Sabarimala and the “Tradition” Conundrum!

As soon as the Sabarimala verdict was out a few days back whereby, the court pronounced that women of all ages can now be allowed to visit the Sabarimala temple, a childhood friend of mine asked me for my reaction to the verdict. He posed the question to me because, I was basically from Kerala and having known that I have been visiting Sabarimala since childhood. My view on the verdict was that as times change, situations change, ground reality changes. Time for traditions, culture etc. etc. to keep evolving with the times. And hence I was for the verdict.   Of course this was a simplistic view of a complex case the verdict of which, is now threatening to disturb the pluralistic, multicultural and accommodative fabric of our Indian society.

 

My view on the verdict was based on the premise that the reasons, (though may be valid at one point in time) for not allowing women in the menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, may no longer be valid in this day and age. And hence this ban doesn’t make sense any more. And I was also of the view that any condition set by force is fundamentally against principles of freedom and is discriminatory. And more importantly, I felt that if my teenage daughter asks tomorrow why she cannot visit the Sabarimala temple, I thought I had no tenable answer.

My view, that the Hindu traditions, religious practices and beliefs have never been cast on stone and have always steered their way along conveniences of mankind, has been consistent with my reaction to the Jallikattu controversy or the more recent controversy around Carnatic singers singing Christian songs. In the Jallikattu issue, I opined that Jallikattu in its present form is certainly cruel to the animal and needs to be reformed. In the interests of preserving tradition and culture a total ban is uncalled for but, certainly safeguards need to be put in place to prevent unethical and unhealthy practices.

However, in the past few days post the verdict I have been seeing some arguments against the verdict, some making sense and some completely off the mark. And the sensible arguments have sort of made me change my mind on my reaction to the verdict.

In Kerala, a state with almost 100% literacy and social indices far ahead of the other states in India, the women have been leading the fight back against the verdict. One of the pieces I read against the verdict said that women don’t feel discriminated at all in being allowed to visit Sabarimala. And it is a question of respecting a tradition which has been in place for so many years.  This set me thinking and this piece is the result of the churn in my mind, I guess.

What sets Sabarimala to be different from other temples in Kerala or for that matter in India, is the process of visiting the temple itself. One cannot visit Sabarimala just like that, though these days it is much easier and is more accessible. First of all, the temple is not open 365 days for pilgrims.  Even in the present times of increased travel comforts, the journey is comparatively arduous and one needs to make the last 6 kms. of hilly stretch from the Pamba river base to Sannidhanam by walk.  (“Dolly service” to carry people up this stretch is available). And there has been the tradition which most men follow of observing a Vratham for 41 days before you travel observing certain practices including celibacy during the period. As part of the rituals, you carry what is known as Iru mudi kettu and carry that all along the trek. And till now, women in the menstruating age have not been allowed. So all these traditions are what that finally make Sabarimala different and what it is today. Of course the practices have gone through their own evolution as I mentioned before, in tune with the times and available technology!

Sans these traditions and beliefs, Sabarimala will be like another temple, where one can visit whenever. If the Government wants, it can lay motor able roads right up to the Sannidhanam so that one doesn’t have to do the physical labouring from Pamba.  So, that brings to the main issue. If the following of these traditions is what eventually makes Sabarimala special, why to tinker with them now? If majority of women in Kerala and outside have not been concerned about being discriminated and were #readytowait where is the issue?

Just like this practice in question in Sabarimala, if one digs in deep, there are countless such beliefs, traditions and practices being followed in many places of worship all over India. Some of it may push the borders of one’s freedom, may seem discriminatory and even downright hypocritical. But which make those places of worship unique and special in their own way. It is important for us to pick the right battles to fight which have larger social ramifications rather than pick on potentially harmless issues.

Therefore, I now tend to agree with the lone dissenting voice and ironically the lone lady voice in the Supreme Court Bench – Justice Indu Malhotra, who said that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.

Having said that, I am not buying some of the other frivolous arguments against the verdict being bandied upon bringing in false equivalence around practices being followed in other religions like Islam,..  It’s up to those faiths to pick up their fights!

If India as a country is sort of unique in the world, it is because of our strong roots, culture rooted in traditions and our unwavering belief in “Faith”! So in matters of “Faith”, it will be ideal if the interested parties deliberate among themselves and bring in the reforms when needed rather than throwing the ball to the Courts which necessarily have to pronounce judgments keeping aside traditional beliefs and the underlying emotions involved. And as a society, I do believe that this judgement has opened up a Pandora’s Box and could set a precedent for many an issues involving “faith”, all of it may not have a peaceful pass as this one!

Kallum Mullum,.. – Kaalukku Methai,…” is one among the many slogans you raise to spur yourself while walking up the hill of Sabarimala barefoot. It means stones and thorns are like bed (of roses) to the feet. For an ardent Sabarimala devotee, the judgement though, is seen as a bed of stones and thorns in his hitherto peaceful journey! Having been conflicted on this one for a few days, I do believe that I have a plausible answer to give to my daughter on this “tradition” conundrum!

Image courtesy: Scroll.in

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15 years hence in “Google” of the changes in Sabarimala !!!

