Thiruvananthapuram: Despite protests from several quarters, Kerala's popular and most revered Sabarimala Temple is set to open its doors for devotees on Wednesday for the monthly pooja - the first time since the Supreme Court allowed women of all age groups to enter the shrine.
However, facilitating the entry of women of all age groups into the temple would be a challenging task for the state government in view of threats and protests from Hindu outfits, temple priests and the Pandalam Royal Family members.
Right-wing Hindu outfits and various political parties have threatened to disrupt the monthly puja, with some of them even warning of “mass suicides” against the Communist-led government’s move to implement the top court verdict.
While most of the organisations will hold peaceful protests, the Shiv Sena and the Ayyappa Dharma Sena said they will prevent women of the menstruating age group from entering the hill shrine. The Sena has threatened to send a seven-member suicide squad to Sabarimala to resist those daring to enter the temple defying its customs and traditions.
Hundreds of women devotees of Lord Ayyappa on Tuesday checked vehicles for girls and women of menstrual age at Nilackal, the main gateway to Sabarimala in Kerala, and stopped them from proceeding to the hill shrine, as tension mounted in the area ahead of the opening of the temple gates on Wednesday.
There were also reports that members of the local tribal community were keeping a tight vigil to ensure that women between the ages of 10 to 50 (the typical duration of time when a woman menstruates) were not allowed to enter the Lord Ayyappa temple which is specifically dedicated to the celibate form of the deity.
A last ditch effort by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which manages the temple, to defuse the tense situation failed to yield a solution with the Pandalam royal family and other stakeholders walking out of a meeting called by it over its reluctance to discuss the issue of filing a review petition against the apex court order.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, facing a tough time tackling the highly emotive religious issue which has also acquired political overtones, issued a stern warning to those who dared block devotees from entering the temple.
Lustily chanting "Swamiya Saranam Ayyappa" hailing the Lord, women devotees picketed the road at Nilackal and checked buses and private vehicles for girls and women of the "banned" age group and forced them to abandon their pilgrimage to the shrine which also involved a 6-km arduous hill trek.
A woman journalist Ritu was one of those who was stopped by the protesting women devotees. Ritu claimed she was heading for the temple on assignment and had no intention of entering the shrine, something that could have offended the religious sensibilities of Ayyappa devotees.
"No woman belonging to the banned age group of 10-50 will be allowed to travel further from Nilackal and offer prayers at the shrine when it opens for the monthly pooja tomorrow evening," asserted a woman protester as tempers ran high at Nilackal.
A small police contingent looked the other way.
Television channels showed some college students, including young girls wearing black dresses, being ordered to get down a bus.
"We will ensure security to all. Nobody will be allowed to take law into their hands. My government will not allow any violence in the name of Sabarimala," Vijayan told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram as Ayyappa devotees virtually besieged Nilackal.
"Stern action will be taken against anyone who prevents devotees from going to Sabarimala," he warned, and ruled out any rethink of his government's decision against seeking a review of the Supreme Court order.
"We will go by what the Supreme Court says," he asserted.
The TDB went into a huddle with stakeholders, including the Pandalam royal family representatives and priests, to soothe frayed tempers amid escalating protests by the Hindu right and common Ayyappa devotees.
The meeting also attended by Ayyappa Seva Samajam and Yoga Kshema Sabha ended in a deadlock as the TDB stuck to its stand of not filing a review petition.
"It is very painful and we cannot agree. We wanted a decision on filing the review petition to be taken today itself, but the board said it can be discussed only at the next meeting of TDB on October 19," Shashikumar Varma, a member of the Pandalam royal family said.
"We all wish that Sabarimala should not be made a war zone," Varma, the president of Pandalam Royal Palace Trust, told journalists after walking out of the meeting in a huff.
TDB president A Padmakumar, however, dismissed suggestions that the meeting was a "failure".
"What they (stakeholders) wanted was to file the review petition now itself. But the Supreme Court is closed till October 22. They also wanted to maintain the status quo on the customs and traditions.
As the Supreme Court has passed a verdict, what can the board do? But the board will continue to talk with them to resolve the issue," Padmakumar said.
He said the October 19 meeting will take up the issue of the review petition.
Kerala has witnessed a series of protests and prayer marches over the last few days over the government's decision to enforce the Supreme Court order.
The Shiv Sena recently warned of "mass suicides" if women of menstrual age were allowed into the temple. Some other organisations have said women and girls aged between 10 and 50 years will have to tread on them before entering the temple.
The TDB, meanwhile, covered a signboard at the base camp in Pamba, which said the entry of women of menstrual age into the temple was prohibited.
Pamba is the base from where the trek to the shrine begins.
The multi-lingual board reading "Women between 10-50 are not allowed to visit Sannidhanam (Sabarimala temple)" was covered in the evening with a plastic banner that said, "Use of plastic is prohibited here".
(With PTI inputs)