have sought to recall history to understand and implement the Supreme Court verdict and emphasise the progressive character of the temple. Amidst debates on fundamental rights and the need to preserve tradition, what is being ignored is the important fact that Sabarimala falls in a fragile region of the Western Ghats. A portion of forest land in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, a hotspot of biodiversity, was allotted to the Travancore Devaswom Board in 2012 so that the Board could implement its Sabarimala development plan. The Board, on the pretext of meeting the needs of the pilgrims, has been pushing for urban development in the core of the tiger reserve, paying little attention to environmental regulations. Land has been auctioned to hotels, shops and guesthouses.

This violates not only the Kerala Forest Act of 1961, the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, but also a series of verdicts, including by the Supreme Court. Further, construction of permanent buildings in leased forestland violates the rules between the government and the Travancore Devaswom Board. Of the total land leased, 14.6% is privatised for the use of 9.5% of the total pilgrims, and 3.4% is extremely privatised for the use of only 0.1%. This is injustice. That the Travancore Devaswom Board is destroying the ecology of the Western Ghats under the pretext of pilgrim welfare is unfortunate and this issue is what awaits meaningful protests.

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