One of the holiest sites in Kerala (although there is no evidence that it was more than a hundred years ago, when a family of Brahmins took over the place, a shrine much loved by the tribal populations of the region), is the temple of Sabarimala , embedded in the lush mountains of the state. The shrine, almost a thousand meters high, receives devotees throughout the year (ten million!), but especially between November and January, when one of the most mass pilgrimages in southern India takes place. The temple is dedicated to Ayyappa (for a few decades, symbol of Keralite nationalism), which according to traditional mythologies was spawned by the goddess Rohini (a form of Vishnu transvestite in beautiful woman) and the god Shiva.
The pilgrimage to Sabarimala is classic among ascétic ones. The ethos is markedly masculine: pilgrims feel “renouncers”, who fast before leaving. During the 42 days of travel a strictly vegetarian regime is followed; black or colourless clothing; most of them go barefoot. Much emphasis is placed on chastity and – a feist here controversy – on the exclusion of sexually mature women (between 10 and 50 years old; that is, in men
struating age). Different feminist groups have fought for years to have such restrictions lifted. They achieved great success in August 2016 when the Supreme Court ruled that women had the same right as men to make pilgrimages to Mumbai’s famous Haji Ali Dargah mosque. Two years later, the same legal body (the highest in the country) has again ruled that women can enter the shrine of Sabarimala, since – in an unusually contrary tone to the patriarchal idiosyncrasies that stain most religions – it says that restrictions imposed by the committee that runs the temple “are not essential religious practices.” In fact, these restrictions are part of the obsolete taboos that the Brahman ideology imposes on Indian women in their period of menstruation (considered to be of the utmost impurity); taboos that the most traditionalist Indian society seeks to maintain (albeit only in such redoubts).
The Supreme Court’s decision (initially welcomed by almost all political groups) sparked an unexpected popular protest. Quickly, more conservative associations (such as the Sangh Parivar and even sections of the Congress party) aligned themselves with the more traditionalists, who perceive that “Hindu traditions” are called into question. Riots, death threats, assaults on the few dabedes who attempted the pilgrimage in October, fake news, hunger strikes against the Supreme Court, destruction in homes and offices of left-wing opinion leaders… continue to soak up the controversy. Howeve
r, neither such traditions seem to be so traditional (no mention of the restrictions in Sabarimala before the end of the nineteenth century), nor were they so rigid (known are the visits of the Maharaní of Travancore in the 1940s, by scholar Radhika Sekar in the 1980s, including tribal ones in the 1920s). As keralites (one of the most active societies in terms of social transformation) very well know, “immemorial” traditions such as the untouchables not entering the temples of the Hindus “caste”, or that their children did not step on government schools or that women in low castes were not covered breasts (imitating those of high caste) were demolished by different campaigns of social action, from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The women of Kerala today have enough reason to think that another practice of high casta masculinity is wobbling.