Sabarimala/Pamba: In a climbdown, Kerala government on Friday decided to move the Supreme Court seeking time to implement its order allowing women in child-bearing age to offer prayers at the famous Lord Ayyappa temple here, which opened for a two-month long pilgrim season.
The decision by the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the hill shrine, to move the court was announced by its president A Padmakumar in Pamba, minutes after the temple doors were opened Friday evening.
Earlier, social activist and leader of the Bhumata Brigade Trupti Desai, who has vowed to offer prayers at the temple, and six of her young women colleagues were prevented from leaving the Kochi airport for over 11 hours since their arrival early morning by devotees opposing entry of women of menstrual age into the hill shrine.
The Pune-based activist said police have asked her to return and she would announce her decision later.
The announcement on the TDB's move came amid mounting tension in the backdrop of the stand-off over protests by devotees against entry of the women in 10-50 age group, traditionall barred at the shrine dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, a celibate.
"If possible, we will move a petition in the Supreme Court either tomorrow or Monday', Padmakumar said adding the board wanted devotees to have peaceful darshan.
The move comes a day after the LDF government at an all-party meeting took a firm stand that it was bound to implement the apex court order and rejected suggestions by opposition parties that it seek time from the court.
The opposition Congress and BJP had walked out of the meeting, accusing the government of being adamant and dubbing the exercise a farce.
The temple and surrounding areas have come under unprecedented security for the season which draws lakhs of devotees from various parts of the country.
Never before restrictions have been enforced for the devotees in view of frenzied protests witnessed when the shrine opened briefly last month and early this month when at least a dozen women in the 10-50 age group were prevented from entering the shrine.
The Supreme Court is slated to hear petitions seeking review of its September 28 order in January, but has refused to stay it.
As the shrine opened at 5 pm in the presence of head priest Kandararu Rajeevaru, the large number of devotees present there chanted "Swamiyae Ayyappa".
Braving chill weather, devotees carrying the 'irumedikettu' (bundle carrying sacred offerings) rushed to climb the 18 holy steps leading to the Sannidhanam (main temple complex) as soon as the shrine opened.
Long queues of waiting devotees were seen on the hills.
This is the third time the temple is opening after the Supreme Court's order, though no girl or woman pilgrim in the 10-50 age group could offer prayers so far following stiff resistance by devotees and activists, opposing any change in the temple traditions.
The annual pilgrim season, observed in two phases, starts on Saturday for the 41-day 'mandala puja' festival which will conclude on December 27.
It would reopen for the grand 'Makaravilakku' festival on December 30 and close on January 20, marking the culmination of the pilgrim season.
At the airport in Nedumbassery near Kochi, the devotees, including women, whose numbers have grown since morning, squatted outside the domestic terminal building chanting 'Swamiye Ayyappa'.
Rahul Easwar, president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, spearheading the protest against the entry of women in 10-50 age group, said the devotees would "guard" Sabarimala against the entry of the women during the pilgrim season. Leader of the opposition in the state assembly Ramesh Chennithala attacked the state government and the TDB for not making adequate facilities for the devotees who would be visiting the shrine during the pilgrim season.
Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran, however, said the government had done everything that was humanly possible at Pamba and nearby areas after the August floods which had destroyed the infrastructure.
Pilgrims, however, said there was lack of adequate toilet facilities, causing immense difficulties especially to women, and rest rooms. Drinking water shortage only compounds the woes of pilgrims who visit the shrine.
Over 15,000 police personnel will be deployed in phases, besides a 20-member commando force, a special bomb squad with 234 personnel would keep vigil at the shrine and nearby areas, police said. IGP Vijay Sakhare has asked police personnel to strictly follow strict the dress code at Sabarimala, while exemption has been given to cops at the holy 18 steps and sanctum sanctorum.
Police have decided not to permit pilgrims to stay back at the shrine after 10 pm.
Though there were reports that shopkeepers, hotels and 'prasadam' counters had been asked to down their shutters after the shrine closes, police later clarified no such direction had been issued.
Pathnamthitta District Collector P B Nooh said no woman in the 10-50 age group has so far approached the local administration seeking protection to visit Sabarimala.