Protesters block women going to flashpoint India temple

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, INDIA (AFP) - Hundreds of Hindu devotees on Sunday (Dec 23) blocked a path leading to one of the religion's holiest temples in southern India to stop a group of women making a new attempt to reach the landmark.

Women activists have been trying to enter the Sabarimala temple complex in Kerala state since a September ruling by the Supreme Court overturned a longstanding ban on women of childbearing age from visiting the shrine.

Tensions peaked again after 11 women reached the village of Pamba at the foot of the hill, with the Sabarimala shrine at the top.

Pilgrims have to walk about four hours to reach the shrine but hundreds of protesters, including women, from across India blocked the path, noisily vowing not to let the women pass.

"The women are adamant they won't withdraw until they have seen the deity at the Sabarimala temple," said Selvi, a leader of the women, who only uses one name.

Police held talks between the two sides in a bid to end the showdown.

"We are monitoring the situation and will follow the decision of the High Court appointed monitoring committee," Kerala state government minister for cooperation Kadakampally Surendran told journalists.

Hundreds of thousands of Hindus - men, young girls and elderly women - normally trek to the temple during the current festival season.

 

But Sabarimala has become a major battleground between Hindu radicals and gender activists since the Supreme Court's landmark revocation of the ban on women between ages 10 and 50, which has sparked waves of protests and shutdowns across Kerala.

The Supreme Court is to hear challenges to its decision to overturn the ban on women from Jan 22.

Many Hindu groups and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party oppose the court ruling.

They argue that court ignores their beliefs that the deity Ayyappa was reputed to have been celibate.

Devotees clashed with police in October at Sabarimala, leading to the arrests of more than 2,000 people.

"If these women were actual devotees, they would not have been so blatant in their utter disregard for the age-old traditions and customs of Sabarimala," Mr Sasikumar Varma from the region's Pandalam Royal family and closely associated with the temple, told AFP. "They just want to create trouble for genuine devotees," he added.