Wednesday’s Kerala police action against Kannada actress Jayamala revives a debate over women’s entry rights at the Sabarimala shrine.
Some say she is lying, and that she couldn’t have ever gone inside a temple where women between 10 and 50 are barred, but others say she is being victimised because she spoke the truth.
The police filed a chargesheet against the Kannada actress, four years after she claimed she had entered the shrine and touched the idol of god Ayyappa in Sabarimala. Her claim created a furore in Kerala.
Wednesday’s chargesheet says Jayamala, astrologer Parappanangadi Unnikrishnan and his Bangalorean assistant Raghupathy caused outrage and hurt religious sentiments in 1986, a full 24 years ago. In November this year, Jayamala had approached the Karnataka High Court, seeking anticipatory bail, but the Kerala police had told the court they had no intentions of arresting her.
In 2006, Sanskrit scholar R Ganesh had argued in Deccan Herald that the question of who should be allowed into the sanctum “depends on the traditions of a shrine”.
He said, “The conventions of excluding women are seen in many places. The shrine of Annappa Daiva at Dharmasthala is a good example… some mosques have taboos for women. During the time of the Buddha, women were not allowed to enter the order of Buddhist monks.”
Jayamala (50) has served as president of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, and starred in blockbuster hits with the biggest Kannada movie icon, Rajkumar. She has also produced a Kannada film directed by the auteur Girish Kasaravalli.
In 2006, she claimed that she had entered the sanctum sanctorum of the temple when she was 27. After the story broke, and a debate raged, retired government official M P Bhattathiry put the ban on women’s entry in perspective:
“(The temple board) gives a smorgasbord of reasons: The eight kilometer trek to the temple along dense woods is arduous for women; Ayyappa is a bachelor God and his bachelorhood will be broken if he sees a woman; the forty-one-day penance for the pilgrimage, where one must live as abstemiously as a saint, cannot be undertaken by women – they are too weak for that; men cohorts will be enticed to think bad thoughts if women joined them in their trek; letting women into the temple will disrupt law and order; women’s menstrual blood will attract animals in the wild and jeopardize fellow travelers; menstruation is a no-no for God…. And so the list of lame reasons grows. Don’t think that no one has ever questioned the inanity of those reasons…”
Bhattathiry also talks about the difficulty of fighting a battle for women’s entry into the shrine:
“Several Indian feminists have fought, and keep fighting, with the Temple board in favour of the women devotees. But the Temple board remains implacable. It is backed by enormous political clout, and poor Indian feminists, like feminists almost everywhere, must fend for themselves. It doesn’t help that many Indian women are disinterested in any feminist struggle. They think that it is presumptuous for women to defy established customs. It is hard to rally them, especially when it involves flouting tradition or religion.”
Blogger E Pradeep believes Jayamala could be lying, but readers responding to his post suggest it is not impossible to enter the shrine if one is influential or willing to grease palms.
Jayamala, who lives in Bangalore, has not received the chargesheet yet, and plans to take legal advice once it arrives.
The police chargesheet raises many questions: Is it all right for shrines to keep women out? Do such restrictions violate the gender equality principle? Should shrines follow convention or change with the times? Is Jayamala guilty of sacrilege if she has indeed entered the temple and touched the idol? Should the police go after her even when she has made it clear that she has great devotion for the deity? Why is a 24-year-old incident being reopened now?
On web message boards, defenders of entry restrictions say it is not unusual for mosques, gurudwaras and churches to enforce their own dress and gender conventions, and that it is unfair just to target Hindu temples and accuse them of bias.