The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi

A Sabarimala tale: When the celibate god rewarded an actress for touching his feet

Published Nov 9, 2018, 8:04 am IST
Updated Nov 9, 2018, 8:04 am IST
Amit Shah has chastised the Supreme Court for having ruled that young women, whose entry to Sabarimala was banned, be allowed entry.
Sabarimala Temple
 Sabarimala Temple

When I visited Sabarimala in 1982, young women entering the Ayyappa temple was not an issue. The issue erupted in 1986 when Jayamala, an actress, crossed all the red lines. Not only did she enter the sanctum sanctorum, but she went a step further — she touched Lord Ayyappa’s feet.

This led to a furore. The chief priest and the tantrik shut the temple for two days. Special prayers were held to decontaminate the space and mollify the god, who is a renowned celibate. Only when Ayyappa was “calmed” was the temple opened again.

 

If Jayamala had truly incurred the wrath of a god as powerful as Ayyappa is in the eyes of his devotees, she would surely have been consumed by hell fire. But Jayamala herself is convinced that she is basking in his favours. As minister for child welfare in the Karnataka JD(S)-Congress government — the only woman member of the Cabinet — Jayamala may be forgiven for her unshakable belief — her elevated position in life is a boon from the celibate god.

Her audacity did not attract too much attention in 1986. An impression was allowed to grow that the “unstable” woman who gate-crashed into Ayyappa’s presence and touched his feet may have been passed menstruating age. But Jayamala obviously revelled in the controversy bracketing her with Ayyappa. She announced in 2006, with great fanfare, that she was only 27 years of age, bursting with youth, when she had touched the Lord’s feet. The Sabarimala administration was hopping mad. That is when a tradition which discouraged young women from undertaking the pilgrimage was dressed up as a rule. This was the rule upturned by the recent Supreme Court judgement.

My own experience of Sabarimala causes me to rub my eyes with disbelief at the unseemly spectacle. I owe my visit to Sabarimala entirely to Bob Murari, the distinguished IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre who, along with his brothers, undertook the pilgrimage annually.

Would the faith into which I was born be an obstacle? Not at all, said Bob, quite the contrary. The favourite of the Sabarimala deity, Lord Ayyappa, was a Muslim devotee named Vavar Swamy, whose shrine, before Ayyappa’s, is visited by most pilgrims. The Murari brothers and I obtained our share of Vibhuti, or holy ash, from a Muslim priest, his long beard coming virtually upto his navel.

The 6-km trek from the base of the hill across the Pamba river is through lush forests reverberating to the sound of Vavar Swamy songs sung by Jesudasan, a Christian and a regular pilgrim. That a pilgrimage so all embracing of religions should be transformed into a battleground between devotees, the state and the Supreme Court is because of the very special talent for mobilisation which is patent to the BJP alone.

The BJP-RSS will to win is incomparable. Amit Shah has chastised the Supreme Court for having ruled that young women, whose entry to Sabarimala was banned, be allowed entry. The state Congress has in fact taken an even tougher stand. Ramesh Chennithala, Congress leader in the Kerala Assembly, is insistent that the BJP at the Centre bring in an ordinance to nullify the effects of the court ruling. BJP state chief P.S. Sreedharan Pillai throws up his hands. “It is a state subject — the Centre is helpless unless the state Assembly makes the demand.” His target is the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front.

“Rubbish”, shouts Mr Chennithala, it is in the Concurrent List and does not require the state Assembly’s certificate. The implication is that the BJP government at the Centre is unwilling to open the ordinance route in such matters because the party would then come under pressure to bring in an ordinance elsewhere — on the Ram Mandir, for instance.

This one-upmanship on Sabarimala casts both the parties as hardliners, opposed to the Supreme Court directive. The Congress is, in fact, following a folksy, Awadhi saying: “Tum daal, daal to hum paat, paat” (If you climb the branches; I shall climb the leaves). The Congress’ Mr Chennithala says Ayyappa devotees be given the status of a religious sect under Article 26, immunised from any legal interference. “My party is with the believers”, he asserts.

Since the late K. Karunakaran’s chief ministership, the Congress has always been BJP-neutral, largely because its biggest political opponent is the Communist-led LDF. The BJP never entered the assembly, but it consolidated 0.5 to 1.0 per cent of the vote across the state. Whenever this one per cent vote is injected into the election process, the Congress-led United Democratic Front generally wins. The margins of victory in Kerala are thin.

The post-Sabarimala bonhomie is in a different context. The scales are different. An aggressive BJP at the Centre has, by sheer will power, achieved the near-impossible in Tripura. It is eager to repeat the performance in Kerala. Even if the BJP takes an electoral dip in the 2019 elections overall, Kerala by itself will be a great trophy. It was the first state in world history that brought Communists to power through the ballot box in 1957. Salvador Allende came to power in Chile democratically much later, in 1972.

While the Congress in Kerala has been tactically soft on the BJP, it has had to fight the BJP tooth and nail in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Diverse experiences institutionalised two broad Congress approaches to the BJP.
One of Karunakaran’s great ambitions was to remove any doubts about Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s caste, since his father Feroz Gandhi was a Parsi. He escorted a bare-bodied Rajiv Gandhi several times to the Guruvayoor temple. These visitations must have had the appropriate effect. For this reason, Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala was able to assert in the course of the Gujarat campaign that Congress president Rahul Gandhi is a janeudhari (thread-wearing) Hindu, which means a brahmin. Rumours are now afoot that an itinerary for Rahul Gandhi is in the works to enable him to undertake the pilgrimage to Lord Ayyappa’s shrine in Sabarimala when the temple opens again. Who knows, the BJP may field Narendra Modi in the spirit of competitive piety.

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