Meena Koottala: The long battle for Agasthyarkoodam

Meena Koottala: The long battle for Agasthyarkoodam
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The Agasthyarkoodam peak is where Sage Agasthya is said to have meditated in his hermitage. The local tribes believe only with Agasthyamuni’s blessings can one hike up the hill and experience the bliss. But the hill was yet to hear the footfall of women until a week back.

Standing 1890 metres above the hills in the Western Ghats, it offers spellbinding natural beauty. Agasthyarkoodam has been in news lately for women's agitations to scale the peak that led to a High Court order giving them access. The second batch of women who trekked the peak had Meena Koottala, an employee at Thiruvananthapuram Medical College. Meena speaks to Onmanorama.

Early protests

Forest Department’s notification for Agasthyarkoodam trekking published in January had one rider – women and children under 14 cannot apply. Many friends have told me that women have been there before, so I felt agitated at the notification. In 2014, I inquired about this through an RTI, and the reply said no women have been to Agasthyarkoodam.

In 2016, some women’s organisations staged a protest in front of the Vazhuthcaud Forest Office. Sulfath teacher, Divya Divakaran, Rajitha, Maglin and Thasni from organisations like Anveshi, Pennoruma and Wings were there. I joined the group of about ten protesters with placards. We met the wildlife warden and demanded an entry that season itself. We inquired if there were any written orders restricting women. We were told that there were none, and women and children were restricted because the route was arduous, and the base camp had no facilities for them. We said women required no additional facilities.

The next day we met the then Minister for Forests Thiruvanchur Radhakrishnan. Agasthyarkoodam passes are issued online. They will all be grabbed within a matter of hours. That year’s passes had already gone. The minister promised women will be allowed from the next year. He went on media to say there was no ban on women at Agasthyarkoodam.

meena-kootala
Meena Koottala (L)

The government changed in 2016. The department notification in 2017 January said the same – no application for women. We met the then minister Raju and gave a list of 51 women.

We created a Whatsapp group - Agasthyane kaanaan. Since we could not complete an online application, we were promised entry on the final day of the season. We were getting ready for the hike when, two days before the date, it was announced that women can go only up till Thirumala, the base camp. We declined the offer and protested in front of the secretariat.

That’s when the High Court stayed women’s entry on a petition by the Kaani tribe that said Agasthyar was a celibate and it would constitute to violation of the customs. The 2018 season thus fell within the HC stay order. But we protested at Bonacaud Forest Office, where the trek begins, on January 26 demanding gender equality enshrined in the Constitution. Finally in November 2018, the HC bench of Justice Anu Sivaraman lifted the ban and ordered women’s entry.

I have been hearing about Agasthyarkoodam, its rare species and scenic beauty from my college days. I wanted to visit it at least once in my life. Being woman was no criteria to stop someone from going anywhere in the world.

The trek

I had the company of Sulfath, Shaini, Nisha, Sachithra, Divya, Cicily, Rema and Sherly. On the trail, Sulfath teacher wondered why such a beautiful place was denied for women all these years. Another issue here was many people were using the entry passes for pilgrimage inside the reserve forest. Outsiders are not allowed to do any kind of pilgrimage here as per the new order. We are happy that our fight could bring about such a change.

Women supporting women

The joy of the trek was inexplicable. Nine women who were in the forefront of the protests went together on January 18. Three of them were aged above 50. All of us did some fitness exercises after obtaining a pass on January 5. Many said it will be a hard journey. But with optimism and mutual encouragement, we made it to the peak fairly easily. The oldest among us, advocate Cicily, was the first to get there. We trekked enjoying the woods, rivers, winds and the mountains. It’s astounding how well women can work hand in hand.

My journeys

Travels for me were happy events as a child. Growing up, I went on solo and group trips. One journey ends with dreams of the next.

A trip to Attappadi with friend Saji as a first year graduate student is memorable. I used to read destination names on the bus those days. Once I saw a board that read ‘Aanakkatti’. I had never heard that name before. One day we left on that bus. We felt terrified after a while as the forest was thick and dark. We came back in the same bus.

Uncertain Days

Despite the HC order, there were rumours of possible protests against women at Agasthyarkoodam. But we were determined to go because it was a dream long cherished. Some close friends warned it was a dangerous trek and accidents could happen. But we were all upbeat about it and there were no fitness issues.

Going it alone

I rarely travel alone. When I have to, I make sure to Google the route, book hotels early, try to reach before dusk and travel in public transport. I want to travel more.

Only some friends knew of the long struggle that made women’s entry possible. They were very supportive. But some asked why women have to do this. It was the time of Sabarimala protests. For me travels are part of life, and it is hard not to go when there is a chance. My family also supports my travels.

Define life

Life is like the woods, filled with light and shades of secrets. It is a place of possibilities and insecurities. Maybe we won’t ever unravel the real mysteries of both.

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