Answer by Raakhee Venugopal:
Thank you for the A2A.
First off, there is no ban on women from visiting the shrine. It is only a certain age group. The statement ‘women not allowed to enter’ is a wrong one publicized by ignorant media. I am a woman and I have had the good fortune to visit Sabarimala Ayyappa Swami thrice – at the ages of 3, 6 and 8.
Back to your question…as a woman, as an Indian with complete freedom of thought, as a Keralite, and as a devout Hindu with no biased thoughts, my personal opinion is that the old tradition should be continued.
Hindus in Kerala and in the rest of India differ in that they follow two schools of Hinduism – Tantric and Vedic. They have different customs and rituals. This is a fact that most of the people from north India do not understand…and do not make an attempt to understand either. They can’t be blamed completely. When 98% of the country follows one system, it would be difficult for them to accept any other variant. But given that India is a land of diversity, people should show more tolerance and not mingle religious customs with the laws of the country.
When I visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi a few years ago, I remember how the temple priest asked me to bend and touch the ShivLing inside the main sanctum sanctorum. I was aghast! Back home, we don’t even touch the priests lest we defile them. Temple priests or the Namboothiris in Kerala maintain high levels of cleanliness and purity at all times. Nobody is allowed to have any level of physical contact with them while they are on duty inside the temple. And here, they’re asking you to touch the ShivLing!!! I didn’t do it. I stayed at a respectful distance, prayed like I would do back home and exited. That is the custom I’m used to. And that is what I will follow. Different temples, different customs. Although I didn’t completely agree, I didn’t go about trying to change the customs of Kashi Vishwanath temple just because it is different from what we follow back home.
There is just one temple of Lord Ayyappa that prohibits the entry of women during their menstrual age. All other temples of Lord Ayyappa have no such rules. Why there is an Ayyappa temple about 200m from my home back in Kerala. It is like a second home to us. But Sabarimala Ayyappan is different. The temple has its own traditions and customs, and IMHO, it is extremely hurtful to the sentiments of devotees – men and women alike – that a bunch of people who have no idea about the tradition have come forward and demanded such huge changes. Why do you think there is general cold attitude from the Keralites to this entire issue? There are little or no support movements favoring the entry. On the contrary, the #ReadyToWait campaign has started recently and has gained a lot of support from all over the state.
I wonder why nobody mentions the annual Attukal Pongala festival in Kerala, where men are not allowed to come and offer pongala to the Goddess there? The festival has found itself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the single largest gathering of women for a religious activity.
Festivals, temple customs and rituals like these are a part of our culture. I don’t understand why people have to hate on something that they don’t understand. Kerala has a rich cultural past. Yes, we are very different from the rest of India. We are Hindus but we don’t celebrate Navratri or Diwali. We have our own festivals like Onam and Vishu and Thiruvathira and Thrikkarthika that are not celebrated anywhere else in the way we do. Are we hating on people who are different from us? No. Why is this so difficult to understand for a lot of people?
It is saddening to see the way our traditions are being bent and misconstrued as being anti-women and regressive, while in truth, Kerala is one of the very few states in India that has such a huge percentage of families that follow the matrilineal/matriarchal system. Women have always had a place higher than men. People bring in senseless arguments like how they imposed a tax on women who wished to cover their bosoms in the past. This is like comparing chalk and cheese. They are two different issues. The breast tax was a part of the caste system. Why is that being dragged into the a comparison with entry of fertile women into Sabarimala? Most of us are neither Vaishnavites or Shaivites as the rest of the country is. We are Shaktyas with the Mother Goddess or Shakti in various forms being our family deity. In that way too, we are different. Without knowing all this, people go on and on about inequality and male chauvinism and whatnot! Sad! And when the women of Kerala themselves respect the tradition, what is the need for certain ‘activists’ who are only looking for some attention to come and change anything? Who are they fighting for? We don’t need your ‘services’. Thank you.