Sabarimalai: Why can’t women climb those 18 hallowed steps?
By Ratna Raman
New Delhi: Women between the ages of ten and fifty were debarred from visiting Sabarimalai once the presiding patriarchs of religion and cultural practice moved the judiciary, setting in place rules constraining women on account of their menstrual abilities. Termed customary practice, this was endorsed and reinforced by the Kerala High Court from1991 onwards.
Sabarimalai’s male devotees undertook a rough passage to the sanctum sanctorum , cutting their way through dense forest undergrowth, upstream and in the direction of the hill invoking the name of Lord Ayyappa, as they ascended the eighteen hallowed steps. This required an intrepid forty-one days of hardship and deprivation, involved the non- trimming of hair and nails, eschewing meat, eggs, fish, fowl , onion, garlic, smoking, alcohol and compulsory celibacy; alongside the prescribed practice of unaccustomed kindness to everybody around them. Definitely tough austerity in a religion that usually prescribed easy codes for men on most matters.
As young adolescent, long hard stares at grandmothers, aunts and older cousins, some married and others holding jobs, failed to discern signs of resentment. The women moved around nonchalantly, organising special foods and sleeping arrangements, ensuring that all the rituals of purity were followed and that all forms of pollution; liquid, solid and those of the flesh were kept in abeyance from these unkempt spiritual warriors who followed sacred rituals, dressed in black, carried mudikattu, and walked two kilometres from the Pampa river to the temple, climbing to the sanctum, a forty feet high podium upon a plateau.
For any eleven year old, group travel to an unknown destination and a difficult ascent to a mysterious shrine is an exciting proposition. Of course I made furious plans to subvert the system by somehow storming the citadel and hurling myself in front of the deity at Sabarimalai during the banned years, at the end of a life altering journey overshadowing all known exploits of heroism and devotion. My fantasies were cobbled from clumped up readings of Meerabai, Ghazni , Sher Shah Suri and Joan of Arc.
Subsequent years failed to whet my desire for Sabarimalai. Not because life became easier for women or because the rules had inexplicably changed. The mobility of the twentieth century enabled visits to extraordinary temples, monasteries, churches, mosques and synagogues in different parts of India and the world. Discovering the tranquillity and joy available at each destination and absorbing the synergy that people brought to the sites healed, calmed and energised, helped in the appreciation of the supreme significance of the human connection in all of this.
Visits to any shrine made unwelcome by blinkered men, cannot really continue to hold meaning for women in today’s world, wherein innumerable accessible options exist. Abject female devotees of Ayyappa, terrified and bullied by their men, obstructed from climbing the Sabarimalai Temple because of inappropriate menstrual ages, might be in existence but arguably, would remain minimal in number.
However, if women of inappropriate age, were desirous of partaking in the Sabarimalai pilgrimages, such desire should be accepted and opportunity made available as a matter of both principle and right.
The current Sabarimalai controversy from a geographical and philosophical distance, throws up variants of the old binary oppositions that continue to be played out in relays of:Law versus religious practices; religious orthodoxy versus menstruating women; political leadership versus women’s rights, the women of the right and ostensibly, women in the wrong.
Arguably, the law is not qualified to make an intervention into matters of religious ritual that are not essentially discriminatory, as Supreme Court Judge Indu Malhotra, opined. For this to be true, we need to readily accept the viewpoint that women’s identities complement those of men. Ergo, women’s exclusion from Sabarimalai cannot be changed by a court order.
However, the different roles men and women play in the cultural sphere are not because of egalitarian choices but as a result of the limited options that exist for women. Practitioners of religion and law makers in patriarchal cultures have invariably been men. Cultural patriarchy and religious practice have continued to form the tines of the trishul that has often been aimed in the direction of women and minorities. Arguments about the complementary nature of women’s lives have now become increasingly untenable.
When the ban on the entry of women between the ages of ten and fifty from visiting Sabarimalai passed by the Kerala High Court in 1991 was revoked by the Supreme Court in 2018, bizarre responses were made by men policing and controlling women and disrespecting them in private . One man in public office, offered to tear apart the limbs of women of dubious age approaching the temple and fling one part in the direction of the Centre. This from an apparent saviour of the Sabarimalai tradition which prescribes that male aspirants treat other lives with sanctity and respect. Meanwhile ‘activists’ and ‘protesting women’ were attacked and manhandled by dissenting devotees at the site and on their return home by miscreants and.socially ostracised by their communities.
Sabarimalai, draws its name from Sabari, the elderly female ascetic who waited upon Rama during his post-banishment forest sojourn. Sabari served Rama berries after sampling each one for sweetness. Rama accepts this offering of fruit, despite its initial contact with Sabari’s spit, and displays remarkable unconcern with the issue of pollution from the “jhoota”ber. While in itself, the episode validates selfless devotion and its acceptance, Sabari herself has been mythologised sexlessly for her self-effacement and patience. Her conscious decision to reject a material and conjugal life for a life of celibacy has seldom been the subject of any exploration. Surely, this story of Sabari’s hill and oral accounts by living women of visits to the temple suggest that rules banning women of a certain age seem to have been devised subsequently by a misogynistic mindset.
