Amid tight security, thousands of devotees from Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and other neighbouring states on Saturday offered prayers at the Lord Ayyappa temple when it was opened for the annual Mandala-Makaravilakku pooja.
Police said at least 10 women, who were part of a 30-member group from Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh, were sent back from Pamba, five km from the shrine, as they were found to be in the barred age group of 10-50 years.
At five pm, Kandararu Mahesh Mohanararu opened the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, located in a reserve forest of the Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta district of the state, and performed the poojas.
The 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 “padipooja”.
While A K Sudheer Namboodiri took charge as Sabarimala ‘melshanti’ (chief priest), MS Parameswaran Namboodiri who was to take charge as 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 officials.
At the Pamba base camp earlier, police checked identity cards of a group from Vijayawada and sent back 10 young women.
“Police 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,” police said.
The state and temple precincts had witnessed protests by right wing outfits and Bharatiya Janata Party workers last year after the Left Democratic Front government had 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.
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.
The Devaswom board, which manages the temples in the state, has made elaborate arrangements to provide maximum amenities to the devotees.
The unprecedented floods during August last year had also played havoc with the pilgrimage season with most of the facilities for the devotees being destroyed.
Resting places for the devotees at Nilackal, Pamba and Sannidhanam have already been set up along with medical, water and toilet facilities.
Over 10,000 police personnel would be posted in phases in and around the Lord Ayyappa temple for security purposes during the pilgrimage season.
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 difficult paths in the forest to reach the shrine which is about 4000 feet above sea level.
Meanwhile, the 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.
Last year, two women in the barred age group — Bindhu and Kanakadurga — had trekked the holy hills and offered prayers at the shrine, scripting history on January 2.
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