A woman who defied violent protests to worship at a centuries-old south Indian shrine that banned females of “menstruating age” has been spurned by her family, attacked by relatives and locked out of her home.
On New Year’s Day, Kanakadurga, 39, along with Bindu Ammini, became the first women to enter the inner sanctum of Kerala state’s Sabarimala temple, one of the country’s holiest Hindu sites.
The supreme court had in September declared unconstitutional a customary ban on women aged between 10 and 50 from entering the temple, a hill shrine located at the end of a three-mile trek through dense mountainous forest.
Kanakadurga, Ammini and hundreds of other women had attempted to reach Sabarimala once it reopened after September’s verdict but were turned away by sometimes violent protesters, mostly men, who see the court’s decision as inappropriate state intervention in a religious matter.
The pair – Kanakadurga, a government employee, and Ammini, a 40-year old law lecturer – entered the temple to pray with police protection in the early hours of 1 January. The same day, hundreds of thousands of women in Kerala formed a 380-mile human chain across the length of the state in support of gender equality.
“A lot of people tried to dissuade us and make us turn back – police officers, our friends … because they knew we were facing a lot of backlash,” Kanakadurga, who like many Indians uses one name, told Reuters after the climb.
The two women’s quiet prayer at the shrine reignited protests across Kerala, considered one of India’s most progressive states on gender issues, but which has been bitterly divided over supreme court’s decision. About 75% of people disagree, according to one survey.
The pair went into hiding after entering the temple and have been granted 24-hour police protection. Kanakadurga was admitted to hospital last week after a female relative allegedly beat her with a plank of wood minutes after she returned home.
On Tuesday, Kanakadurga, a mother of two, slept in a government-run shelter after she returned home to find her husband had locked the doors and gone into hiding.
Police tried to mediate with her husband’s family but were told she would not be accepted back until she “atones for her sins”, Ammini told the Hindustan Times. “I talked to her this morning also. She is in high spirits. Some forces are pressurising her family but they won’t succeed.”
Kanakadurga’s brother told a group of Ayyappa devotees on Sunday that his family had also distanced themselves from her.
A third woman, aged 46, has reached the temple since the two women’s entry, the office of the chief minister of Kerala said on 4 January. Dozens more, including some in men’s clothing, have been turned back by demonstrators, backed by the temple’s administrators.
Lord Ayyappa, the deity who is worshipped at the shrine by up to 50 million people each year, was traditionally celibate, and many devotees fear the presence of women would contravene his explicit wishes and “pollute” the sacredness of the site.
Pilgrims preparing to visit Sabarimala traditionally abstain from alcohol, meat and eggs and take a vow to be celibate for 40 days before their visit.
Lifting the ban on women has been opposed by the Bharatiya Janata party, the Hindu nationalist party that controls India’s central government, as well as its traditional opponent the Congress party. Kerala’s ruling Communist party government supports the verdict.
The prime minister has been careful not to criticise the supreme court but instead focused his ire on the Kerala state government that is enforcing the decision.
“We knew that the communists do not respect Indian history, culture and spirituality but nobody imagined they will have such hatred,” Narendra Modi said at a rally in the state last week.