The Sabarimala foothills here Sunday witnessed high drama as hundreds of devotees blocked paths and chased away a group of 11 women of menstruating age being escorted to the hill shrine by the police.
Though the police team tried to arrest and remove a few of the devotees who blocked the traditional forest path and take the women members of Chennai-based outfit 'Maniti', hundreds of pilgrims rushed down to the valley to chase them away.
They could barely move 100 metres through the traditional path towards the temple, which is about five km away from here.
The women and the police had to virtually run from the scene to the safety of a nearby guardroom, abandoning the trekking plan, after being booed by protesters.
Defying prohibitory orders, hundreds of devotees thronged the forest path here blocking the way of the women, who reached in the early hours from Chennai.
Police tried to remove the protesters by force as they were not ready to budge despite their repeated announcements to disperse and end the namajapa (chanting sacred hymns) protest.
Repeated talks by the police with the women who were sitting on the road for over six hours, also failed as they insisted on climbing the hill and have darshan at the shrine. As the Pandalam royal family, attached to the Ayyappa temple, and the opposition BJP accused the government of taking the "activist women" with police protection, Devaswom Minister, Kadakampally Surendran said they would act according to directives of the high court-appointed monitoring panel.
"We hope that that the high court appointed three-member panel will look into the matter and take a suitable decision in this regard. The government will act according to that," Kadakampally Surendran told reporters.
However, BJP leader K Surendran alleged that the arrival of women was "well-planned" and the CPI-M led LDF government was behind the move. The BJP and other right-wing activists staged namajapa protests across the state including before the Cliff House, the official residence of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in Thiruvananthapuram.
'Manithi' coordinator Selvi said in Pamba that more members of the outfit were on their way to Sabarimala and the 11 women was only the first batch. Selvi said women also have the right to pray at the temple and that they would not return without darshan.
"Police is asking us to go back in view of protests. But, we won't go back without darshan. We will wait here till we are allowed to trek climb the hills," she told reporters here.
A Kerala-based Dalit activist, Ammini also announced her decision to trek Sabarimala Sunday. She said in Kottayam that if the protesters blocked her, she would stage an indefinite hunger strike at Pamba, on the foothills of Sabarimala.
The 'Manithi' group reached Pamba by 3.30 am through the Idukki-Kambamedu route in Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. Local television channels said they had to face protests at various places on their way but police removed the protesters and helped them to reach up to Pamba.
Of the 11 women, six carried the traditional irumudikettu which is mandatory to climb the 'pathinettam padi' (holy steps leading to sanctum sanctorum). Thilakavathi, another member in the group, said they would continue the protest till they could offer prayers to Lord Ayyappa.
"Priests of the local temple at Pamba did not cooperate with us and declined to get our 'irumudikettu' (sacred offering to the God) ready as per custom. So we did it on our own," she said. Women, in the age group of 10-50 years, are traditionally barred from entering the Sabarimala temple.
But the Supreme Court, through its September 28 landmark verdict, has lifted the curb and permitted women of all age groups to offer prayers at the temple.
Anxiety had loomed large in and around Sabarimala Temple for some days as 'Manithi' had declared last week that a group of 50 women, all below the traditionally barred age of 50 years, would visit the shrine.
Selvy had told a Malayalam TV channel that the group comprised women from different states, including Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Karnataka besides Kerala.
She had also said they had already written to the office of Kerala Chief Minister and informed him about their plan to trek to the hill temple.
Kerala had witnessed massive protests by devotees opposing the entry of girls and women in the 10-50 age group into the Sabarimala Temple since the Kerala government decided to implement the September 28 verdict of the Supreme Court permitting women of all age groups there.
Over a dozen women have so far made unsuccessful attempts to trek the holy hills. Four transgenders, who were earlier stopped from proceeding towards the Lord Ayyappa temple citing security reasons, offered prayers at the hill shrine under heavy police security earlier this week.
The Kerala High Court earlier this month appointed a three-member committee, vesting them with powers to oversee law and order and other problems faced by pilgrims during the ongoing annual season.