Two women have become the first to enter a Hindu temple in India’s southern state of Kerala after the supreme court lifted a centuries-old ban on women.
The temple was later “purified” by priests at the famous Sabarimala temple, which does not permit menstruating women inside. They closed the temple for several hours to conduct ancient rituals to remove the “polluting” female presence.
The two women, named by Indian media as Bindu and Kanaka Durga, had tried to enter the temple last month but had been stopped by rightwing Hindu protestors determined to uphold the ban.
Video footage shown on a TV channel appears to show two women dressed in black entering the temple. Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan confirmed the development. “Today two women have entered the shrine. We had given a standing order to the police to provide all possible protection to any woman who wants to enter the temple.”
Media reports said the two women started the long uphill trek through forests to the temple at about midnight and reached it at about 4am. They were accompanied by a group of policemen. They left after offering prayers to the deity, Lord Ayyappa who is celibate. It is this celibacy that is the reason Hindu traditionalists believe women under 50 should not enter the temple. The fear is that the women could “tempt” the deity.
M T Ramesh, the head of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in Kerala denounced the visit as “a conspiracy”. “Why this midnight visit? The Kerala government has connived in this crime. It is a conspiracy between the women and the government.”
For three months, Kerala has been the venue of an angry showdown between Hindu traditionalists and the supporters of a September ruling by the supreme court saying that women of all ages must be allowed to enter the temple.
After the ruling, several women tried to reach the shrine but were forced to retreat by activists comprising both ordinary women and political groups, including the ruling BJP which opposes the court ruling on the grounds that the tradition of this temple must be upheld.
Prime minister Narendra Modi said in an interview on Tuesday the ban was a matter of religious belief, not gender equality.
Amit Malviya, the national head of the BJP’s information and technology wing, tweeted: “Have the Communists (the communist party rules Kerala) desecrated Sabarimala shrine by facilitating entry of women of restricted age group into the temple? Devastating, if true.”
Local activist Rahul Easwar, who spearheaded the protests against the ruling, told a TV channel that he would verify the footage and take “appropriate action”.
The Kerala government supports the court ruling but has been unable to implement it owing to the protestors camped at the place where the path up to the shrine starts. On 22 January, the supreme court will hear a petition challenging the ruling.
On Tuesday, hundreds and thousands of women in Kerala formed a human chain 380 miles (620km) long across the length of the state to demonstrate their support for gender equality. The “Women’s Wall” rally was backed by the government.