History is being deliberately neglected: Sabarimala and the Brahminisation of an Adivasi deity

28 October 2018

On 28 September, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court lifted the ban on women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple situated on a hilltop in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district. The temple, managed by the socio-religious trust Travancore Devaswom Board, is a shrine to Ayyappan, a deity regarded as a Naishtika Brahmachari—eternally celibate—in Hindu mythology. Around 1955, the TDB prohibited the entry of women in the age group of 10–50 years to “protect Ayyappan’s vow of celibacy.” After the judgment, thousands descended on the streets of Kerala proclaiming that the verdict was an attack on their faith regarding Ayyappan. On 17 October, the temple opened its gates for six days for its monthly puja. Women who attempted the pilgrimage to the shrine were hounded by mobs, which created a situation that threatened to escalate into riots. No woman was able to enter the temple.

In the Supreme Court judgment, DY Chandrachud states in his concurring opinion that prohibiting women’s entry was a form of untouchability. Appointing priests from non-Brahmin communities is also a disputed issue in Sabarimala. The verdict states, “A claim for the exclusion of women from religious worship, even if it be founded in religious text, is subordinate to the constitutional values of liberty, dignity and equality. Exclusionary practices are contrary to constitutional morality.” In the wake of the verdict, the Mala Araya, an Adivasi community listed as a Scheduled Tribe by the central government, is staking its claim to practise religious rituals at the temple. Mala Araya, from the word “Malai Arayan” which means “Monarch of the Hills,” is one of the largest tribal communities in areas of Kottayam, Idukki and Pattanamtitta districts of Kerala.

They claim that they practised religious duties in the temple until they were forced to stop after the Thazhamon Madom, a Brahmin family, took over the priestly responsibilities of the temple in 1902. Since then, the post of the thantri, or the head priest of the temple, has been passed on hereditarily within the Brahmin family. According to the Mala Araya, the subsequent Brahminisation of the temple—and its rituals and history—effectively ousted the Adivasi community from the temple.

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    Aathira Konikkara is a staff writer at The Caravan.

    Keywords: ayyappan Travancore Devaswom Board Sabarimala Supreme Court patriarchy caste Thazhamon Madom Aikya Mala Araya Maha Sabha Mala Araya Kerala