By Keertana S:
I am a young woman who wishes to trek to the beautiful Sabarimala temple leading to my favourite deity, Ayyappan. Today, I had joined the same group with whom I had gone many times to Sabarimala as a little girl, to sing bhajans, chant the holy names of the Lord. But today, I just stood there and saw them leave for the temple…
I have deep respect for my culture and traditions. I have been to the Sabarimala temple four times, and I grew up listening to the stories of Ayyappa – of his heroism, his humility and his unconditional acceptance of people despite their differences. I remember waiting for months before making the incredible pilgrimage to Sabarimala and enjoying the feel of the fresh earth with my bare feet as we made our way up to the temple.
These eagerly-awaited trips were suddenly snatched away from me when I turned 11. Why? Why could the boys of my age who had started on these pilgrimages with me, continue visiting Ayyappa in his hilly home while I had to stay behind? Just because I was a girl? From many, I only got broken pieces of unconvincing reasoning. “Because girls are fragile for such hikes,” one person told me. “Because Ayyappa wouldn’t want young women coming to his abode as he has chosen celibacy,” said another.
As I got older, I learned that any woman between 10 and 50, the ‘menstruating age’, couldn’t go to Sabarimala. I still searched on the web – “why are women not allowed at all to visit some amazing temples in our country?”
Maybe a hundred years ago, we had a logical answer to these pressing questions. Temples back then didn’t have toilets with running water, so women on their periods were not let in because it would be unhygienic. Back then, trekking through forested mountains like Sabarimala was very dangerous because of lack of well-laid roads and lots of wild animals, and women had a ‘greater safety threat’, or so was assumed. Back then, there was no facility to place little children in daycare, so mothers couldn’t leave for long 3-5-day pilgrimages. A hundred years ago, this state that Indian women faced in religious grounds could still be justified. But not now.
Today, we have incredibly advanced sanitation for women on periods. We have great infrastructure and far easier treks, up holy hills and women have proven that they are capable of taking up such journeys with determination, ability and devotion.
Hindu scriptures do repeatedly suggest that Gods and Goddesses think of every human as their equally beloved child. The creators themselves would surely not have scrunched their noses in disgust at a phenomenon that they have created for half the mankind.
There is a story about Ayyappan not wishing for women to enter his temple, in which he has cited two reasons too. Fertile women shouldn’t go to Sabarimala out of empathy for Malikapurathamma Devi and her almost-eternal wait to marry Lord Ayyappa. Also, women shouldn’t ‘distract’ Ayyappa as he is celibate focusing only on answering his devotees’ prayers. But I ‘distract’ Ayyappa often, with my prayers at home. In fact, I write to him regularly, not at all to disturb his celibacy, but because I consider myself his child. I believe this is exactly how every devotee woman feels.
I am not writing this to be a rebel, though I am sure that it will come across that way to people who are too used to things, just the way they are. I am writing this because I love our culture, but I also wish for a change of some customs purely based on rational reasoning and the fundamental basis of our Constitution – equality and also, the right to expect the same rights as your fellow humans. I understand that even thinking of allowing women into temples that have traditionally barred them, might feel scary or unnatural. Identities of temples like Sabarimala have been built on exclusively allowing only men of all ages. But I also know that if we make changes to allow women equal access to all the places of worship at all times, it will be for the better, for everybody, not just women. Allowing women into Sabarimala should not threaten the celibacy or devotion of men. Rather it should make the adventurous and holy pilgrimage a wholesome, familial experience.
God is a fundamental element in the lives of many men and women in India. And every believer deserves to have equal rights and ability to ‘access God’ anytime, at any place, no matter what the mode or configuration of their biological system is.