Kani tribals will organise a variation of 'namajapa' protest to oppose the presence of women near their celibate God at the peak of Agasthyarkoodam hills within the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary. “We will hold 'achara samrakshana yajna' on the day women begin their trek up the hills,” said Mohan Triveni, president of Agasthyarkoodam Kshethra Kanikkar Trust. “The date and the venue of the 'yajna' will be decided later,” he said.
However, unlike the Sangh Parivar forces, the tribals will not block the way of women who would take the arduous trek up the hills from January 15. “There is a High Court verdict and we have to respect the law of the land,” Triveni said.
The High Court single-bench order lifting the unofficial ban the forest department had imposed on women trekkers was issued on November 30. The judge, Anu Sivaraman, said even if Kanis had certain religious rights it could not work against the fundamental human rights of women to participate in a trek to Agasthyarkoodam. The judge further said if the trek was being held, both male and female trekkers should not be “permitted in the immediate vicinity of the idol or to offer any religious prayers.”
The forest department has interpreted this to mean that women trekkers could be allowed to climb beyond Athirimala, which is some six kilometres from the peak. “We will barricade the area where Kanis conduct pujas on the deity. It is also at the peak but away from the rock, to a side. So after protecting the puja area, we can take the trekkers, both men and women, right up to the peak,” said Thiruvananthapuram wildlife warden Y M Shajikumar. This, for Kanis, is sacrilege. Athirimala is the point where Kani customs have drawn a 'lakshman rekha' for its women. Kani women are not supposed to cross this line. Athirimala is also the base camp for the trekkers, where they stay for the night.
Like Ayyappa, Agasthya Muni too is considered a celibate, and therefore zealously guarded against the presence of women. Agasthya Muni, who is said to have penned some of the finest hymns in Rigveda and has cameo appearances in Ramayana and Mahabharata, is said to have chosen the Agasthyarkoodam to be his final resting place.
Kanis call Agasthya Muni 'moottu kani' or “king of kanis”. “We don’t let even our women near our king. It is a belief handed down from an unknown past. It might seem illogical today but considering that even the most educated have not fully understood the mysterious ways of the world we live in, you cannot ridicule us for holding on to a harmless belief,” said Rajendran Kani, a senior member of the community.
The trek is for 41 days from January 15 to March 2. “The schedule has been so planned to complete the trekking season before Shivaratri on March 4 when Kanis would conduct special prayers and pujas for Agasthya Muni,” said Thiruvananthapuram wildlife warden Y M Shajikumar. On Shivaratri day, the hill will be open to Kanis for their rituals.
Partial ban on women
However, unlike in the case of Sabarimala, the ban on women in Agasthyamala is seasonal, applicable only for a one-and-a-half month trekking period. Post-trekking season, the department grants permits to researchers, including women, to roam the Agasthya hills in search of samples.
When herpetologist Bhupathy Subramaniam slipped to death near the peak on April 14, 2014, there were two women researchers with him. Tribals, despite their reservations, had learned to live with the presence of women near their celibate deity during the rest of the year.
Lack of facilities was another factor that made authorities reluctant to include women in the annual trek. Nonetheless, the forest department has no plans to create additional facilities for women at the Athirimala base camp. Instead, they will do some improvisation. “There is a large shed where trekkers sleep during the night. This we will partition using a sheet. As for toilets, three of the 10 we have at Athirimala will be reserved for women,” Shajikumar said.
Athirimala also has a canteen, which is run by tribals of Podiyam settlement. “We will definitely serve the women who are part of the trekking team,” said Rajendran Kani, who incidentally will act as one of the guides for the trekkers. The department has roped in 32 guides for the season, most of whom are Kani tribals.
The High Court verdict lifting the ban on women was based on a petition filed by three women groups: Women Integration N Growth Through Sports (WINGS), Pennoruma and Anweshi.