O B Roopesh


On 28 September 2018, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on women’s entry (between the ages of 10 and 50) to Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple in Kerala. Women’s entry was banned in 1991 by the Kerala High Court (S Mahendran v The Secretary, Travancore 1991).


The petitioners approached the apex court in 2006 on the basis of constitutional rights to lift the ban at Sabarimala. Five members of the Supreme Court’s constitutional bench underlined the equal right of women in the temple by a majority verdict. It invited a huge amount of discontent, protest, violence and mobilisation in Kerala.


In this context, this article attempts to make sense of the dynamics of the Sabarimala issue and its politics. The questions are: Why did the issue of women’s entry into Sabarimala become the central issue suddenly in Kerala? What are the political undercurrents? What does it point to about postcolonial Kerala? Sabarimala’s principal deity, Ayyappa, is a perennial celibate by faith, which forms the grounds for banning menstruating woman from entering the temple. It is a predominantly male pilgrimage centre, which does not discriminate along caste and religious lines. This “maleness” is made apparent through a variety of practices. According to Osella and Osella (2003: 730),


This pilgrimage is a gender-specific ritual activity involving two separate forms of union. On the one hand, it merges individual men with a hyper-masculine deity—himself born from Shiva and Vishnu, two male deities. On the other, it merges each male participant with a larger community of men: other male pilgrims with whom one goes to Sabarimala; the mass of pilgrims one encounters en route to, and at the shrine; and, ultimately, the category of men as a whole.


The pilgrimage season1 creates a male-centric cultural sphere through various symbols and practices mainly shared among male pilgrims. Black coloured dhotis, neck chains, marks on the forehead and bhajans played in homes and public spaces are common during the pilgrimage season. The Ayyappan vilakku is another popular programme widely witnessed during the season. Pilgrims undertake a 41-day vratham (abstinence) before venturing on the pilgrimage. Through the cultural practices adopted during this period, they become ascetic renouncers.2 The home becomes a sacred space and women’s role is critical in this process. The ideology of maleness manifests in the form of disciplined everyday ritual practices of women in these homes.


The pilgrimage attracts Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) across Kerala, but rarely Brahmins. My fieldwork showed that Dalits who usually do not visit Brahminical temples, do visit Sabarimala during the pilgrimage season. This interest of the Avarna pilgrims reflects its non-Brahminical roots. However, current ritual practices and structures are suffused with Brahminical tantric tradition.3Historical and administrative records show that Sabarimala was a small worship place of Malayaraya, a tribal community (Mateer 1883: 75–76). Other scholars have noted the Buddhist influence (Menon 2007) and the cult’s strong relationship with Muslims and Christians. The Sabarimala pilgrims first visit the Muslim shrine of Vavaru Swami (a Muslim deity), where a Muslim priest conducts rituals, before going to the temple. This symbolises the interreligious and interfaith relationships that lie at the heart of the Sabarimala temple. The current demand to restrict the place only for “Hindus” by the Sangh Parivar organisations is a move against the fundamentally plural character of Sabarimala in order to create a “Hindu” unity against the secular ethos of the temple pilgrimage.


Popular myths surrounding the Ayyappa cult strongly suggest its non-Brahminical origins.  Historian K N Ganesh observes that the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) brought a tantri (supreme priest) from outside when the local Brahmin priests refused to do pujas in Sabarimala (Ganesh 2018). Puja and ritual practices, following this, changed according to Brahminical tantric tradition. When Brahminical tantric practices are adopted, it is required for the tantris to link non-Brahminical gods with Brahminical gods like Shiva or Vishnu. In this vein, Sabarimala Ayyappan was linked with god Sasthavu and rituals changed accordingly. From the above details, we can assume that it was a non-Brahminical pilgrimage centre which eventually became a Brahminical Hindu temple.


It was the Akhila Bharathiya Ayyappa Seva Sangham (ABASS) (established in 1945) that led the effort to popularise Sabarimala and the Ayyappa cult, especially in south India. According to their website, there are 3,800 branches, 67 taluk unions and 260 temples across the world. The ABASS began to disrupt women’s entry into Sabarimala since 1982 and women’s entry there began to be seen as a violation of the “traditional practice” (Rajagopal 2018). Later the High Court of Kerala banned women’s entry (S Mahendran v The Secretary, Travancore 1991).


All this is an unaddressed realm of masculinity providing immense potentiality to patriarchal political mobilisation on the issue.


Social Engineering


I would like to distinguish between spontaneous popular sentiment and organised protests against the verdict. Though popular sentiment against the verdict was strong, there was no serious organised opposition in the initial days. The Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) welcomed the verdict (Janmabhoomi 2018), and the Congress party took an ambivalent position. Thousands of believers poured on to the streets at Ernakulam and Panthalam. People from across political parties and caste communities participated in these protests. The Sangh Parivar and the Congress changed their positions and began leading the “chanting protests” across Kerala.


