On 5 January, the Kerala forest department opened online bookings to women for the first time for treks to the hilltop, following a Kerala High Court order ending a ban on their entry on the 1,868-metre high peak inside the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary. The hill is one of the toughest trails in India.
In just three days, the department received a tremendous response, with over 600 women applying for trekking permits during the season, which starts from mid-January.
The peak is believed to be the chosen abode of the Hindu sage Agasthya, who is considered to be celibate. Before the HC verdict, women were not allowed to trek beyond the base camp in Athirimala, 6 km below the hilltop.
The move to allow women entry has evoked angry reactions from the Kani tribe, which lives on the slopes and foothills of Agasthyarkoodam, spread over Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam districts of Kerala and Thirunelveli and Kanyakumari districts of Tamil Nadu. The Kanis say women trekking to the peak would cause irreparable damage to the celibacy of Agasthya, who keeps the hills safe.
The tribe is now preparing to hold a series of ‘namajapa’ protests against the forest department move. The ‘namajapa’ protests, which involved the chanting of the names of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala, have been used by protesting devotees at the hill shrine against the entry of women.
The Agasthyarkoodam Kshethra Kanikkar Trust, which is in charge of the temple and run by the tribe, initially planned to stop women trekking to the hilltop but changes its mind.
“Even while we cannot wholeheartedly back a decision that contravenes our customs and age-old tradition, we will not obstruct the path of women trekkers,” president of the trust, T Mohan, told The Hindu.
“The whole community has decided to conduct an achara samrakshana yagna (religious ritual meant for protecting traditions) on the day women begin their trek to the hills,” said T Mohan, president of Agasthyarkoodam Kshethra Kanikkar Trust.
The ban was lifted by the High Court on 30 November 2018. In her order, Judge Anu Sivaraman said that even if the Kanis had certain religious rights over the hill, they could not intervene in the fundamental human right of women to participate in the annual trek to the peaks. In the meantime, the judge prevented trekkers irrespective of the gender from entering the immediate vicinity of the forest temple of Agasthya and offering any religious rituals.
The forest department’s wildlife warden for Thiruvananthapuram region YM Shaji Kumar says the temple will continue to be under the exclusive control of the tribe. The department will erect barricades around the temple to facilitate undisturbed puja by members of the Kani community on Shivaratri night and other auspicious occasions.
However, the Kani tribe categorically says no women will be permitted beyond Athirimala on any day.
Agasthyarkoodam and the Kani tribe
Legend has it that Sage Agasthya, who is said to have penned some of the hymns in Rig Veda and made occasional appearances in Ramayana and Mahabharata, had chosen the Agasthyarkoodam as his final resting place.
For the Kani tribe, sage Agasthya is ‘mootha kani’ or “king of kanis”.
“We do not allow even our women near our king. It is a belief handed down by our community for generations. It may seem illogical in the present global context but we will not compromise on our faith,” says Rajendran Kani, an elder among the tribals.
The Adivasi Mahasabha, which fought on behalf of the Trust against women’s entry in the court, says it continues to believe that climbing the hill for pilgrimage to the temple is exclusively for men. They also claim it will be an uphill task for the women to climb the hill due to the high risk of human-wildlife conflict in the dense forests.
The fight for women’s entry
The first trek since the verdict will be held for 41 days from 15 January to 2 March, forest officials said. To avoid confrontation, it will stop a day before Kani men gather on the hilltop to celebrate Shivaratri on 4 March.
According to Divya Divakaran, one of the petitioners and secretary of the social collective Women Integration and Growth Through Sports (WINGS), the legal battle to lift the ban on entry of women to Agasthyarkoodam was a hard-fought one. Four years ago, the women’s organisation noticed that forest officials had promulgated a notification preventing women and children under the age of 14 from undertaking the two-day hike that included an overnight stay at the spartan base camp in Athirimala.
Women collectives Pennoruma, headed by M Sulfath, and Anweshi, led by former Naxalite leader K. Ajitha, joined WINGS in a court battle to challenge this bias. Through the years, the organisations held demonstrations in front of the Government Secretariat and the Forest Department headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram, demanding an end to the ban. They also repeatedly petitioned the government but to no avail. Their legal fight came to an end with the Kerala High Court order in 2018.
Unlike Sabarimala, the government has no plans to ensure any additional facilities for women trekking the hill apart from normal safety measures.
“Only a limited number of passes will be issued and that too on first-come-first-serve basis. No quota for women in it. No construction to facilitate boarding on top of the hills will be permitted as Agasthyarkoodam is an ecologically fragile biosphere reserve. The base camp has bare minimum facilities, they do not match with other trekking places,’’ state forest minister K Raju told HuffPost India.