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An Open Letter To BJP Chief

An Open Letter To BJP Chief

Dear Shri PS Sreedharan Pillai,

Defeat, electoral or otherwise, has a sobering effect on the person concerned. I thought your defeat at Chengannur for the second time in succession would have taught you a lesson. However, your elevation as the president of the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to have given you a new kind of confidence reflected in your language and mannerism.

You may not have realised when you gave that startling speech at Kozhikkode that truth has a way of popping up, when it is sought to be hidden. Of course, nobody would have been surprised by what you said, because everybody knew that a party bereft of political or economic ideas could only think of how to convert a so-called religious issue into a political issue.

We have all seen Rahul Eswar, your ideological font, confessing in public that your people had a plan to shed blood in the precincts of the temple to have it closed. It was like a policeman confessing many many years later that Naxalite Varghese was shot at point blank. This is how God works in His inscrutable ways!

While addressing a meeting of the youth wing of your party, you said that everything was falling in place according to your party’s plan and it would help it to attain power. As a senior lawyer of the Kerala High Court, you had no business to advise the thanthri (priest) of Sabarimala that you would rescue him, if he violated the Supreme Court order.

Now having encouraged the priest to take a stand which is at variance with the law of the land, you exposed him by telling the whole world that he was a weakling who could be manipulated. Such a crass behaviour did not behove the state president of a party that rules the country! You have exposed yourself as an undependable ally.

You have been waxing eloquent about Sabarimala but I remember very well that you had welcomed the 4-1 Supreme Court verdict when it was delivered. Of course, you were not the only one to welcome it. In fact, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) itself welcomed it.

Just to remind you one more thing, the women who went to the apex court challenging the Kerala High Court order which upheld the ban on women in the 10-50 age group entering the temple were all affiliated to the Sangh Parivar.

When the Parivar realised that Sabarimala was a good issue to disunite the Malayalees, who stood like one person to fight the severest flood they ever experienced, and fish in troubled water, you changed your stance. And so did your party and the Parivar to which it belongs. Such people are called opportunists. I am sorry to call you by that name but you have yourself become an example of the term flip-flop.

You have now become the protector of traditions. What you do not realise is that traditions are not religion and religion is not Lord Ayyappa. We had in our village Thekkepuram in Ranni a great devotee of Ayyappa. He used to go to Sabarimala every year observing all the vows. He would not cut his hair or nails or eat any non-vegetarian food or engage in carnal pleasures.

We called him Ayyappa. Once he decided to perform the ritual called walking on the fire. His house was small. He organised the fireplace in the courtyard of my grandfather’s house. The whole village was there to witness as Ayyappa jumped in and out of the pyre. It did not matter to him that he did it in the courtyard of a Christian.

We always prayed for his return from Sabarimala for it was not uncommon those days for the pilgrims to fall prey to wild animals! We children had a special reason to pray for his return because he would bring some very tasty delicacies from Sabarimala. Ayyappa knew that Sabarimala was not a Hindu shrine, restricted to Hindus alone. It was a temple open to everyone, even when untouchability was practiced in the state. Anyone could go there, provided he was an Ayyappa devotee.

Today a petition, filed by a Hindu organisation, is there before the Supreme Court to declare Sabarimala a Hindu temple, open only to Hindus. You want to finish the syncretic traditions of the temple in the name of protecting the women-related traditions. Three years ago, I visited a Christian family at Mavelikkara, met the descendants of a contractor who rebuilt Sabarimala after a fire, saw the records they had and wrote a column.

In the early 20th century, there was no Hindu who could do the work of re-building Sabarimala. It was the Travancore Maharaja who persuaded the contractor to take up the job. It was a challenge to build the temple when there was no proper road to Sabarimala. He built the whole temple at Kollam, then de-assembled it, numbered every little piece, transported them in hundreds of bullock carts and, then, reassembled them at Sabarimala.

Before he could complete the job, the contractor died. Incidentally, he had sat as a model for artist Raja Ravi Verma and was immortalised in one of his paintings. The temple work was finally completed by his son-in-law who was an Orthodox priest. There was no “Thantri” there to pronounce that he would close the temple if the tradition was violated. The next time you go to Kollam, please see the Travancore palace there. It was built by the same contractor. By the way, he did not get the full payment for the work on the specious plea that the temple materials were transported via Erumeli, not via Vadasserikara.

This tradition of women not entering the temple is as recent as a few decades ago. At that time, only very few men went to Sabarimala. Women were not encouraged to do so because of the risk involved in the arduous journey through a terrain where the call of the wild was heard as often as the waving of the lathi in an RSS shakha (unit).

For want of space, I do not want to write my own experience of encountering a wild elephant at Chalakkayam in 1972. The injunction against women, between 10 and 50, entering the temple came as recently as 1991 from the Kerala High Court. Do you know that the same court allowed an IAS officer, who was the Pathanamthitta district collector, to visit Sabarimala and supervise the arrangements there for the Mandala Pooja?

Yes, she was not allowed to climb the 18 steps leading to the temple. She stood at the bottom of the steps and prayed. A few days ago, an RSS leader was seen climbing the same steps in wanton disregard of the temple traditions that only an Ayyappa with Irumudi can climb the stairs. 

