Stop! No entry!


Women in India have opened yet another frontier in their battle for equality. They have laid siege to temples like Shani Shingnapur and Sabarimala, which are traditionally closed to women. Will these agitations lead the temples to open their minds and doors? E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan examines the issue. .

From ever since I can remember, there have been many taboos associated with women and temples. Starting from the one on ‘No entry’ into temples on the days you menstruate. Now, my generation liked to conform, but we were not goongi gudiyas (dumb dolls). But even some of us fire-brands didn’t think twice about following the temple rules. We weighed it against the startling stories told to us by our mother and grandmothers’ generation, of women being physically segregated during their periods and being treated as ‘untouchables’. Did you know that a menstruating woman had to be in a separate room those three days and she was handed food to eat from a distance? Separate vessels were kept for her and she couldn’t come in contact with anyone. So three days out of every month you were ‘persona non grata’!

In cities with crowded living spaces, segregation was not a practical thing and my generation was spared that. So not being able to visit a temple on those days seemed like a completely laughable non-issue. Unless of course, there happened to be a temple utsavam or festival which we desperately wanted to attend. We used to pray for our periods to be either postponed or advanced drastically by some miracle. Seldom were these prayers heeded!

Now, not being allowed to visit temples on ‘those’ days and not being allowed entry into a temple at all – are two different issues. We girls were subjected to both. The former we can live with, though some youngsters are questioning even that, and the latter, women today don’t want to blindly accept any more.

The Sabarimala ritual
Hailing from Kerala, we knew about Sabarimala and its strange rituals. In fact, the annual Sabarimala exodus in December was an exclusively and almost obsessively a male ritual. Those making the annual pilgrimage had a certain sense of entitlement that was a bit over the top. We were well aware of this exclusion. At a deep level though, I didn’t have this craving to visit this temple at any cost. We had enough temples down in the plains to visit. I never thought of being excluded from Sabarimala as being ‘discriminated against’.

But as I said, up until my generation, conformity was a valued quality.

Two events in the recent past have brought this issue to the fore. And have forced even women like me to question our beliefs and customs. First, the unfortunate comment by the Sabarimala Devaswom Board chief Prayar Gopalakrishnan who said, ‘Till the day a machine is invented which can detect if a woman is menstruating or not, women can’t be allowed to enter the holy precincts’. This led to a lot of umbrage and outrage among women. It was akin to waving, well, a red rag. Now, why did he make this extremely provocative comment? It was in response to a question whether young women will ever be allowed entry into Sabarimala.

But first a background. This temple in Kerala to ‘bachelor’ god Ayyappan is strictly ‘No entry’ for women in the reproductive (menstruating) age, i.e, women in the age-group of 10-50 years. And has always been so. But as with most things, women have in recent times questioned this dubious rule. What Gopalakrishnan seemed to imply is that women cannot be ‘trusted’ to follow the temple-going rules. Really? All these years, women have followed the very rigid rules governing temple entry and have passed down these archaic rules to the next generation. And here he is implying that women can’t be trusted? What about the other Ayyappan temples in South India that women visit freely? Aren’t women being ‘trusted’ to do the right thing there? The only thing Gopalakrishnan should have addressed himself to, is whether women in the reproductive age group should be allowed entry into Sabarmiala temple or not. Not whether they can be trusted to stay away from the temple during their periods, if entry is allowed. He did stir some hornet’s nest here!

The foiled Shani Shingnapur storming
The second incident was the attempted ‘storming’ of the Shani Shingnapur Temple by women. The provocation here was strong enough. Last November, a young girl either by accident or deliberately climbed the open platform in front of the deity where women are barred and offered a quick prayer. This very slight incident led to the temple authorities performing rituals to ‘purify’ the desecrated place! This created immense outrage among women in Maharashtra who are increasingly opposing such antiquated practices (see box).

Pune leads the way
Maharashtra has shown the way for gender equality in other ways too. The busy metropolis of Pune houses two institutes – Jnana Prabhodini and Shankar Seva Samiti, which train women in becoming priests, an unheard of practice in modern times. The institutes offer one-year and eight-month courses respectively, and training is given in religious rituals, where they are also taught Sanskrit since most of the prayers and chants are in this classical language. Women finishing this course conduct private religious ceremonies like the thread ceremony, house warming rituals, Sarasawti puja, naming ceremonies and weddings and are quite popular. It is worth noting that women priests were part of Vedic traditions. How we conceded these traditions to men, is another story altogether.

Until about 400 years ago, women were not allowed into the Shani Shingnapur temple complex, but in 2011, following an agitation by rationalists, women were allowed inside, but not to the shrine’s core area, a platform where a murti (idol) of the deity, Shani, is kept for prayers. Following the act by the young girl last November and the purification rituals performed by the temple authorities, about 400 women volunteers, mainly hailing from Pune and led by 31-year-old Trupti Desai, president of Bhumata Brigade, made an unsuccessful attempt to march to the temple when police stopped the marchers at Supa village, 70 km from the temple. But they have petitioned the Chief Minister of Maharashtra Devendra Fadnavis and seem determined to hold their course on this.

If you thought Hindu temples are the only ones under siege, you would be wrong. The Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA) has petitioned the Bombay High Court seeking a ruling to lift the ban on women entering the inner sanctum of the Haji Ali dargah.

Why out of bounds?
Now, I don’t buy this argument. I believe no temple or place of worship can and should be out of bounds for anyone. Period. And if one is worried about the ‘impure’ days, haven’t women self-regulated their entry all these years? The taboo connected with entering the temple during menstruation is so strong that most women will think it a sacrilege to even think that thought. So why not continue to trust us on this? And if women are questioning even this belief, then perhaps it’s time to do just that, question it! Just as my generation had to face a lesser penalty for menstruating, I think the current generation is going to demand more concessions. Perhaps entering a temple during their periods will no longer be a taboo for them. I may not do it. But I can imagine that many young women today will not think twice about it. But that, I very strongly feel, is a matter left between the God and His/Her believer. Do we really need to invent a ‘menstruation detecting machine’ for that?

The right to pray
At the core of it, it all comes down to this: Who decides who can visit the temple and on what days? Who decides what is impure, unclean and not worthy of being allowed entry into a temple? What indeed, are temples? Temples are man-made structures – be it a small make-shift shrine under a tree or a grandiose structure housing multiple deities. Man has made the rituals and practices and some of them may be ancient rituals which most of us respect and follow. But every now and then, a shake-down of beliefs, sometimes blind beliefs is very necessary, as is happening now, across regions and temples.

There was a message doing the rounds on the social media that men who are wife beaters, rapists, eve-teasers, cheats, thieves and paedophiles are allowed into temples with no machine scanning their ‘impure’ minds. Touchê! Doesn’t it reveal a grossly patriarchal attitude which decides who to allow entry and who not to allow? Isn’t the right to pray in a temple my basic, innate right, forget the Constitution?

Perhaps it’s time for the impossible to become possible.


E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan

E. Vijayalakshmi Rajan is Assistant Editor, One India One People..