Erstwhile Pandalam royals fear even their token parental rights over Lord Ayyappa would be usurped


Sasikumar Varma has still not been able to forgive. His son has been insulted and his fatherly rights were sought to be undermined.

“I remember the Chief Minister telling in a press conference (in 2018) that the Pandalam Palace was so poor that it surrendered all its rights over Sabarimala to the Travancore kings,” said Varma, the president of the Pandalam Palace Management Committee and the senior male member of the erstwhile Pandalam royal family.

Sasikumar Varma
Sasikumar Varma

“It is true that the Pandalam palace was steeped in poverty and we had handed over our properties to Thiruvithamcore (as ransom for peace). But the Chief Minister should know that we have not surrendered our paternal rights over the deity. How can anyone change the fact of fatherhood,” Varma said.

Ayyappa: Lord of the hills - click here to view infographics

Pandalam Palace
Pandalam Palace

Loss of a once-in-a-year role

The Pandalam king is considered the father of Lord Ayyappa. The Lord is said to have been found as a child inside the forest by a childless Pandalam king, Raja Rajasekhara. The delighted king took the child home and brought him up as his heir.

But on entering teenage, Ayyappa was determined to renounce his worldly life and do penance in the forest. The boy, knowing his father was heartbroken, granted him one wish. Every year, the king could visit him in the forest. And yes, his father can also carry all the ornaments he had wished to see on his son. And on that day alone, the father can see his son as he had always dreamt, as a prince.

The 'Thiruvabharanam procession led by a member of the erstwhile Pandalam royal family, an arduous three-day trek through the forest carrying Ayyappa's ornaments in a palanquin, is the annual re-enactment of a father's visit.

Varma said the palace had no administrative rights over the hill shrine. “What we have are only ritual rights, and it is part of the Sabarimala faith,” Varma said. The head of the erstwhile royals fear that the family would be stripped of even this emblematic right, this once-in-a-year father's role.

Two faith-empty women

Once a card-holding CPM member, Varma is now deeply distrustful of the party. “There was so much vengeance towards the faithful in what they did,” Varma said, referring to the LDF government's attempts to force women of child-bearing age into Sabarimala after the Supreme Court verdict favouring their entry in September, 2018.

Varma was watching live news in the early hours of January 2, 2019, when two women of menstruating age, Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga, were escorted into the sanctum sanctorum of Sabarimala temple by the police.

Kanakadurga and Bindu
Kanakadurga and Bindu

“They were taken through a secret path, not up the sacred 18 steps. They were taken in through one place and out through the other. Since they had no faith, these women were not seen praying before the 'sreekovil',” he said, his pain subdued like someone describing a terrible tragedy that had befallen his family some time ago.

How royal women shielded Communism

Nonetheless, it is evident that he is deeply bothered by the CPM's stand. “How can the CPM ever forget what the palace had done for its growth,” Varma said. “At a time when the party was banned, it was in the palace its leaders took refuge. We were in deep poverty and yet there were days when the only dishes that were made in our poor palace, 'chutney' and the burnt 'pappadam', made for us were given to the comrades,” Varma said.

He said Communist pamphlets were secretly printed in the near-empty granary of the palace. “We have seen our uncles oil the old 'stone block' machine so that it would not make any sound. And when these pamphlets were getting printed, the 'deeparadhana' would be taking place in the Valiyakoickal Sree Dharmasastha Temple right across the palace,” Varma said.

And how do you think these pamphlets were taken outside, he asked. “The women of the palace would go out to the temple carrying flowers in a cloth-covered platter. The pamphlets will be under the cloth. The women were perhaps unaware. It were done by our uncles,” Varma said.

Pandalam Palace
Pandalam Palace

BJP's “shameless” opportunism

If Varma is pained by the CPM's aggression, he is disgusted with the BJP. He termed as “shameless” the then BJP president E Sreedharan Pillai's “golden opportunity” comment. Varma and other members of the erstwhile royal family had also turned down the BJP's offer to contest in the Assembly polls.

Varma said that K Surendran had met him and other family members at the Pandalam palace and made the offer. “We refused. For us, Sabarimala is not a political issue. We in the family belong to different political parties but none of us can think of seeking votes in the name of our Lord,” Varma said.

K Surendran
K Surendran

Royal demand stumps Surendran

However, top sources in the BJP told Onmanorama that Varma had put forward a condition that was beyond Surendran's power to fulfil. “The 'thampuram” (as Varma is addressed) said he would contest from any constituency the party wanted if Surendran asked the Centre to immediately issue an ordinance protecting Sabarimala traditions. He knew fully well that Surendran would not. The plan fell flat,” the BJP source said.

According to the source, Varma not only wanted to reject the BJP offer. “He also wanted to indirectly convey that the BJP had done nothing for Sabarimala,” the source said. Varma did not confirm this.


Great Indian Temple

Though he claims that the Pandalam royals were “a highly progressive group” (“our grandmothers used to dine with their servants,” he said), Varma holds on to disputable notions of purity. He feels menstruating women should be kept away from Sabarimala.

“To insist on entering a temple when they are not supposed to is not progressive thinking. During such times, they don't even light lamps at homes. These are traditions that were followed long before the Constitution was drafted,” Varma said.

The logic of the erstwhile royals did not tally with that of the 'tantri' family. The family members we talked to did not link the ban on women to supposed menstrual impurity. The 'tantri' family's problem was more scientific sounding. They said the negative energy that flowed from a menstruating women ran counter to the energy flowing from the deity. We were told such unwelcome energy flow emanates from males, too, especially those who had lost a very close relative.

The differing explanations are also indication that no one is sure why menstruating women are banned from temples.

Suspicion lingers

At the moment, Varma is relieved that the Supreme Court has transferred the Sabarimala issue to a larger bench. Certain happenings had given him some satisfaction, too.

“It was made clear that more than 90 percent of those in political parties are devotees. It is just that it took some time,” Varma said, hinting that even traditional CPM voters had voted against the party in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The erstwhile royals had also enjoyed the realisation that they still could sway the masses. A call from the palace for a silent prayer for the restoration of Sabarimala tradition had led to the massive 'namajapa' protests that had rattled the LDF government.

Of late, the LDF government had also softened its stance, had said it would consult the faithful before implementing the verdict of the larger bench. But Varma is deeply suspicious.

“Now if the very same people who had insulted our family and had talked about the 'tantri' in such mean terms are saying that they had committed a wrong, somehow I can't believe that. How can these people who had attempted to sneak in women disguising them even in police uniforms have a sudden change of heart. It is just an election gimmick,” Varma said, and added: “But if they are serious, they should have withdrawn the affidavit they had given in the Supreme Court and submitted a fresh one saying they would protect Sabarimala rituals and traditions.”

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