Why Sabarimala Matters To Me And Why The Courts Should Keep Out
Learned judges, tread softly for you tread on my faith.
The landmark Supreme Court case about the entry of women of reproductive age has brought Sabarimala national attention. But for someone like me, a middle class Hindu growing up in Kerala, Sabarimala was the stuff of legend. Today we can watch the Makara Jyoti appearing on TV, and that reduces the mystique: it was much more thrilling to hear about it from our elders, in the dim, dancing light of a hurricane lamp after dinner.
We children listened, breathless. Swami Ayyappan was a palpable, living deity, and we railed at the wicked queen who sent him, a foundling, on an errand to bring back the milk of a tigress. Ayyappan was as real to us as the battle scenes in the Mahabharata, which Grandfather would describe in detail.
The pilgrimage was indeed different fifty years ago. My uncle walked all the way from our village to the temple: a distance of over 100 km, with the full 41-day vratam penance. He did it as a young man, and they had taken the long and difficult Erumeli route, and done the petta thullal, the wild dance (perhaps fueled by a touch of bhang) that the guru-swamis indulged in.
Some men in those days set up a small hut, a parnasala, in the yard and slept there, and they all observed the vratam with great care. Bearded men, dressed in black, all just swami to each other as soon as they wore the mala. You were transformed: no upper class, no lower class, no jati difference, a truly democratic and egalitarian group of pilgrims.
There’s something remarkable about the fellow-feeling of being a swami: the black clothes of renunciation and the untrimmed beards are a uniform, making you less individualistic and more a part of a group -- much like the shaven heads of Buddhist monks or the close-cropped hair of soldiers -- and reducing their ego and allowing them to focus on the pilgrimage itself.
Then, as now, there was no question among young women as to whether they would participate in the pilgrimage. The very idea of men segregating themselves in their huts was for them to concentrate on the spiritual, away from the temporal. In reverse, it was a relief for the women to have the menfolk away for a while, especially doing something good. There was also the fear factor: if they broke the taboos on drinking, eating meat, or having sex, wild animals would attack.
And that was no idle threat. The trek was through potentially perilous forest. I first went to Sabarimala as a teenager in June, away from the three-month year-end pilgrimage season. For a long time, the temple was closed except in the October-December/January time frame which sees the rush of pilgrims. Then they gradually began opening it for five days at the beginning of every Malayalam month. That’s when I went, with an uncle of mine. If I am not mistaken, even then there were no permanent structures at the summit of the hill, where the temple stands. A few shops were open. Things are different now: there are many concrete buildings there, used year-round.
We arrived at the base camp, Pamba, and then uncle suggested that we climb up the hill separately. So I began my trek. The path was pretty clear, its ten-foot width marked into the earth by many feet keeping the luxuriant tropical forest at bay, and with, here and there in the steepest sections, stone steps obviously built with a lot of effort.
I walked alone up the hill, bare-chested, clad in a black dhoti, with my sling bag. It was quiet, except for the occasional screech and a flurry of scarlet from a parakeet. I also saw a couple of rhesus monkeys. But there were no people on the trail. During my three-hour-long, four kilometer trek up the steep hill, I must have encountered at most half a dozen people coming down the other way. It is a physically taxing walk even today, even the shortened Pamba route rather than the much longer Erumeli route that takes days.
In effect, I had the entire hillside to myself. It was a bit eerie for a city type like me. The dense forest was quiet, but it was sinister in a way. And I could well believe there were wild animals in the bush -- elephants in particular, and tigers, it was rumored, especially based on the legend of Ayyappan and the tigress -- although I didn’t see any.
I walked alone, past the landmarks: like the saram-kutthi aal, the banyan tree with the arrows stuck on it by every first-time pilgrim, and added mine to it. I had on my head the iru-mudi, the two-compartment bag every pilgrim carries, with the ceremonial coconuts filled with ghee, and other puja materials. I was barefoot, as prescribed, and the stones hurt my feet. The trail was extremely steep in places, and it was exhausting. There were leeches, as it was the rainy season, and I kept periodic watch on my bare legs to see if any had attached themselves to me. I was armed with lime-paste to apply to them: which would cause them to loosen their grip.
And I was alone. Over the years, I have gone five times, including once during the season, and the sea of hirsute, black-or-blue-clad pilgrims has become a veritable ocean. These days it is not even possible to imagine being alone on the Ayyappa pilgrimage. But I was alone then, and I did not realise till later how much of a blessing it was: I was able to concentrate on my thoughts, and the anticipation of seeing the Lord Ayyappan in his abode.
