On 28 September, the Supreme Court, in a 4:1 verdict, lifted the ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 entering Sabarimala, a temple complex that sits about 1,574 ft above sea level, within the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. Since then, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan has made repeated assurances of safety and support for every single woman who wished to make the climb.
So far, about a dozen women, including journalists, have attempted to see Ayyappan, the deity at the shrine. They were met with brutal violence from angry mobs blocking their passage, even as CrPC 144 was imposed in the areas surrounding the temple.
The women were abused, beaten, kicked, pelted with stones and their vehicles were attacked. The footage of the attacks played on loop on television channels for days afterwards, perhaps unwittingly serving to remind women over and over again what awaited them in Sabarimala, were they to consider making the pilgrimage.
In the days that followed, more than 3,500 people were arrested across the state in connection with the mob violence.
But what has received little to no coverage has been the fact that for many of these women, the ordeal did not end when they returned from Sabarimala.
Bindu Thankam Kalyani, a Dalit activist and teacher from Calicut, spoke out this week about the threats on her life, and how she runs the risk of losing her job. She is being heckled and followed by Sangh Parivar/RSS workers, who stand at the gate of her school shouting casteist slurs, calling her "whore" and asking the school authorities to send her out so that they can "deal with her". Earlier this week, goons tried to break down the gate at her home; her repeated phone calls to the police went unanswered, and she has been offered no security or protection.
SP Manju, another Dalit activist, and Rehana Fathima, a BSNL employee, have had their homes broken into, and belongings smashed. Fathima's 6-year-old daughter has been receiving rape threats. Journalist Saritha Balan was hospitalised after being kicked on the spine by members of the mob.
But as of this week, 550 women between the ages of 10 and 50 have registered on the the 'Sabarimala Virtual Q-System', an online portal developed by the Kerala Police to streamline and regulate the millions of devotees who visit Sabarimala every year.
Many of the women who plan to go have undertaken the 41-day vratham that mandates leading a simpler, more ascetic way of life. It involves, amongst other things, partaking in a vegetarian diet, abstaining from intoxicants, a regular practice of prayer and meditation, and celibacy. Undertaking the vratham also means that they can travel with the irumudikettu, a small cloth bag filled with coconut, rosewater, aval, incense, jaggery and a few other items for prayer and physical sustenance. The irumudikettu is mandatory for all devotees who wish to climb the Pathinettu thripadikal—the 18 sacred steps covered with gold that lead up to the temple sanctum.
We spoke to three women—under condition of complete anonymity—who have decided to embark on the pilgrimage.
Software developer, 24 years, Trivandrum
I come from a family of devout believers. As far back as I can remember, my father and brother have never missed a year when visiting Sabarimala. Every year, I've watched them fast religiously for 41 days; they've always taken it seriously, and tried their best to keep its decrees. Since my mother and I were the ones who cooked and helped out, I know exactly how to maintain the vratham. It's not just about avoiding non-vegetarian food, but about switching to a more simple way of living, thinking, eating and communicating.
I want to go to Sabarimala because I want to experience what has kept my father and brother going back every year, no matter the circumstances. It cannot be explained merely as 'faith', no, I don't think so. They aren't going to the temple because they are worried about what will happen if they do not visit. On the contrary, they seem exhilarated about going, about climbing the pathinettaam padi.
Is that strange? That I fear my family disowning me more than I fear the goons' attacks?
I'm a couple of weeks into observing the fast, and my family does not know. They'd be shocked if they knew I was planning to go. I live and work in a different city, so I'm able to keep it from them for now. They'd lock me in a room if they found out what I was doing, no questions asked. At work, too, I'm surrounded by people who believe that women shouldn't go. We have a WhatsApp group of our colleagues, and almost everyone in it has changed their profile picture to one of Ayyappan, or the 'Save Sabarimala' logo.
Television cameras have been following every woman who has attempted the climb, and this worries me. I think I'm more perturbed about that, than the angry mobs at Pamba. Is that strange? That I fear my family disowning me more than I fear the goons' attacks?
Homemaker, 38 years, Kochi
I have been a homemaker for 12 years now. My husband has gone to Sabarimala only twice in his life, and he wants to take our son this time. This year, I told him I want to go with them. To my surprise, he did not object. Maybe he thinks I won't really do it! (laughs)
But I wore my mala and started the vratham. I also stopped watching television. But to be honest, I feel really hungry. There's a lot of work to be done at home, and I'm trying to maintain the fast. And when you're hungry, even small things can irritate you a lot. But that's another rule of the vratham—to not give yourself over to anger or violence of any kind. So I'm learning to listen to myself and others better, to try and become kinder. Sometimes you don't even realise that you've been anxious the whole day; but these days, since I'm fasting, I'm forced to notice.
I looked it up online, and people say that I will start feeling more settled in a few days. I really don't know what I'm expecting to feel. My husband is the only person who knows, for now. We haven't told our son, because I'm worried he might accidentally tell his friends at school. He was pretty upset when our household went all-vegetarian, so we decided to compromise and buy him his favourite junk food a little more frequently. He's not complaining any more!
I watched all the news debates on Sabarimala; the yelling, the insults, the name-calling, I think Ayyappan would be more upset by that than the Supreme Court's verdict
My parents are no longer alive, and my sisters and I have a strained relationship because of land disputes and years of misunderstandings. We barely talk to each other. I suppose in this stage in my life, I feel freer to do the things I want to do, because there's no one left to disappoint or estrange.
Honestly, I can't really picture climbing the pathinettaam padi. I can see myself taking the first step, and then I have no idea what to expect. I'm scared, to be honest. I'm absolutely terrified.
I watched all the news debates on Sabarimala; the yelling, the insults, the name-calling, I think Ayyappan would be more upset by that than the Supreme Court's verdict! He is a god! Why would a god be worried about women going to see him? I believe gods would welcome anyone who goes to them with an open heart.
School teacher, 40 years, Thrissur
Have you heard this song from the 70s, 'Saranamayyappa', sung by Yesudas? It moves me to tears every time I hear it. The song describes everything, from the moment you decide to take the fast to the moment you stand in front of the temple doors opening to reveal Ayyappan. Thanks to Vayalar's immortal lyrics, I can see it in my mind's eye, every single detail of it. The lamps, the flowers, the climb. Earlier, when the trek was through the dense forest, it must have been such a relief to make it atop the hill, to stand trembling in front of Ayyappan, don't you think? To have made it there alive.
Faith can do miraculous things, I believe. When things are going badly, it can be harder to believe, don't you think? To be honest, I think my own faith has taken a few beatings; life certainly hasn't gone as smoothly as I would have liked! I am truly envious of the rock-steady faith that some people hold on to, no matter what life has brought to them. So, I still believe in the strength that comes from believing in something. And I think there's a reason I can't listen to that song without tearing up, to this day.
Observing this vratham has given me a sense of purpose. Earlier, all my days tended to blend into one, it's a fairly monotonous schedule, doing the same things day in and day out, for years together. But the 22 days since I have started fasting stand out in such stark detail; each day feels distinct, discrete. I feel a little more alive with every day that passes.