The lady IAS officer climbed the stairs only after she turned 50. Do you know that the lady who retired from the IAS has welcomed the Supreme Court order? While she could reach the temple precincts, your men attacked a lady journalist who went there to report. She is now bed-ridden because she suffered an injury in her spine when a bhakt kicked her! Until the RSS became the self-proclaimed custodians of traditions following the SC verdict, women could go anywhere in Sabarimala except the temple.

I am sure you know TKA Nair, who was principal secretary to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. You can question his capabilities, as Sanjay Baru did in a book, but nobody can question his integrity. Today he lives in a flat in Thiruvanthapuram that belongs to his wife. He has recently disclosed that his parents had taken him to Sabarimala for choroonu (the first feeding of rice). His mother was certainly in the 10-50 category at that time.

There are so many traditions associated with Sabarimala that have become a thing of the past. Can you touch your chest and say that a majority of the pilgrims observe the 41-day rituals? I can say that not even 1 per cent does so.

Sabarimala has been evolving. I do not want to get into the argument that it was a Buddhist shrine, as is manifest from the posture of Ayyappa and the use of “Dharma Sastha” in relation to Him as also the Saranam calls heard at Sabarimala.

Instead, I want to tell you about what I have myself witnessed. In my younger days, Sabarimala was opened, if I remember correctly, only twice a year, for the 41-day period and Makara Vilakku. This tradition was broken when it was opened on the first day of every Malayalam month. This tradition was, again, broken when the temple was opened for five days a month.

Do you know that the tribals of the area had a say in the running of the temple before the Pooja was totally Brahmanised? I had heard about thenabhishekam (pouring of honey on the idol). Honey has now been replaced by ghee. In my younger days, every pilgrim would carry a coconut filled with pure ghee and break it on the 18 steps. This tradition was ended. The tribals were the ones who lit the fire known as Makara Vilakku. Now it is done by the Electricity Board staff!

The Ayyappa of our village had told us that he had done a sayanapradikshanam at Sabarimala. It is a ritual whereby the person rolls himself around the temple. This tradition has also ended because millions of people visit the temple now unlike the hundreds a hundred years ago. Please don’t think that it is all because people have become more spiritual and religious. It is only because there is now no risk of the tiger picking you up on the way. It is also because your car can reach right up to Pampa.

Sooner than later, one will be able to reach the temple in a helicopter like at Vaishnodevi or by using a cable car as at Timber Trail at Parwanoo. You can’t stop the march of progress or modernity by your protests.

I am sure you know what poet Kumaran Asan meant when he said, "Mattuvin chattangale swayam allenkil Mattum athukal ee ningale than! (If you do not voluntarily change irrational traditions and practices, you will simply be wiped out by them”. That is history. Let me remind you that those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

Do you know that 80 years ago, social reformer and freedom fighter KA Keraleeyan was attacked, among others, by women with wooden pestles (ulakka)? He walked on a public road with some scheduled caste people. The women said a temple nearby would get polluted by those people. No, they did not enter the temple. Keralayeen had with him a young leader, who became virtually the first leader of Opposition in Parliament, AK Gopalan.

Sati was our tradition. When it was abolished by William Bentinck on the regular pleadings of William Carey, there were many people, including women, to protest against it. They were like those who distributed sweets at Thiruvanthapuram when Gandhiji was assassinated (Please read ONV Kurup’s autobiography). I have myself reported BJP’s then Vice-President Vijayraje Scindia saying that she believed in Sati. She did not answer why she did not commit it when her husband passed away.

If you have time, please read Kerala Charitram by KA Sreedhara Menon, then you will know that there were people who protested against ending the practice of lower caste women having to wear a chain made of stone beads. It was also a tradition not to allow women to cover their breasts. It was also a tradition not to allow Scheduled Castes, especially Parayas, to walk on the roads. The victims of tradition were not the Scheduled Caste women alone. The condition of the Brahmin women who could not move out of their house was not much different.

You claim that the Supreme Court’s order on Sabarimala can be overcome. Even when the Travancore state allowed admission of Pulaya children to schools, they did not automatically get admission. Some chose to burn the schools, rather than admit them. Finally, Ayyankali had to organise an agitation. They stopped working on the farms of those who did not allow their children to study.

You must have heard about the Vaikom Satyagraha. It was not to let the Scheduled Castes to enter the Vaikom temple. It was to let them walk on the public road outside the temple. The Satyagraha which brought Mahatma Gandhi to Kerala was not a great success. Years passed before the temple proclamation was made.

Even after the proclamation, Scheduled Castes were not allowed to enter the Guruvayoor temple for more than a decade. Do you know that as recently as some years ago when Congress leader Vayalar Ravi went to the temple to feed his grandson, the priests did a purification Pooja. Do you know why? Because Ravi’s wife Mercy was born a Christian.

Also, do you know that when an upper caste Nair first rang the bell at Guruvayoor, the traditionalists protested against it because a Nair was not supposed to do it? Please remember that it was the abolition of untouchability by law that allows many of your own party men to assemble at Sabarimala and threaten to kill any “young” woman who enters the temple.

Let me conclude by telling you that however hard you try, and whatever be the number of women you bring on the road, this tradition of not allowing women who menstruate to enter Sabarimala will end as several traditions of the temple ended. Who remembers those women who broke the bones of Keralyeen? They are in the dustbin of history, as you and your supporters are destined to be.

Yours etc

( ajphilip@gmail.com )

(Published on 12th November 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 46)