The Nair Service Society (NSS), an upper- caste organisation began mobilising the “believers.” Its leadership did the essential coordination among various organisations and political parties in the beginning. These included the former Panthalam royal family, Namboothiri Yoga Kshema Sabha (NYKS), and Akhila Kerala Tantri Samajam. Around 41 organisations are part of the protest (Dhanya 2018). However, the Ezhava organisation Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam4 did not publicly support the protest though it expressed disappointment with the verdict (Hindu 2018a). The Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), SNDP’s political party, supported the protests (Hindu BusinessLine 2018). It is significant that while the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (a Dalit caste association) welcomed the Supreme Court verdict and criticised the protest (Deccan Chronicle2018), the Mal yaraya community claimed ownership of Sabarimala and questioned its appropriation by the Brahmins (Kumar 2018).


Following this, Sabarimala witnessed hyper-masculine Hindutva violence when the temple was opened for puja in the Malayalam month of Thulam. Media persons, including women journalists were attacked and their vehicles vandalised. A few women who attempted the pilgrimage were turned back mid-way after threats from Hindutva hooligans. The ingrained patriarchy of these organisations and individuals seamlessly translated into protest for protecting the “maleness” of the Sabarimala pilgrimage.


Temple-centric Identity


Following severe damage in a fire at the shrine in 1950, its reconstruction was accompanied by a collective effort to establish Sabarimala as a “Hindu” pilgrimage centre. In Travancore, the Hindu Maha Mandalam and the ABASS attempted to mobilise “Hindus” around the issue. The ABASS took the initiative for the renovation of the shrine during the time (Jitheesh 2016: 35). Similarly, in 1983 it led an

aggressive agitation called Nilaykal samaram (Nilaykal struggle) against the decision to build a church in the vicinity of Sabarimala temple, along with Sangh Parivar organisations (Pillai 2013). Both ABASS activities and the Nilaykal issue were key to carving a Hindu identity around the Sabarimala issue.


P M Jitheesh (2016) provides detailed accounts of changes in the ritual practices in Sabarimala temple after 1950. The pettathullal (ritualistic dance) was initially in the Malayalam month of Dhanu, but it was advanced to accommodate the massive inflow of pilgrims. The prohibition of women’s entry, as suggested by devaprasnam(astrology), was implemented through the high court intervention in 1991. In addition, Harivarasanam (a lullaby recited before closing the temple every night) became the official song of Ayyappa and Sabarimala, the installation of flag post5(in 1969), the introduction of new ritual padipooja, the shifting of ritual of breaking coconut away from the steps of the temple, the emergence of makaravilaku (annual festival) as a significant event, decreasing importance of Vavar, and structural changes as suitable to Brahminical temples were some of the key changes that ensued in Sabarimala (Jitheesh 2016: 35–64).


These changes were not an isolated phenomenon but need to be viewed as part of a larger process that emerged in postcolonial Kerala, especially after the implementation of land reforms. The intensity of this process, which I term “templeisation,”6 increased after the 1980s, and continues till date. Templeisation is a process of converting myriad forms of worship places like kavus7 to the Hindu (or Brahminical) temple form. Conversion of worship places to the “temple” form has taken place at various times in history, but present conversions need to be distinguished from the earlier ones. Acceptance of Brahminical tantric knowledge by various caste communities is the central distinguishing character of the present templeisation process. In this process, Brahminical tantric knowledge is viewed as authentic in public discourse, over all other worship forms. In the fieldwork interview an Ezhava tantri Ajayan8 said,


For conversion of worship place into temple, tantris keep the Chaithanyam of the former deity, and it transforms into the new idol. Devi, worshipped as a local deity under a tree, can be converted into temple form because nobody knows the old practices. In this case, god is different, and Chaithanyam is same. It is a renovation of poorva Chaithanyam to new worship. We follow Tantra Samuchayam for this change. Here Samuchaya paksha (side of Samuchaya) is coming as a prominent method. Personally, I have carried out these kind of changes in many places.


This process has been a gradual one and it has constituted the temple as a standard site of worship for “Hindus” and has brought in various caste communities, without significant criticism or resistance. In that sense, templeisation is an invention of tradition made possible through new interpretation of the non-Brahminical worship places in the light of Brahminical texts. The Sabarimala temple and its recent past is an instance of this shift. Caste in Kerala is getting reconfigured around the institution of temple and its activities, Thiyyas/Ezhavas and Dalits are demanding Brahmin priests for ritual activities in their home and worship places (Roopesh 2017a), which was not the norm before. Interestingly, the current Sabarimala issue has invited significant amount of criticism with respect to the templeisation process from Dalit organisations and intellectuals (Sudhakaran 2018). It has led to the unearthing of historical facts to disprove the “tradition” claim, and it has got proper attention in the public sphere when compared to previous decades.