Oddly, Rama and Lakshmana met Sabari’s mentor, Shakta, after meeting her, on this very hill. This event continues to be celebrated every Makara Sankranti at Sabarimalai. It is also intriguing that rules at Sabarimalai, and other pilgrimage sites, have been more accommodating of modernity in the case of the male of the species .Truncated versions of the pilgrimage exist, wherein the forest climb can be abandoned altogether, granting instant karma to entitled males.
Why should Sabari ‘s hill be shut down for women folk who fall into the procreative age, especially when no such rules are in place for pubescent or mature males who would be part of a similar demography group? Why should it be so difficult to extend the courtesy of modern frameworks to women as well? This distinction must be explained to both Amit Shah and Shashi Tharoor, so the former can stop challenging the court’s authority and the latter can desist from making sympathetic noises and conciliatory arguments to cushion hidebound patriarchal policies.
Smriti Irani must also be helped to understand that women do not crave to carry soaked napkins dripping in menstrual blood to Sabari Malai. In fact, devout Hindu women rarely visit temples when menstruating, possibly because of conditioned cultural practice. We need to look beyond contemporary confusion in order to find solutions to this imbroglio.
The argument needs to be couched not around the physical possibility of bloody ooze from the female body, but in metaphorical issues of eligibility. A devotee or a worshipper has the right to access and the bhakti traditions sanction this. Rama’s acceptance of “jhootey ber” reiterates this. Yet eligibility has been granted in an extremely skewered fashion, and the focus has been on denying and marginalising women.
Ayyappa is a male god, apparently fathered by two men. His very birth seems primarilya denial of female space. Although Ayappa has been brought into existence by male desire, men do not go to Sabarimalai to pray for progeny, (however inspirational the birth story of Ayyappa might be). Sabarimalai is not a primary shrine for men praying for offspring, as most men will assert vociferously.
The token rejection of the material life and of material desires prior to the journey is in fact a prologue to the preparation for a higher, spiritual life. Therefore, we need to recognise that the journey to Sabarimalai is meant to simulate an all-important spiritual journey. Why then should visits to this shrine, demarcated as a space for rigorous spiritual training, be made available only to procreating males, non-menstruating girls and never-menstruating older women?
In the case of spiritual training, attention and concentration is supposed to be deflected from the physical body. The physical body is inhabited by both men and women in the real world. Both women and men have physical bodies that discharge different bodily fluids and solids from multiple orifices all through their lives. No constraints are imposed upon the male body, which is subject to puberty and readies itself for reproduction. Boys who have attained puberty and have also been invested with the sacred thread go all the time to Sabarimalai, carrying upon their persons, functional reproductive apparatus. On a point of law, surely, this is discriminatory? If a pubescent male can go to Sabarimalai, why should the pubescent female capable of menstruation be denied access? The training for spiritual growth should be allowed to both bodies since sauce for the gander is most certainly sauce for the goose.
Spiritual journeys, if they are to be valued, must demand the same rigour and provide similar conditions of training for men and women. After all, as the mythology tells us, this was once Sabari’s mountain. She did not become a wise and revered woman because she was allowed access to a spiritual life after she stopped menstruating. In fact, she went on a pilgrimage in the prime of her life, choosing a spiritual life over conjugality andworldly desire.So this ritual practice by a denomination, must provide fecund women the same opportunities to climb the eighteen steps that they allow to robust men.
Religious prohibitions of yore continue to prevent women from being active players. Menstruating women cannot visit temples, Sunni women in Kerala are not allowed entry into Mosques, Zorastrian women cannot visit the fire temple, and upon marrying a non-Zorastrian , women even lose their right to die in the Tower of Silence. These continuing religious practices obstruct and diminish the rightful growth of women. The rights of religious dominations with regard to women parallel the modern context of access to privileged clubs that accommodate only a select few although the latter discriminate on the basis of class and group rather than gender. Surely we need an equitable playing field for gender in modern religious contexts?
Social change is slow and happens long after a law enabling a practice is put into place. It does not help matters if Amit Shah in clear contempt of court declares that the Supreme Court must not legislate on what it cannot implement. It is not the court which has to implement, it is we the people, who must work at ensuring that legislations are put into process.
Women, irrespective of age, caste and religion should be able to access the Sabarimalai temple, as and when they please. In fact, Women should have access to all places of worship that men have access to as well as access to the same death rituals if they so desire. Women across cultures have been denied access to a spiritual life for an inordinately long period. It is time to redress this and turn our temples into enabling and empowering spaces for women.