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Sabarimala temple opens today, Kerala asks “activists to stay away”

Amid uncertainty over whether women of reproductive age will be allowed to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple despite the Supreme Court order, the Lord Ayyappa shrine opens today for the 41-day annual pilgrimage that begins on the first day of the Malayalam month of Vrishchikam.

The Supreme Court had on Thursday referred all petitions seeking review of its historic Sabarimala verdict, that lifted a centuries-old ban and allowed women of all ages to enter the temple, to a larger bench, which will re-examine various religious issues, including the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple and mosques and the practice of female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community.

But the verdict sent the administration and the Kerala police into a tizzy. The Kerala government has made arrangements to avoid a repeat of violent clashes that erupted last year when women of menstrual age tried to enter the temple of Lord Ayyappa nestled in the hills of the western ghats.

Over 10,000 police personnel will be deployed in phases in and around the hill temple to ensure peace. Pathanamthitta district collector told the media that there was no need for declaring prohibitory orders like last year. However, the administration has asked “activists to stay away”.

“We won’t encourage women who want to visit the shrine only for publicity,” Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran said adding Sabarimala was not a place for activism and the LDF government would not support those who make announcements about entering the hill shrine for the sake of publicity.

Dismissing reports that the Kerala police would provide security to women activists who attempt to enter the shrine, he said there was “some confusion” over the latest Supreme Court order and women desirous of visiting Sabarimala should get a “court order”.

Law minister AK Balan said the government will consult experts on the “confusion” after the apex court’s judgment.

“This Sabarimala season will be peaceful. But if anyone tries to hamper the peaceful darshan of devotees, the government will take strong action. If someone thinks that they can exploit the devotees by spreading lies and turn them against the government, let me tell you, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

The Board, which manages the temples in the southern state, said resting places for the devotees at Nilackal, Pamba and Sannidhanam areas have already been set up along with medical, water and toilet facilities.

“At Sannidhanam alone, facilities have been arranged for around 6,500 people to rest with their bags containing sacred offerings. Resting area for 9,000 devotees have been arranged at Nilackal where there is a parking area for over 9,000 vehicles. There are over 1,000 toilets, 120 urinals and 60 bathrooms at Nilackal,” a senior official in the Devaswom ministry said.

The board has also set up five emergency medical centres. The Kerala State Road Transport Corporation will deploy 150 buses between Pamba and Nilackal  to cover a distance of around 18 km.

On September 28 last year, in a majority ruling, a Constitution bench consisting of the then CJI Dipak Misra and Justices Rohinton Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud, and Indu Malhotra had, by a 4:1 majority lifted the ban on the entry of women between the ages 10 to 50 into the Sabarimala temple. Justice Indu Malhotra was the lone dissenting voice.

Following the judgment when several women of menstrual age attempted to enter the temple, violent clashes and protests stopped them from offering prayers to Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity, who is considered to be a celibate.

Priests and even women devotees believe that women between 10 and 50 years of age should not be allowed to enter the Sabarimala temple. As many as 65 petitions have sought review of the judgment.

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