The standardisation process has developed a platform of temple believers who are from various castes. This is the section that strives to protect “conventional” practices in the Sabarimala as against the Supreme Court verdict. Temples unite savarnas and a section of avarnas through protests, as in the case of the Sabarimala issue. Contemporary Hindu temple activities have been one of the main sources of production of Hindu identity (this is discussed in greater detail in the following section), within the frame of patriarchy. It has a significant role in the outpouring of discontent and protests over the Supreme Court verdict.


Strategies of Hindutva Politics


The RSS has found it difficult to make inroads into Kerala politics because of the unique historical context of the formation of the state and its politics. The majority of the Hindu population has politically been affiliated either with the Congress or the Left parties. The mass base of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)—CPI(M)— continues to be predominantly Hindu, particularly Ezhavas (OBCs) and Dalits.9The RSS’s temple-based strategy for expanding the mass base of Hindutva politics is a decades-old one and they consider it crucial for breaking the political influence of the left in Kerala (Roopesh 2017b).


This strategy was seen during the Thali Temple struggle (1968) in Malappuram district. Fragments of a Shiva idol were found on government land, and the state archaeology department attempted to shift these to a museum. A section of believers under the leadership of K Kelappan10 demanded a temple in the same place, and it developed into a mass movement for temple protection in postcolonial Kerala. The RSS’s participation, under the leadership of P Madhavan (one of the first Kerala pracharaks), was very critical of this mobilisation. Kelappan’s organisation, called the Malabar Pradesh Kshetra Samrakshana Samithi, was renamed Kerala Kshetra Samrakshana Samithi in 1975 by Madhavan. They successfully infiltrated their political ideology into the temple activities (Roopesh 2017a). They went on to establish ritual training centres like Tantra Vidya Peedham for Brahmins in 1972 (now based in Aluva since 1984) and supported training centres for non-Brahmins. They developed liaisons with traditional intellectuals like tantris, astrologers, ascetics, and religious speakers. It is through temple discourses that this section of upper castes attempt to influence and carve out a space for themselves in the domain of religion and politics. This is reflected in the increased media coverage that this section has come to enjoy these days.


Mobilisations for constructing temples in abandoned worship places, claiming the remains of temple on archeological sites, disputing government and private control over temple lands are some of the strategies deployed by the Hindu right to widen their political base in the state (Hindu 2013). Such attempts have steadily and systematically continued over the last four decades. Ram Janmabhoomi, for instance, was one of the primary temple-centred political campaigns used for politicising devotees in the state.


Political boundaries of faith, ritual, and temple activities in Kerala have been complicated by the Hindutva ideology more than ever. How do people from various political parties and caste backgrounds conceive temple activities in general? Is there any difference among these conceptions? This is a question that needs greater attention. However, there is a blurring of boundaries between different political parties in the context of temples. For instance, the former TDB president and Congress leader Prayar Gopalakrishnan supported one of the long-standing RSS demands for establishing religious study centres in every temple under TDB (Deccan Chronicle 2016a). He is a well-known public face who epitomises the difficulty in distinguishing the RSS and non-RSS voices on temple issues. I am aware of temple administrations under the CPI(M) sympathisers, inviting Vishva Hindu Parishad leaders (as Hindu leaders) to their temples for programmes (Roopesh 2017b). The RSS has ideologically and organisationally influenced this gray area. But the left’s firm decision to implement women’s entry in Sabarimala’s case and its political campaign is leading to clear lines being drawn between political parties in the formerly blurry arena of faith. The left’s campaign has focused on the history of reform movements and lower-caste assertion, educating their base on the issue of faith. This has led to drawing a line between them and the RSS in the domain of religion.


The Sangh Parivar has made a quantum jump during Narendra Modi’s and Amit Shah’s political regime towards actualising their political dream of breaking through in Kerala. The coordination of various caste communities under the slogan “Namboothirimuthal Nayadivare” (from Brahmins to tribe) is one example. In the last legislative election tribal leader C K Janu, SNDP leader Thushar Vellappalli and the BDJS, and NYKS leader Akkeramon Kalidasa Bhattathiri joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) (Rai 2016). However, they failed to enlist the support of the NSS in the last election. This is where the Sabarimala issue comes handy, providing them an opportunity to tie up with the NSS. Therefore, “Hindu” mobilisation is essential to paper over the significant caste contradictions. Sabarimala offers opportunity for the Sangh Parivar to build a broader “Hindu” coalition and they are acutely aware of its mobilising power.


