THIRUVANANTHAPURAM (Kerala) • Tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across the southern Indian state of Kerala yesterday in support of a court order overturning a partial ban on women entering one of Hinduism's holiest temples, witnesses said.
The "Women's Wall" rally was backed by the communist government in Kerala, where the court order on Sabarimala temple triggered weeks of protests by opponents and supporters of the ban, reported Agence France-Presse.
Media reports and supporters of the initiative claimed hundreds of thousands of women formed a human chain across the 620km-length of the state.
Government workers took part in the rally, while schools were given a half-day off and university exams delayed so that students could join the protest, the Press Trust of India news agency reported. A government statement issued before the event predicted five million women would participate in the protest.
Kerala has become the venue of an angry showdown between Hindu traditionalists and supporters of last September's Supreme Court ruling, which ended a ban on women aged between 10 and 50 entering the temple.
Several women have since tried to reach the hilltop shrine, but were forced back by opposing activists.
Police have clashed with devotees supporting the ban and have arrested more than 2,000 people.
Hundreds of thousands of Hindus - men and women - trek to the temple for an annual festival that usually falls around the end of the year.
Many Hindu groups and Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) oppose the ruling. They argue that the court has ignored their beliefs that the deity Ayyappa celebrated at the temple was celibate.
Mr Modi yesterday tried to draw a distinction between his government's ordinance against a controversial Islamic divorce practice and the entry of women into Sabarimala. He told the ANI news agency that the government's opposition to the triple talaq divorce practice (which lets any Muslim man legally divorce his wife by stating the Arabic word talaq for divorce three times in oral or written form) was a matter of gender equality, whereas its support for the partial ban on women entering Sabarimala was related to tradition.
"The Triple Talaq Ordinance was brought after a Supreme Court verdict. We have said in our BJP manifesto that a solution would be found to this issue under the Constitution," Mr Modi said.
"Most Islamic countries have banned triple talaq. So it is not a matter of religion or faith. Even in Pakistan, triple talaq is banned. So it is an issue of gender equality, a matter of social justice... not of faith. So keep the two separate."