Finally, I reached the sannidhanam, the summit. There were dozens of people there, maybe even a hundred. After the customary obeisance to the Eighteen Steps, I was finally in the presence of the deity, standing outside the surprisingly tiny sanctum sanctorum. In those halcyon days, I could spend as long as I wanted standing there: there were no crowds sweeping me away.
Maybe it was the anticipation of years, or maybe the exhaustion from the trek, but at that moment, I felt something I had never felt ever before or after. I stood, eyes closed, in front of the murti, and I could see a doorway opening in the heavens. I knew an indescribable bliss; and I knew that I might never feel it again. I wished I could die in that moment, so I could live in that bliss forever. If I could have stopped time, that was the instant I would have wished it to stop.
The feeling passed, but I have never forgotten. This god of my ancestors had given me a glimpse of the Absolute, and every day I thank him for it.
Years later, I went again, but it was not the same. Even in the off-season, the crowds are huge. You cannot spend more than an instant in front of the sanctum. As the pilgrimage has become immensely popular, and the masses of South India have begun to arrive in large numbers, it has become a phenomenon; but the authorities have literally spent almost nothing to ensure their well-being, content to take their money and divert it to the state treasury. The conditions are miserable; the waits many hours long; the area is surrounded by human waste and feral pigs rooting in them. This, now the among the largest annual gathering of humans in the world, is an experience that only a true believer can appreciate. Yet they come, the masses from Tamil and Telugu lands and Karnataka, the bearded pilgrims in their millions.
And it has begun to attract the wrong kind of attention. In the 1950s, a potential land-grabber tried to burn the temple down. The then-Chief Minister, a Congressman said: “Oh good, one more citadel of superstition is down”. In the 1980s, Christians suddenly ‘discovered’ a ‘2000-year-old’ wooden cross in the vicinity, and demanded that a church be built there. And now, a group of petitioners who are not, repeat not, devotees has brought a Public Interest Litigation intended to change the rites of the temple, citing gender discrimination and urging that women aged 10-50 must also be allowed to participate in the pilgrimage.
Some facts have been overlooked in all the sound and fury about the prohibition against women of reproductive age. From a superficial perspective, it appears as though it’s a ‘boys’ club’ of some kind, with males simply keeping women out for no good reason other than male privilege. In reality, there are more subtle reasons. It is a difficult and dangerous pilgrimage, or at least it was in earlier days. Walking through dense forest could potentially lead to encounters with wild animals, and then the whole issue of men needing to ‘protect’ womenfolk comes into the picture. Admittedly, it is true that you have to protect little girls or old women who travel with you, too.
Certainly there is the practical consideration that during the 41-day vratham a woman may have one or even two periods. It’s not that menstruation is somehow ‘dirty’. In Hindu tradition, women are considered particularly powerful during their periods and are treated with care and respect and spared taxing work. There may be a scientific reason: menstrual blood is full of pluripotent stem cells. There are several temples where the Goddess has ‘periods’.
Anyway, at least my experience has been that Indian women tend not to be queasy about their periods, and talk casually about them as a perfectly normal, healthy thing (“my chums”, some of them say). This is in sharp contrast with some women in the West, who act as though menstruation were some terrible shame and will go to great lengths to hide it especially from men. No, it is not that menstruation is somehow ‘dirty’. If Indian men today think it is, then that is the result of indoctrination in Abrahamic memes.
There are other reasons too. One is the peculiar dynamic that prevails when young men and women are in close quarters. The natural mating instinct of young people goes into high gear, and men do stupid things to ‘impress’ the women, including preening displays and combat, exactly like male animals do in the mating season. And women do all sorts of things to attract the attention of men, like female animals in heat. All this is not conducive to the spiritual.
This is one reason why armies all over the world have tended to be single-sex, as romantic jealousies and revenge are not good for troop morale (I say this while acknowledging that the male fighters of Sparta, for instance, were often lovers. Well, it proves my point: what happened to Sparta over time? True, there are many reasons, but it’s not a good counterpoint to my argument). What’s not good for armies is not good for pilgrims either, I could argue: the focus on brahmacharya and the spiritual will be lost.
Hindu women in Kerala, especially devotees of Ayyappa, understand this, and there is no groundswell of support for the lawsuit. The group of women who assembled under the hashtag #ReadytoWait found the vast majority of Hindu women in Kerala -- purportedly those whose ‘rights’ the petitioners were fighting for -- were not particularly keen on changing the rules.
As a native son, and a believer, I find the whole idea of the State dictating the rituals of the temple an appalling idea to begin with. Furthermore, imposing second-hand Western memes about victimhood and social justice on people who, in fact, don’t feel victimized is Kafkaesque and grotesque. Monotheistic uniformity is very far from the Hindu faith: we have diverse traditions and specific sthala puranas that need to be respected. Learned judges, tread softly for you tread on my faith.
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