Indian police escort Hindu devotees Kanaka Durga (centre L) and Bindu (centre R) after they were stopped by hardline activists during an effort to reach the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple in the southern state of Kerala. Photo: AFP

The Sabarimala Temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala was closed in order for a “purification” ritual to be performed after two women below 50 years of age offered prayers at the shrine early on Wednesday morning.

The two women were the first to be able to enter the temple since the Supreme Court ordered an end to the decades-old ban on the entry of menstruating women to the shrine. Bindu and Kanaka Durga, in their early 40s, entered the shrine surrounded by security at around 3.45 am.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan confirmed the visit and said, “It is a fact that the women entered the shrine. Police are bound to offer protection to anyone wanting to worship at the shrine.”

The women began the uphill trek to the temple around midnight and reached the shrine around 3:45 am to offer prayers to Lord Ayyappa.

“We did not enter the shrine by climbing the 18 holy steps but went through the staff gate,” one of the women told local media, according to AFP.

After confirmation of the women’s visit by the Chief Minister, the temple administration closed the shrine and a meeting of the priests was held. Subsequently, at around 10:30 am a “purification” ritual took place, after which the temple was reopened to awaiting devotees. Priests at Sabarimala temple told Asianet News that the closure of the sanctum had never taken place before.

Congress working president K Sudhakaran said that the women’s entry was a conspiracy hatched by the chief minister and that he would have to pay a heavy price for hurting the religious sentiments of hundreds of thousands of devotees, Hindustan Times reported.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), on the other hand, called it a black day in the state. In a recent interview to news agency ANI, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that just as Triple Talaq (instant divorce) is related to gender equality, the entry of women in Kerala’s Sabarimala temple is connected with tradition.

Contrarily, Communist Party of India (Marxist) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said that the closure of the inner sanctum ran counter to the verdict of the Supreme Court, and that proceedings of contempt of court must be initiated against the Thantri.

Since the Supreme Court verdict in September 2018, attempts by many women to enter the temple have led to violent protests across the state. On Tuesday, tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across the state to back the demand for women’s access to the temple. The Supreme Court will start hearing a legal challenge to its ruling on January 22.

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