(My column in Mint Lounge, January 21 2017)
There is a goddess in Kerala who menstruates. The temple in Chengannur is officially dedicated to her consort, Mahadeva, but it is the bleeding image of the female deity that attracts masses of the faithful to the shrine. Every now and then a red spot “manifests” on the white cloth wrapped around the idol. The cloth is presented to females of an old Brahmin family who inspect it to verify whether or not the “blood” is divine discharge. If it is indeed what it is believed to be, fanfare commences—the deity is escorted to the riverside for a ritual wash before returning to her sanctum until the next spot necessitates her next bath.
Interestingly, the very Brahmin household that celebrates this menstruating goddess also supplies priests to another important temple in the state. But unlike the fecund goddess of Chengannur, the deity installed atop the Sabarimala hill is a bachelor who reportedly entertains reservations about receiving female worshippers if they happen to fall into the fertile age bracket. In other words, if you bleed, you cannot enjoy the privilege of an appointment with Ayyappan who, last weekend, watched over hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered for the annual makara vilakku festival.
The legends of Ayyappan of Sabarimala form a fascinating, eclectic tradition, involving a romance between Shiva and Vishnu (as Mohini), a Muslim associate who is commemorated in a nearby mosque, and an aspiring bride who awaits Ayyappan in her own temple. Then there is the “celestial flame”—the makara vilakku mentioned earlier—that appears every year in the far distance on a densely forested hill. The celestials lighting the fire turned out to be officials of the government, but the revelation hasn’t dulled Ayyappan’s massive appeal.
The custodians of his shrine, however, are determined about the rule concerning women. One particular woman called Trupti Desai is decidedly unwelcome. Some defend the custom by stressing Ayyappan’s bachelorhood—a weak argument since other Ayyappan shrines embrace all women, including those whose bodies perform certain periodic natural functions. Then there is the argument that it is not safe for women to go into the forest, which might have worked if we were still living in an age when roads and transport and the police were yet to be invented.
The principal argument, however, is that this particular Ayyappan does not receive women—each pratishtha or consecration of any deity has a sankalpa or founding belief specific to it, and for Sabarimala’s Ayyappan, unlike assorted Ayyappans in other districts, fertile women are taboo. Since keeping such women at bay is integral to the deity, it is the prerogative of his priests to uphold such integrity, they say. Priests can be forgiven for an exaggerated emphasis on tradition—that, after all, is their trade—but change in some form must prevail, if history is any lesson.
There were, after all, other temples in Kerala that prohibited certain groups. Kshatriyas were not permitted in Kumaranallur and Thrikkariyoor, while women (and for some reason, elephants) were barred from the temple in Thiruvalla—apparently one woman jumped into the garbha griha some time in prehistory and “merged” with the god. The priests banned women, possibly because they couldn’t brook such insolent short cuts to salvation. In 1968, however, astrologers decided that it was safe for the deity to be around women again and the ban was lifted. The case of the elephants is not known at this time. The case of Sabarimala, on the other hand, lies in the Supreme Court, where this conflict between something as amorphous as faith, and the law, which must be guided by reason to uphold fundamental rights, is being argued out. That will take its time but there have, interestingly, been comparable situations in the past where too custom was believed to be immutable, and any modern intervention deemed an improper assault on religious autonomy—but drastic intervention was made, and in hindsight has been accepted even by one-time detractors as essential.
In 1932, the maharaja of Travancore, alarmed by marginalized groups transferring their allegiance to non-Hindu religions, appointed a committee to consider granting them the dignity of access to temples. The committee’s report in 1934 was wishy-washy. “Exclusion from temples,” it claimed disingenuously, was “not always the result of the excluded class being considered inferior to others. It is based on a belief that the approach of certain people is likely to derogate from the spiritual atmosphere surrounding the pratishtha, the deity installed in the temple.”
In 1934, they meant low-castes in general entering all high-caste temples would have an impact on the founding principle of these temples; today in Sabarimala we believe that the approach of women will affect the religious foundations of that temple. “A large body of (high-caste folk) believe,” the report also added, “on the basis of the (scriptures), that the entry of the (low) into (their) temples would cause defilement of the temples…and there will be no efficacy in the worship or rites performed in them.” The report ended with a recommendation that the low should be provided “greater facilities” but care must also be taken that the orthodox were not hurt—the maharaja was to decide how far he wanted to go in making a concession.
As it happened, the maharaja went quite far. In 1936, he threw open public temples in Travancore (which covered parts of Tamil Nadu and all of southern Kerala) to Hindus of all castes, allowing the “low” to enter temples and pray before the gods. The Hindu religion did not crumble into defiled dust. Though its intention was to check conversions to rival faiths, the Temple Entry Proclamation was hailed as a historic reform, from Mahatma Gandhi to C. Rajagopalachari. Ambedkar, of course, could see that this had little to do with reform and more with political calculations, but that is another matter. At the end of the day, there is precedent for the executive intervening in religious affairs in Kerala and issuing reforms that the conservative priesthood would never have allowed. The big irony in Sabarimala with its priests is, of course, that they will accept a menstruating goddess but stand in the way of menstruating humans. Someone must show them the way.