It is exactly 15 years since I last visited Sabarimala – a temple housed in the hills in the southern state of Kerala which is supposed to beGod’s own country.  Those days, if I had to provide information on this temple, I would have had to spend time and energy to write a few lines coherently and still may end up not providing the full or proper information. But today, times have changed. Without me prompting, one would just “Google” ‘Sabarimala’ and find for oneself all relevant and even irrelevant information he/ she needs. As “Google” celebrates its 15 year anniversary this week, I realized that 15 years is a long enough period to witness paradigm shifts. We have been fortunate to be a part of many disruptive technologies in our lives – “Google” being certainly one for changing our lives for the good.

As I embarked on the Sabarimala trip last week, I was keen to look out for the changes – good and otherwise that would have happened, for myself. For people who have been regulars it might have missed their attention and may not be so exciting but for me it clearly gave a “Before/After” picture which I thought I will share in this post. And my focus of this post is just on those interesting changes which I managed to capture.

The highway leading to Pamba the base camp from where you start trekking up to the temple is part of the Ghat section and is forest area. One could now see the highway “littered” with signs of “No plastic zone” in line with the increasing concerns around protecting the environment these days. But the irony was not lost on us as soon as we reached Pamba and alighted out of the car. It started raining and you guess what – “plastic” sheets were being hawked for 20 bucks as rain covers to protect you from the rain as you climb!!! In the “Plastic free zone” – plastic was freely made available!!!

You could see the effects of the other “disruptive technology” as soon as you land at Pamba now. At Pamba most of the public utility and services buildings like the post office, police station,.. are all now crowned with “Cell phone” towers which means that we cannot give the excuse of “no connectivity” for not attending to our business! Ofcourse if your operator was for example Airtel you can still get away!!! The once busy STD/ISD/PCO booths now witness in envy the mini stampedes in Mobile recharge shops as people scramble to get their SIM cards topped up.

At the Pamba base camp one cannot the miss now the ATMs of various banks solving the liquidity issues of the pilgrims.  And if you want to do last-minute changes in your travel plans or do some booking, Southern Railway has pitched in with a railway reservation counter.

The hilly steep terrain from Pamba to ‘Sannidhanam’ (Sanctum Sanctorum) which used to be just muddy/rocky path interspersed with logs of wood to provide grip has now been concretized. I am not sure if this is good or bad. Ofcourse it provides more grip while climbing up and coming down but during afternoons the concrete path heats up. Also the not so smooth but rough concrete surface provides for a nice acupressure treatment!!! It is now advised to climb with your slippers on.

Now concreted path

Now concreted path

The concrete surface also means – it is now possible for the vehicles to move up and down which was an unseen sight those days but a common sight now. The Mahindra tractor keeps whizzing past you up and down now carrying loads of material required at the top. But they are well advised to “HORN OK PLEASE”  🙂 🙂 Actually herds of donkeys were doing the material carrying routine those days.  You can also now see huge earth moving equipment at work paving the way for new roads, connectivity,..

Mahindra tractors - A Common sight

Mahindra tractors – A Common sight

Earthmovers @ work

Earthmovers @ work

On the way there are sheds which have come up which provide for places to rest and relax a while on the way. Again on the way one could see very novel ‘urinals’ (sorry no picture) which have been put up to channelize the ‘human leaks’. Not sure hygienically if this is a good idea as the stench in the vicinity was unbearable 😦  Those days pilgrims would just disappear in the forest area to relieve themselves and Nature would take care of the rest.

For many people an annual trip to Sabarimala is an opportunity to test their “cardiological well-being”. The steep climb up for a few kilometers does challenge the strongest of hearts. Therefore one is happy to see the mushrooming of health centres now at the base, on the way and at the top. So you now have a buffet to choose from – Ayurvedha hospital, Homeo dispensary, Cardiology centre and General clinic are all there in case of emergency. And as a sign of “globalization” – you can see warning signs on H1 N1 as well.

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At the Sannidhanam on top there are ofcourse many new crowd regulating measures at work but still I’m not sure if these measures really work during the peak season time when millions throng the place. You can only now climb up the “Holy 18 steps” and not allowed to use for climbing down.

The Holy 18 Steps

The Holy 18 Steps

The steps are also gold plated now (so is the temple Vimana – Courtesy one Mallya I’m told 🙂 ) and you are not allowed to break coconuts on the steps now.

With mobile phone connectivity till up the top, don’t be surprised to see mobile/ TAB toting pilgrims “checking in” and “checking out” of “Pamba / Sannidhanam’,… and updating status real-time on FB or tweeting about the weather. Also it has made the whole travel experience more convenient. So on your return with a few calls, you are spared of the trouble and time of locating your vehicle and the driver which used to be a nightmare before.

As they say, “the more things change the more they stay the same”.  Ergo there were so many things which remained same in 15 years – some thankfully so and some not so. The ones which remain the same thankfully for example the thick forest cover, very good roads in such an intimidating terrain,.. need mention. The sight of very poor and diseased people seeking alms along the way up the hills is something which you saw those days and you don’t want to see today.  Obviously inclusive growth has been elusive in our country. 15 years is a long enough period for countries to lift people out of poverty as we saw in the case of China. But for our country, our administrators are still “Googling” for the magic formula and unfortunately we have not found one yet.

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