Indian police fire tear gas at protesters after women enter temple

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The temple has been at the centre of weeks of showdowns between Hindu devotees supporting the ban and women activists who have been forced back several times from Sabarimala. PHOTO: EPA

NEW DELHI - Two women created history by entering the Hindu temple of Sabarimala on Wednesday (Jan 2), offering prayers to the bachelor god and smashing the longstanding practice to bar women from entering the temple.

But their feat triggered protests in different parts of the southern state of Kerala, where the temple is located, by supporters who maintained it went against the temple's tradition.

Women between the ages of 10 and 50, or of menstruating age, were banned out of tradition from stepping into the temple which is devoted to Lord Ayyappa, a deity considered a celibate.

The Supreme Court in September last year lifted the ban, ruling that it amounted to gender discrimination.

But despite the decision, Hindu groups and devotees, including women, held violent protests which prevented women from entering the hilltop temple which draws millions of visitors every year.

At midnight on Tuesday, 42-year-old Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga, 44, both dressed in all-black attire with their heads covered, started their trek to the temple.

They reached the temple at around 3:45am on Wednesday, according to reports.

A video of the women making their way into the temple complex and walking towards the sanctum sanctorum while being protected by the police was widely shared on WhatsApp and shown on television. The two women had to abort an earlier attempt due to protests in the area.

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"We arrived in Pamba at midnight. We went to the police station, but went ahead with our trek without police protection. We did not face any protests from any quarters," Ms Durga told television channel CNN-IBN.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan confirmed that the women had entered the temple under police protection. They are understood to have entered through a separate VIP entry.

The state has witnessed violent protests by devotees and right-wing groups opposing the lifting of the ban.

Over the past three months, at least two dozen women, including journalists, were turned away by protesters who blocked roads and checked vehicles to make sure women did not enter the temple premises.

On Tuesday, women formed a 620km human chain for gender equality over the Sabarimala issue in a protest organised by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is part of Kerala's ruling coalition.

The Bharatiya Janata Party called it a "black day" with different groups warning of trouble in the coming days.

Police on Wednesday used water cannons and tear gas to disperse protesters who had gathered, including in front of the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala's capital.

After the women's visit, priests closed the temple's sanctum sanctorum to perform a purification ceremony.

"The temple has been washed and purification rituals were done. We will organise a huge protest against this and continue the legal battle," said Mr Rahul Easwar, president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, referring to a decision by the Supreme Court in November to review its ruling.

The annual Sabarimala pilgrimage is one of the world's largest with millions of male devotees trekking barefoot up a steep hill to visit the shrine.

They undertake a rigorous 41-day fast, which includes a vegetarian diet and celibacy.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi indicated in an interview with ANI News that traditions are important.

"India is of the opinion that everyone should get justice. There are some temples which have their own traditions, where men can't go. And men don't go," he said.

Activists were critical of the purification ceremony.

"The entry of women is in keeping with the Supreme Court order. But the purification ceremony is nothing but a form of untouchability, which is prohibited by the state," said Ms Kavita Krishnan, a member of the Communist Party of India politburo.

"Whatever it is, two women entered and have given prayers."

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