Dr. Sunkari Satyam (Fellow, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad)

Women’s Entry into the Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala: Normative Orders, Conflicts and Social Transformation

1 July 2019 – 30 September 2019

This study explores these questions through observing the overall process of Ayyappa devotion beginning from observing and understanding a ‘mala’ devotee to reach the hill shrine of Sabarimala Ayyappa. The study attempts to collect and document the experiences of women and women on women’s presence at different places, devotees from different caste layers, the labour force and hierarchical devotional structures from conflicts of interpretations. The paper is based on extensive fieldwork conducted in the districts of Nellore, Prakasam, West Godavari, Nizamabad, Adilabad and Hyderabad and some interactions were also held at Pamba River and during upward and downward journey of Ayyappa temple hill shrine.

About 152 detailed interviews were held with all the respondents locating Ayyappa temple issue in the conversations without highlighting straight away about the then ongoing issue. It also brings contrast narratives into larger spaces of tradition and culture through locating normative orders. The present work which is based on post-verdict on Ayyappa temple entry looks at comprehensively locating state, society, religion and culture and tradition based on primary observations from extensive field work. Thus, the paper aims at understanding the role of religious traditions and cultures in emergence of politico-religious conflicts in the post-verdict broadly. It also explores some observations on marginality of women’s space at different locations of the ‘same god’ and caste layers in the overall pooja process.

The issue of women’s entry into the Ayyappa Temple locating above research questions is broadly compounded of two things in the context of the Supreme Court’s judgment on Sabarimala temple. These include firstly, influential motivation by external factors that stimulated individuals to be desired and committed to devote to the traditions of Ayyappa temple shrine and rejection of conception of basic human rights and equality.

It understood that traditions and customs are part of a culture in which a way of life is reflected. Cultural traditions force human beings into an environment in which a mechanism for the normative regulation of behavior established in the course of time. Cultural traditions create a cognitive force through which traditions are honored by a influentially established by dominance. Consequently dominancy creates dominant traditions in which a particular social group forms a dominant group and it largely tries to regulate human nature in particular geographical and social norms. The tradition of Ayyappa is also formed by a dominant tradition. In the context of Sabarimala Ayyappa temple issue, norms of traditions and sources of regulation of tradition of human beings are examined in the following observations.

Padi Pooja is big devotional process in which women role is seen as very important because women feel that the pooja brings prosperity, peace and wealth into their home. Everyone in the family looks for peace and prosperity and to realize their wishes, the Mala devotees perform pooja. The Padi Pooja is perhaps the greatest resemble of devotion to absorb prosperity. Hence, devotees prepare to perform pooja at home. Women engage with the Poojaand how to do how to collect items which needed to do Padi Pooja. Observations have brought how women suffer during the time of performance of Padi Pooja. It is not only suffering but is also a scheme of standardization of subjugation and exclusion as it was rightly pointed out by Douglas, Mary (1966) by bringing Harper’s description how subordination in patriarchical and social context exists: “the theme of the wife’s subordination towards the husband finds ritual expression in her eating from his leaf after he has finished” (1966:11).

Masculine devotion restricts women in terms of following strict rituals which in a very fundamental proposition entering into devotional practices and taking Deeksha. Another supporting argument for women’s restriction was sexual arousal by seeing women in hilly areas by Deeksha devotees thus increased anxiety and guilt accompanying the increased sexual arousal account for the inhibition of the manifest of pious content. This can be considered as a false claim as it would not stand as part of religious tradition. Some empirical observations further claim that women should not disturb rather they should help their husbands and children those who are in Deeksha in possible manner. Further comments extended towards justifying the rejection of women’s entry as it is not the question of rejection of women allowing into temple premises but it is question of tradition and belief.

Ayyappa temple became a debatable issue after the Supreme Court’s verdict on women’s entry into Temple hill shrine on September 28, 2018. The court observed in the judgment note that “the subversion and repression of women under the garb ofbiological or physiological factors cannot be given the seal oflegitimacy” (The Judgment in the Supreme Court of IndiaCivil Original Jurisdiction, 2018). The verdict throws light on questions of faith, religion, religious practices, discrimination, patriarchy, gender equality and rights. Moreover, women are not different under the constitution and the freedom to practice or do whatever they want in terms of religious practices and theright to follow their beliefs was enshrined in Article 25 of the Constitution. Synchronization of religious practice as fundamental rights provided freedom for diverse sects irrespective of the social or gender identity to practice their customs and beliefs.

The structure of performing pooja largely contributed to exclude women from the gambit of Ayyappa devotion. In the later phases of devotion, women’s exclusion was strictly attached with menstruation. The overall process of Ayyappa devotion reveals that physical matters initially prevented later traditional matters came into place as a ritualistic tradition as it practically made by the Lord Ayyappa. However, in any sense as the Supreme Court mentioned in the judgment that nurtured by the society is to impose a rule unjustified and any rule based on the idea of discrimination of women on biological grounds is unconstitutional.Thus, the study explored contexts of women’s exclusion and suppression, structures of caste layers in Ayyappa devotion through collecting and documenting the experiences of women and women’s presence at different places, devotees from different caste layers, the labour force and hierarchical devotional structures from conflicts of interpretations. It has brought contrast narratives into larger spaces of tradition and culture through locating normative orders.


Sunkari Satyam is currently at Council for Social Development, Hyderabad as Assistant Professor and is involved in various research projects funded by Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and core projects of CSD. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Hyderabad. His larger area of research includes public policy and politics of welfare policies and marginality. He has authored three books: Tribals Voice in Democratic Politics of India: Understanding from Agency Areas of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh (2019); Poverty Elimination in Rural India: A Study on Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh (2016) and Women in Gram Panchayats: Emerging Leaders in Grassroots Politics (2014) and has published more than thirty papers in different journals, edited volumes and newspapers.

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