Long after monarchy was shown the door, the Pandalam royals, who still have spiritual sway over Ayyappa devotees, have for the first time asserted itself now in the name of the very shrine they had once parted with for the sake of survival (Read - Pandalam royals and myths).
It was the Supreme Court verdict on September 28 that changed things. The apex court junked the custom that barred women of child-bearing age (defined as girls or women between the ages of 10 and 50) entering the temple. The court saw in the prohibition the dreaded mark of untouchability. "The social exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is but a form of untouchability which is an anathema to constitutional values," Justice D Y Chandrachud said.
Challenge to the Lord's celibacy
There was a fundamental question the Supreme Court had asked in the Sabarimala case. Was the exclusion of women between the age of 10 and 50 an essential part of the Sabarimala belief. The answer was, on the strength of evidence, a big no.
The court's conclusion was mainly based on the affidavit filed by Travancore Devaswom Board in the High Court in 1991. It stated that, even in the early nineties, many women worshipers in the age group of 10-50 had gone to the temple for the first rice-feeding ceremony of their children. The board had even issued receipts on such occasions. "What happens to the celibate nature of Lord Ayyappa in those five days? Is it that the idol vanishes on those days," Justice Nariman had asked.
"They were violations, not the rule," said P N Narayana Varma, the secretary of Pandalam Palace Management Committee. "The rice-feeding ceremonies the Supreme Court had mentioned were done for the family of top bureaucrats or senior devaswom officials. T K A Nair (former prime minister Manmohan Singh's advisor) says he was officially christened in Sabarimala. But see who his father was. A senior official of the forest department," Varma said.
Still, women sightings were not uncommon in Sabarimala. The song of a Kannada film was canned on the holy steps in the late eighties. Yesteryear Kannada starlet Jayamala had claimed to have entered the sanctum sanctorum and touched the deity when she was 18 years old.
There are other reasons to suspect that women gave two hoots to the supposed restrictions in place. Two notifications, more than a year apart, were issued by the Devaswom Board in October 1955 and November 1956 that reminded devotees that “Devotees who had not observed the usual vows as well as women who had attained maturity were not in the habit of stepping the pathinettampadi for darshan." And it then goes on to prohibit the entry. A clear hint that women were in the habit of walking up the sacred steps. A second, similarly worded notification a year later, suggests that the first was flouted at will.
Abstract science of impurity
The more revolutionary part of the September 28 verdict is the decision to take out rule 3(b) of Kerala Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules, 1965, which bars menstruating women from entering a place of worship. The legal hurdle that prevented menstruating women from entering any temple in the state was thus removed. The verdict, in short, will affect not just Sabarimala but the functioning of all the temples in the state.
The Pandalam royals, known for their progressive inclinations, are scandalised. At a time when untouchability was the norm, it was this palace that had invited the lower-castes for a community lunch. At a time when the Communist party was banned, it was in the granary of this very palace that Communist pamphlets were secretly printed.
But for such a reform-minded group they have strange notions of purity. "It is impossible for a woman to remain physically pure all through the 41 days of penance. Personal hygiene is one of the five 'shudhis' (purity notions) mentioned in Thanthra Samuchayam," Narayana Varma said. It was the very same text that was once used to keep the lower castes out of temples. Even the member of the 'thanthri' family we talked to did not link the ban on women to supposed menstrual impurity. He said women going through their menstrual cycle, like men who had suffered the death of a near relative, produced an energy flow that was counter to the energy flow from the deity.
The differing explanations also make it clear that no one is sure what exactly is the reason for the ban on menstruating women.
The faithful, too, found the court order sacrilegious and they rallied around the former royal family who they believe has filial links to the deity. "We had already taken a decision to convene a meeting of the family the day after the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict. But on the day the verdict came, many had come to the palace asking us to take up the Lord's cause," said Deepa Varma, the treasurer of the Palace Management Committee.
The former royals felt that if at all there was a war to be won, it was this. This was fatherly instinct, not kingly. "Our belief, handed down to us from thousands of years before, is that the Pandalam 'thampuran' (the king) is the father of Ayyappa. Our son is in danger," said Deepa Varma.
Chants cast a political spell
The former royals, who still have spiritual sway over Ayyappa devotees, made it clear right at the beginning that there will be no stone-pelting or shouting in the name of their son. Theirs will be a peaceful prayer protest. The family put out WhatsApp messages and made mike announcements in Pandalam and nearby places like Omallur and Alangad. "We were expecting some 5000 people," Deepa said.
The first 'namajapa' or prayer protest march was taken out on October 2 from the Pandalam Medical Mission junction to the Pandalam palace, a distance of 2.5 km. Over 25,000 participated, and 80 per cent of them were women. The protests caught on, and thousands of women chanting sacred mantras filled public thoroughfares in various parts of the state.
The 'namajapa' protests rattled political parties. The BJP and the RSS, which till then had nothing against women entering Sabarimala, abruptly changed tack. A confused Congress suddenly turned belligerent. A confident government, which made it clear that it would do all it takes to implement the court order, found itself on shaky grounds. Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who at first seemed too eager to implement the order, attempted the language of compromise before toughening his stance once again.
The protests lost its spiritual poise after Sabarimala opened for monthly pujas on October 17. "We cannot take responsibility for what happened at Sabarimala. We condemn the violence. We only want Sabarimala's sanctity preserved. And our protests should not be seen as happening under the banner of any political party. On the other hand, we have with us members of all parties," said Palace Management Committee president Sasikumar Varma, who himself is a prominent CPM member.
This new assertiveness seems to have taken even the former royals by surprise. But they also seem to have this disarming ability to laugh at themselves. "The earlier generation led a very austere life of meditation and learning. It was once said that even the stones around Pandalam palace knew Sanskrit. Now, with the passing of generations, it is only the stones that know Sanskrit," Narayana Varma said, much to the amusement of the other royals around.