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.

Aikya Mala Araya Maha Sabha is a developmental organization working towards the welfare of the Mala Araya people in Kerala. In an interview with Aathira Konikkara, a reporting fellow at The Caravan, the founder and general secretary of AMAMS, PK Sajeev, discusses the Mala Araya’s beliefs about Ayyappan, the disputed belief regarding women entering the temple and the Brahminisation of rituals in the temple. “That is my biggest point of protest,” Sajeev said, referring to the Mala Arayas’ role in Sabarimala. “History is being deliberately neglected.”

Aathira Konikkara: Which rituals and customs did the Mala Araya’s practise before the Thazhamon Madom took over?
PK Sajeev: Sree Ayyappan was born in this [Mala Araya] community to Kandan and Karuthamma, in a cave in Ponnambalamedu [a district in Kerala near the Sabarimala temple]. During this period of history, the Cholas had been on the offensive against Kerala for over 100 years. Kandan and Karuthamma had approached a priest known as Korman, praying for a solution to defeat the Cholas. It is said that they were told to fast for 41 days so that they would have a son who could defeat the Cholas. So the 41-day fast emerges from Sree Ayyappan’s birth. Sree Ayyappan, as the commander, mobilised the people against the Chola dynasty. He united all the people who were trained in martial arts and became a force of strength. That is how they faced the Cholas.

Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

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