The Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, India has been recently thrown into the news. It has made world news due to the two centuries long tradition of denying females from the age of 10-50 entrance into the Temple. As of September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing women entrance into the Temple. Needless to say, this ruling was met by both large numbers of supporters and protestors. But what makes the Sabarimala Temple so controversial?
The Sabarimala Temple is devoted to the Hindu God Ayyappan. The cognate root of his name is undecidable. It could be rooted in the Sanskrit word Arya which roughly translates as ‘noble one’. It could also be rooted in the Tamil root word Appa which translates as ‘father” making Ayyappan’s name mean ‘Lord Father.” Ayyappan is also sometimes called Dharma Sastha.
Dharmasastha means Dharma teacher, guide, and preserver. He is a lesser known deity and largely found in South India. Ayyappan has a few temples throughout South India, but the Sabarimala Temple is the largest and most popular. The Sabarimala Temple has become the site of a massively popular annual pilgrimage.
But who is this Ayyappan? The creation story of Ayyappan is that he is the son of two male Hindu Gods; Śiva and Viṣṇu. Viṣṇu was in an avatar form of a female goddess Mohinī. Mohinī is first introduced into the Hindu Pantheon in the Mahābhārata when she tricks the demons who had stolen the pot of Amrita, the immortality elixir and she returns it to the gods. Mohinī is said to been highly sexually alluring and radiantly beautiful. Legend goes that her beautiful and sex appeal can make men blind and crazy. While walking in the forest, Mohinī catches Śiva’s eye and Śiva aggressively pursues Mohinī. They have sex and from this union, a new deity is created, Ayyappan.
Because he is a product of two male deities, he does not fully have access to female energy, prakṛti and the goddess essence, Shakti. One of Ayyappan’s popular nicknames is Hariharaputra, the son of Viṣṇu(hari) and Śiva (hara). Both of his parents are deities associated with the universe, dharma, and knowledge. This unique parentage helps to further encourage what Ayyappan oversees. Ayyappan is the god of growth and the embodiment of Dharma. His worship and popularity are heavily found in the Kerala region. Due to his divine parentage and that Śiva was married to Parvati and couldn’t bring home a child, Ayyappan was raised by a royal human couple who could not conceive on their own. He was taught in the ways of the yogi and was taught how to live out a life devoted to the Dharma. The yogic life has led Ayyappan to take a strict vow of celibacy. This vow also mandates all his followers to adhere to vows of celibacy before they come to his temple.
The Sabarimala Temple as a pilgrimage site for all three Hindu traditions: Shaktas, Shaivites, and Vaishnavites. Men, women, and children can partake in the pilgrimage that happens once a year between the end of November and early December. Before the pilgrims start the trek to the Sabarimala Temple, they must partake in a 41-day austerity lifestyle – rigorous fasting, celibacy, abstinence of alcohol and other substances, no profanities, they cannot cut their hair, nails, and bath twice a day. The pilgrims will also dawn a specific mala (necklace or chain) that represents the Dharma necklace Ayyappan wears.
The Temple is open only three other times during the year, January 14th and the 14th of April, as well as the first five days of each month. During these select times, it has been reported that anywhere between 17 and 50 million followers will visit.
But what makes this Temple so unique and problematic in a 21st Century position is that since its establishment, the Sabarimala Temple has denied women entrance. A study done by the Madras Government that was published in 1893 and 1901 documented how women did partake in the pilgrimage. Both studies reported that all females between 10-50 were denied entrance into the temple claiming all forms of sexual activity, including menstruation was considered abhorrent to the God Ayyappan. They also reported that there was a specific ritual that women could participate in outside of the Temple walls. In my next month’s post, I will be going into depth over the modern implications and problems that have arisen with the Temple’s ban on women. So, stay tuned.
Anjeanette LeBoeuf is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Whittier College. She received her graduate training from Claremont Graduate University in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program. She is the Queer Advocate for the Western Region of the American Academy of Religion. Anjeanette also writes the for activist blog, Engaged Gaze. Her focuses are divided between South Asian religions and religion and popular culture. She has become focused on exploring the representations of women in all forms of popular culture and how religion plays into them. She is an avid supporter of both soccer and hockey. She is also a television and movie buff which probably takes way too much of her time, but she enjoys every minute of it. Anjeanette has had a love affair with books from a very young age and always finds time in her demanding academic career to crack open a new book.