The Sabarimala controversy hides a much deeper problem: untouchability

A piece of paradise—for everyone.
A piece of paradise—for everyone.
Image: Reuters/Sivaram V
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I’ve been to Sabarimala a number of times as a teen in the 1990s.

The revered jungle shrine of lord Ayyappa, the naishtika brahmachari, or eternal bachelor, has a special place in my mindspace as a Malayali.

But it also evokes some bruising memories.

I remember menstruating members of my joint family moving in with the neighbours when we male members were observing penance. Young bewildered girls were literally ostracised. If they refused to comply, the rebellion was put down by the heavy-handed authority of the elders using the dead weight of tradition.

I remember, once, the closest of my “impure” kin standing some 30 feet away, mutely watching the grand rituals at home on the day of our departure for Sabarimala. When I turned in her direction to seek her blessings for the journey, it disturbed her so much she walked back into her temporary home, shutting the door on us.

Those women were being subjected to the age-old practice of ayittham, a form of untouchability practiced in my home state.

Today, this southern Indian province is in turmoil.

On the face of it, the burning issue is simple: For decades, women of reproductive age were barred from visiting Sabarimala. That ban was lifted a few weeks ago by the Indian supreme court, infuriating a section of the state’s Hindu population who want the ban restored. Verbal and theological sophistry has been deployed to justify the ban. The angry devotees are now busy physically blocking women aged between 10 years and 50 years at the temple.

At the bottom of the row is ayittham, again. Though that’s been deliberately kept off the raging debate. After all, Malayalis have a reputation to keep: of being one of India’s most progressive states for women. And to be seen furthering their misogyny in the privacy of their homes would rob them of that halo.

What exactly is ayittham?

Ayittham is colloquial for the Sanskrit ashuddham, meaning impure or unclean. Like in most other parts of India, ayittham was mostly practiced in the context of caste.

According to it, some groups of people were deemed so impure they were simply untouchable. While untouchability was banned in 1950, it is still followed in several parts of the country in varying degrees. But in Kerala, perhaps more than in any other Indian state, caste untouchability has been abandoned.

But not in the case of menstruating women.

In many parts of India, they are barred from routine activities like cooking and entry into sacred spaces like the household prayer room. And like with most vile instruments of patriarchy, women themselves form the frontline here. Raised under its stifling canopy, they perpetuate it by subjecting successive generations to it often forcefully, but mostly through emotional and theological blackmail.

Earlier in Kerala, menstruating Hindu women would remove themselves to specific dingy spaces in the household for the period of their monthly cycle, avoiding being seen in public. In the past few decades, all that has been abandoned. But they are still barred from lighting the ritual twilight lamp, saying prayers, visiting the neighbourhood temple, or even handling religious material like holy books.

However, in many Malayali Hindu homes, the practice reverts to its old barbarous form once a year. And that is the Sabarimala pilgrimage season.

The fake pilgrim and his women

This season extends between November to January, apart from the first week of every month in the Malayalam calendar. For the rest of the days, lord Ayyappa’s temple at Sabarimala remains closed.

The male members of the family who intend to visit lord Ayyappa are supposed to undergo a 41-day period of penance, giving up all forms of intoxicants, sex, and non-vegetarian food. They must follow a rigorous regimen, arising and bathing before dawn, doing the temple rounds, staying barefooted and unshaven for the period, and always in coarse black cloth.

But then, a good section of pilgrims give all these a miss, indulging in mere tokenism nowadays. The penance period itself often lasts just a few days or even hours. Often that is preceded by drunken revelry in anticipation of the imaginary hardships. The men also hit the bottle on their return from Sabarimala—this time in relief after having borne the imaginary hardship.

The reasons cited for this dilution of tradition range from convenience, professional compulsions, and changing social norms.

But, once again, there’s no escape for those menstruating, whatever be the males’ shenanigans.

So a woman—wife, daughter, mother, sister, or even unrelated—on her period remains untouchable during the ritual penance even today and must stay away from home. Alternatively, the men can shift out, too.

Most women do not realise what this does to them as they follow tradition unquestioningly. But many have grown up bitter following such treatment. They await a chance to get even.

The opening up

The supreme court’s lifting of the ban in Sabarimala has opened the floodgates. But only a handful of women of menstruating age will trickle in over the next few months and years.

Yet, the verdict has introduced an element of ferocity in the Malayali male’s misogyny—all couched in liturgical jargon—over the past few weeks. This reflects the rise of such chauvinism over the past few decades in Kerala as represented in its popular culture.

“There is no use of high literacy, women’s education, and the rise of women in official positions,” Malayalam author KR Meera says, referring to the high benchmarks Kerala has set in terms of various development indices. “All this misogyny stems from a lack of self-esteem…It shows we have failed as a society.”

Meera highlighted that today’s culture in Kerala is one that resorts to calling its feminists “feminicchi,” which rhymes and resonates with Malayalam expletives reserved for women, and especially prostitutes.

“The number of feminists is increasing now unlike earlier times. They are changing the status quo, which irritates those who have enjoyed the advantages of this very status quo till now,” Meera says.

Indeed, it is not just the Sabarimala temple that has opened up. Kerala’s women are opening up. And preparing for battle.

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