Sangh Parivar has attempted to forge this front by bringing together various caste organisations, including the NSS, under one umbrella. However, they failed to obtain support from the SNDP. Dalit organisations have criticised the protest as they are against the Sangh Parivar. Moreover, Janu ceased her relationship with the NDA (Hindu 2018b). Internal contradictions of caste dynamics visibly emerged exposing the Sabarimala movement’s upper-caste character. The Congress and the BJP view the verdict as an opportunity to convert the Supreme Court verdict into an anti-left one. The Congress is playing a dangerous game of aligning itself with the Sangh Parivar in asserting Hindu identity, effectively erasing its political boundaries with the BJP.


Civil Rights and Reform


Postcolonial Kerala’s failure to address the question of civil rights and religious reform seriously and the lack of institutional reform of the Devaswom board, are two central concerns. Both are connected issues and the latter is an expression of the former.


The Guruvayur temple entry struggle (1931) was the culmination of the civil rights movement for universal temple entry of avarnas. And it brought to an end the growth of anti-caste movements rooted in civil rights narrative (Manmathan 2013). Academic and political concerns in postcolonial Kerala shifted to development and welfare especially after the implementation of land reform. The Sabarimala issue is an unparalleled moment in postcolonial Kerala that has brought extensive public attention on civil liberty of women among the Hindu communities. Nevertheless, questions of equality have been often articulated among minority religions. The protest against the Supreme Court verdict and the popular sentiment against women’s entry in Sabarimala show the failure of state and progressive forces on the question of gender equality.


The question of gender equality was not central within the frames of religion or faith in the case of Hindu communities in Kerala. As a result, the state was never required to address such issues institutionally in the Devaswom boards or at the level of public policy. Religious persons or groups also did not raise such questions within the frames of religion or faith. Hindu temple rituals or the Sabarimala pilgrimage were never subjected to public criticism or activism in large level on the basis of gender equality, even by feminists. Sabarimala women’s entry (the issue of gender right as a civil issue) was not a public concern for Malayali women. On the contrary, women have been a central player in keeping the Sabarimala pilgrims’ house as a sacred place. The ideology of maleness is the driving force of this everyday ritual and sacred acts. When compared to the caste question, gender concerns remained unaddressed in the realm of faith, in the public domain of Kerala. Several arguments successfully problematised the Brahminical status of current Sabarimala temple and attempted to establish non-Brahminical past. However, the discourse did not address the gender question in non-Brahminical rituals and faith. The menstrual taboo associated with rituals and faith are prevalent among upper castes, Dalits, OBCs and tribes. These shared taboos across castes are helping constitute and consolidate “Hindu” sentiment regarding the Sabarimala issue.


Second is the limitation in institutional reform of the Devaswom boards and problematising templeisation. It is a manifestation of the limitations of postcolonial Kerala society discussed above. The boards have been democratised in a minimal sense through the appointment of government nominees. However, they continue to remain a bastion of the upper castes. Postcolonial governments did not radically restructure the institution and caste discrimination continued in the name of “tradition” and “hereditary power.” For instance, control over the TDB has always been considered a privilege of the NSS. The Cochin Devasom Board appointed the first Dalit president only in 2016 (Deccan Chronicle 2016b).


The appointment of an Ezhava priest—Rakesh—in the TDB temple was challenged by savarna believers, and it became a legal battle (N Adithayan v the Travancore Devaswom Board and Others (1996). The Supreme Court allowed the appointment according to the constitutional values in 2002. In 2013, Rakesh’s appointment as the tantri in the TDB temple also faced opposition, and he approached the Supreme Court and gained a favourable verdict (Kerala Kaumudi 2013; Mathrubhumi 2013). Both the appointments invited protests from upper-caste believers, temple administrators, and upper-caste organisations. The first Dalit priest in a Devaswom board was only appointed in 2017 by a government decision to follow reservation in the appointment of priests (Hindu 2017). He also had to face severe protests when he took over the pujas (interestingly, he too is against women’s entry into Sabarimala).


The process of templeisation has not been significantly questioned in the public domain or at the grass-roots level. Instead of plural worship system, the temple has achieved a status of standardised worship place of Hindus. In this process, Brahminical ritual practices become “authentic” over other myriad forms of rituals. Institutions like Devaswom board also sanctioned knowledge in Brahminical tantric practices as authentic and legitimate. Legal precedence in colonial and postcolonial courts has played a significant role in the creation of this situation.


O B Roopesh ( is a research scholar in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay. has notes and references.

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