Sabarimala/Kottayam/Kochi: Amid tight security, the gates of the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala were thrown open for the two-month-long Mandala-Makaravilakku pilgrimage season on Saturday.
On the first day of the season, the police have stopped ten young women from Andhra Pradesh, who arrived at Pamba to offer prayers at the temple, and sent back.
The women, in the 10-50 age group, were part of a 30-member group from Vijayawada.
"After they reached Pamba, we checked their identity cards and found that they were in the barred age group and informed them about the current situation in Sabarimala. They did not proceed further," the police said.
According to the women, they were unaware of the age restrictions in place for women at Sabarimala.
At Pamba, the police are now checking documents like the Aadhaar card of women pilgrims before allowing them to proceed.
The Pamba base camp is at the foothills of Sabarimala, about 5km from the shrine.
Meanwhile, Renaissance Protection committee, an LDF initiative, lashed out at the Left government, saying it had gone "soft" on its stand on women entry issue and this will only help "weaken" the cause.
On Saturday, Kandararu Mahesh Mohanararu opened the sanctum sanctorum of the temple at 5 pm, and performed the poojas, as hundreds of devotees from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and other neighbouring states thronged the shrine located in a reserve forest of the Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta district of the state.
Devotees, who were allowed to trek the hill from 2 pm, climbed the sacred 18 steps to the temple with the irumudikettu (sacred bag containing the offerings to the Lord) after the priests performed the padi pooja.
While A K Sudheer Namboodiri took charge as Sabarimala melshanti (chief priest), M S Parameswaran Namboodiri who took charge as the priest of the Malikappuram Devi Temple could not, following a death in his family.
He is likely to take charge by November 23, according to the officials.
The temple, which is located deep inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve, is opened for worship only during the days of Mandalapooja, Makaravilakku and Vishu festivals.
It will also be open during the first five days of every Malayalam month.
During this pilgrimage season, the temple will be open till December 27 for the Mandalapooja after which it will be closed for three days. The shrine will reopen on December 30 for the Makaravilakku festival after which it will close on January 20.
The temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, is situated on a hilltop about 4000 feet above sea level.
As vehicles can go only up to Pamba, devotees have to trek through steep paths in the forest to reach the shrine which is about 4000 feet above sea level.
Police on alert
Earlier, the police had withdrawn the prohibitory orders that were in effect in the area. Police personnel have also been directed to deal respectfully with pilgrims and address them as 'Swamy.'
The Director-General of Police (DGP) of Kerala had said that in case young women are seen proceeding to the shrine, suitable action would be launched based on legal opinion.
The state and temple precincts had witnessed protests by right-wing outfits and BJP workers last year after the LDF government decided to implement the Supreme court's verdict of September 28, 2018, allowing women of all age groups to offer prayers at the shrine.
However, this year, even though the top court had not stayed its verdict on entry of young women into the shrine while posting various petitions on the matter to a larger bench, the government was exercising caution.
The government, as well as the police, is maintaining vigil to avoid controversies and the violence witnessed in the locality during last year's pilgrimage.
Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran has made it clear that Sabarimala was not a place for activists to display their activism and said the government would not encourage such women who want to visit the shrine for publicity.
Those who want to visit the temple can procure a court order to enter the temple, he had said.
Last year, two women in the barred age group - Bindhu Ammini and Kanakadurga - had trekked the holy hills and offered prayers at the shrine, scripting history on January 2.
Over 10,000 police personnel would be posted in phases in and around the Lord Ayyappa temple for security purposes during the pilgrimage season. A major difference this time would be the decision not to deploy women police personnel at Sannidhanam.
Effects of floods at Pamba
In 2018, massive floods had destroyed most of the infrastructure at Pamba. This year too, several facilities would be lacking at the place.
Work on the pilgrim shelters is yet to be completed, and devotees have no place to protect themselves from adverse weather. However, more washrooms have been built than last year, and a hotel, as well as a dining hall to serve free food (annadhanam), has been rebuilt.
The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which is managing the temple, hopes to recover its losses suffered during last year when revenue had dipped significantly.
Resting places for the devotees at Nilackal, Pamba and Sannidhanam have been set up along with medical, water and toilet facilities.
Meanwhile, senior BJP leader P P Mukundan on Saturday urged the Kerala government to withdraw cases registered against Ayyappa devotees for participating in the protests last year against the bid to implement Supreme Court's 2018 verdict permitting entry of women in the menstrual age group into Sabarimala temple.
According to him, cases were registered against 55,650 Ayyappa devotees for participating in the protests against the alleged move by the government to violate the age-old custom of the temple.
Sabarimala Karmasamithi leaders S J R Kumar and K P Sasikala have been made accused in 1,100 cases, Mukundan said in a statement.
Noting that 2,200 people were put behind bars for several days for participating in the protests, Mukundan said they were granted bail on a bond of a total of Rs 3.5 crore.
"They are facing cases for participating in protests to protect the custom of Sabarimala temple. The new decision of the Supreme Court has proved they were right. Now, the state government has also gone back its decision to allow women in all age groups in the temple.
"It is a moral victory for those fought against violation of custom of Sabarimala temple. In this context, the government should withdraw cases related to Sabarimala protests last year," the senior BJP leader said.
The senior BJP leader also hailed Nair Service Society (NSS), an outfit of the forward Nair community, for their fight to protect the faith of the people.
Cop dies in Sabarimala
A 32-year-old civil police officer (CPO) posted near the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple complex, for security duty, collapsed and died on Saturday morning, the police said.
Though the CPO was rushed to the hospital from the police barracks, he was declared brought dead, they said.
The Malabar Special Police officer, Biju, hails from Perambra in Kozhikode and leaves behind a wife and a seven-month-old daughter.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan condoled his death.
(With PTI inputs)