A Memorable Vijayadashmi At Sabarimala
It has been a victory for the devotees of Ayyappa today, and it came from the simple act of the head priest saying that if pushed, he would lock the temple, hand over the keys, and go home.
Symbolism heightens perceptions, and today, 19 October 2018, perceptions were heightened most forcefully, by the sight of a 250-strong contingent of Kerala Police meekly withdrawing from Sabarimala Temple – along with two young women who sought to enter the shrine. It was an abrupt and unexpectedly anticlimactic conclusion to a standoff which began when the temple opened two days ago.
It was an important day for many, who had opposed a recent Supreme Court ruling which now permitted women between the ages of 10-50, hitherto barred, to enter the temple. It was a day which brought more firmly into focus, numerous aspects, ranging from gender equality to freedoms, from rights to state interference, and from the law to traditions; some connected, some not, and most, wholly confusing to the average citizen. It was also Vijayadashami – that day so long ago, when the epical God-King Rama defeated the Lankan King Ravana.
The day itself, began in Kerala with a touch of soft, tropical train. From Manjeshwar in the far north to Trivandrum in the south, the axe-born of Parashurama’s realms conducted their rituals with piety thrice as strong, as they do every year; for here, this day has triple meanings: Vijayadashami, to celebrate the victory of right over wrong; Ayudha Puja,when weapons and trade implements rusted by the monsoon are polished and refurbished ; and Saraswathi Puja – when the light of knowledge is invoked, especially for students. And in the far south, thousands of pilgrims made their way up a steep trek – from the Pamba River, after a holy dip, and through dense, wet foliage, to the hilltop shrine of Lord Ayyappa.
That was when the rumours began to float, and before you knew it, reality struck with a sharp, khaki tinge: two young women were to be provided full police escort by the Government of Kerala, led by no less than an Inspector General, as a preparation to their entry into the temple. Camera crews scrambled for vantage points, as devotees formed themselves into phalanxes. A showdown was now imminent.
Kerala Police is a seasoned lot, and it was prepared for trouble – any trouble, as they marched up the hill with their two determined wards. Many of the constables were in full riot gear, wearing helmets and shields and carrying lathis. Very thoughtfully, they had the two women wear motorcycle helmets for additional protection. As a result, there was no violence, and the group made it to the hilltop complex without incident.
But it is here that the story turned on its head; here, at the sannidhanam, at the foot of the hallowed 18 steps which each pilgrim climbs to enter the shrine proper . The place is a clutter, reflecting generations of building activity to match and meet the ever-growing needs of temple logistics. The road narrows towards the end, buildings jostle for space, sturdy metal barricades twist and turn to avoid stampedes, and all paths lead to the 18 steps. This is where the devotees decided to congregate, in force, to block the approach of the police and the two women. There an impasse ensued.
Officials spoke to officials. Officials spoke to people. People spoke to the camera. The television channels spoke to themselves. But neither the police nor the women made any progress. It was an odd sight – two women in motorcycle helmets, standing listlessly, almost apathetically, it seemed, surrounded by police in khaki. Senior officials disappeared to confer with the temple heads, and a mild monotony set in. That is when Janam TV revealed the names of the two women – Rehana Fathima, an employee of BSNL in Ernakulam District; and Kavitha Koshy – a journalist from Hyderabad. Within minutes, an enterprising journalist managed to get in touch with the general manager of BSNL, who confirmed that Fathima was indeed their employee. He however hastened to add that the woman was at Sabarimala in a purely private capacity! But for the seriousness of the situation, the irony would have been risible.
Shortly thereafter, Kadakampally Surendran, the Kerala Devaswom Minister, appeared before the public to make a laboured quasi-legal statement, distancing his government from any charges of contempt of court. He suggested that the duty of the Government of Kerala was restricted purely to provide protection for devotees. He ended his statement with a plea to not turn the shrine into a revolutionary battlefield. This is, of course, the man who drew the ire of his comrades, for actually having had the temerity to offer prayers at Guruvayur Sri Krishna Temple in September 2017 while being a declared atheist (another bit of irony).
But by then, Janam TV was displaying social media images of one of the two women, suggestive of a strong, rebellious streak; and a commentator made an unverified reference to an earlier Facebook post of hers, in which the young lady had vowed to enter the shrine in skimpy clothes. Whatever the truth in that vow, she was today dressed in the sober garb of a devotee. And all the while, she waited with the police force at the Sabarimala sannidhanam.
At one point, rumours had that the police might force its way towards the 18 steps; at another, that the two women might be escorted to the entrance through one of the alleyways. To add to the confusion, the women were taken off the street, out of sight, and into a Forest Department building. Speculation grew. Restlessness was palpable. Then, the world was treated to a rare and sorry sight, reducing the impasse to denouement: junior priests of the temple called off their duties and congregated at the base of the steps. There they sat, dressed in white, calm, composed, chanting their mantras. This was quickly followed by a public statement, by none other than Rajeev Kandararu – the head priest of the temple. He sat in his tiny cubby-hole of an office, and spoke with not a little sadness. It was not right, he said, to turn such matters into ugly issues, and if those powers that be persisted with such ways, he would close the sanctum sanctorum, hand over the keys to the manager, and go home.
After that, you knew there was only one way this story would end. Perhaps 20 minutes or so later, a grim senior police official stepped into full public gaze, and blandly informed the press that the two women had decided to return without seeking entry into the shrine. And that was that. Cut then, to shots of the police quietly marching their two wards down the hill, again thankfully, without incident.
At this point, we might speculate whether the Pinarayi Vijayan government had actually thought through matters fully or not. At one level, yes, the supply of police protection absolved them of any charges that they may have contravened the Supreme Court judgment. But at another level, it appeared odd that they would accept potential confrontation, by marching two women, who were apparently not devotees of Lord Ayyappa, up a holy hill. Was this astute politics at work, or a desperate, face-saving, knee-jerk reaction? To what end? We may never know the truth, but we’ll have perceptions, instead. A simple, straightforward perception of an anguished, harassed, temple priest; a man who bluntly said that if pushed beyond limits, he would pack up and go home; and, that the conviction in the man’s words was enough to force the government of the day, to submissively turn tail in a climbdown.
Either way, the symbolism was inescapable, especially to the axe-born, and those rituals with which they had started the day: that one must always seek to discern right from wrong; that the law and faith are not weapons to be employed for political gain; and that knowledge, especially right knowledge, is a prerequisite for right action to ensure order in society. All in all, a memorable Vijayadashami indeed, and one with myriad lessons for all those who seek to view this beautiful world in stark, non-representative binaries.
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