SABARIMALA, India — When a famous Hindu temple in southern India opened recently for its annual pilgrimage, it looked less like a place of religious devotion than a spot primed for trouble. More than 15,000 police officers monitored the area and devotees filed through a thicket of barricades to reach the shrine.
The heavy security had a single purpose: preparing for the moment when women once barred from the temple might attempt to enter.
It has been more than 50 days since India’s Supreme Court issued a historic ruling giving all women the right to worship at the Sabarimala temple, a centuries-old shrine that sits inside a tiger reserve in the state of Kerala and draws tens of millions of visitors a year. The temple is devoted to Lord Ayyappa, a god considered celibate, and women of menstruating age had been prohibited from entering.
The court’s ruling set off intense protests in Kerala and became a crucible for women’s rights, religious belief and state power in India. Since the verdict, no woman between the ages of 10 and 50 has managed to enter the temple, despite at least a dozen attempts. Meanwhile, women who have publicly stated their intention to visit the shrine have faced intimidation and threats.
On Friday evening, the temple marked the start of its main two-month-long pilgrimage season, after previously opening for two short stretches in October and November. Trupti Desai, an activist from the state of Maharashtra, had announced that she would arrive in Kerala early Friday with several other women and that they would attempt to enter the temple the following day.
Desai never made it out of the airport in the city of Kochi, which is nearly 100 miles from the temple. Taxi drivers refused to pick up Desai and her group, fearing possible violence directed at them. A crowd of more than 1,000 protesters assembled outside the exits to the airport, clapping and chanting hymns to Ayyappa, preventing Desai from leaving the arrivals area.
Many of the protesters were women opposed to the Supreme Court’s interference in matters of Hindu observance. This protest is about “saving our faith and that is why I came,” said Indira Krishnakumar, who traveled to the airport from the nearby city of Ernakulam. If these women “are to reach the temple, they will have to walk over our bodies.”
But the protests are also political. The Bharatiya Janata Party — which holds power at the national level but only a single seat in the Kerala legislature — has seized on the temple controversy as a chance to present itself as the defender of Hindus and their faith. The BJP’s leader in Kerala earlier this month called the issue a “golden opportunity.” At Friday’s protest at Kochi airport, several state BJP leaders delivered speeches. Eventually, after being stuck for the entire day, Desai boarded a flight back to Maharashtra but vowed to return.
So far, the state government in Kerala has pledged to uphold the court’s verdict but has refrained from enforcing it fully, fearing clashes between protesters and police officers. Last month, the police arrested more than 2,000 protesters at Sabarimala. On Saturday, they arrested the leader of a right-wing Hindu group who had arrived at the temple in the middle of the night in defiance of official restrictions. They also arrested a senior BJP leader.
Police say that about 800 women between the ages of 10 and 50 have registered online to visit the shrine during the pilgrimage season, but none so far have requested official protection for the trek, which involves a nearly three-mile walk to reach the temple. Temple authorities, meanwhile, intend to ask the Supreme Court on Monday for more time to implement the verdict. The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear petitions challenging its ruling in January.
On Saturday, to reach the temple, devotees braved bus delays and a call by right-wing Hindu groups to close all roads, shops and businesses. “It is sad that Lord Ayyappa had become [the center] of a controversy, but he will be here with us every step of the way,” said Bhagyalakshmi, a 62-year-old devotee who uses only one name. She declined to give her views on the conflict but said that she is positive that whatever happens will be the god’s will.
Younger women devotees are still awaiting their chance. Reshma Nishanth, a 32-year old teacher from the city of Kannur in Kerala, has spent recent weeks making the traditional preparations for the Sabarimala pilgrimage, including observing a 41-day fast. But after she announced her intention to make the sacred journey, activists from right-wing Hindu groups came to her house and even followed her to the railway station Saturday.
“It has become more and more difficult with [these] hooligan elements,” she said. “Those who create violence in the name of God are not devotees at all.”