Two women prayed in Kerala's Sabarimala temple on Wednesday morning, prompting protests after they became the first to enter the shrine after India's Supreme Court in September struck down a rule that prohibited entry to women of menstruating age.
Starting from a pilgrimage rest stop shortly after midnight, the women – identified as Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga, aged 42 and 44 respectively – climbed up the Sabarimala hill, entering the temple at the top at 3:45am.
A cell phone video shows the two women, dressed in ritual black, walking amidst a group of policemen. At the early hour, the temple was largely deserted, and the women were able to hurry into the complex to pray.
Many such as Rahul Easwar, a member of the ruling priest family that overseas the temple's affairs, alleged that the two women were helped by the government administration to get in stealthily.
Kerala's chief minister confirmed the development. "It is a fact that the women entered the shrine," Pinarayi Vijayan said. "Police are bound to offer protection to anyone wanting to worship at the shrine."
After the visit, temple officials briefly shut down the shrine for a ritual “purification,” hoping to atone for the breach of a rule they believe is sacred.
The prohibition of entry to women, formally framed in 1991, had been observed as a custom for at least the previous century. The Sabarimala deity is regarded as a celibate man, so only young girls or women over the age of 50 were permitted into the temple, lest the deity be tempted out of his chastity.
But the restriction breached the constitutional rights to equality and to worship, the court decided in response to a petition first filed in 2006 by six female lawyers. The verdict met with furious criticism from many Hindu groups, who viewed it as judicial interference into matters of religious tradition.
Beginning in October, the paths up the hill to Sabarimala became the sites of clashes between police and protesters, the latter drawn not only from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) but even from the more secular Congress party, which sits in opposition to the leftist-led government in Kerala.
Women kept attempting to make the pilgrimage under heavy police protection, but they were repeatedly thwarted in their efforts, as protesters blocked routes and threatened violence. Ms Ammini and Ms Kanakadurga themselves tried and failed to make their way up to Sabarimala last month. Often, police officers turned women back for their own safety, unable to quell the potential of a riot.
On Wednesday, a storm broke out after news of the first successful entry by women into Sabarimala broke. "Let the devotees come forward and protest this," PS Sreedharan Pillai, the president of the state's BJP unit, told Reuters. His party would "support the struggles against the destruction of faith."
BJP demonstrators held a black-flag protest at Guruvayoor, another temple town, where a government minister in charge of Hindu shrines was paying a visit. In Thiruvananthapuram, BJP members attacked journalists outside the government’s secretariat and tore down advertising hoardings erected by Mr Vijayan’s party.
K Sudhakaran, an official of Kerala’s Congress unit, called the development “treachery... The government will have to pay the price for the violation of the custom”.
The two women managed to enter Sabarimala a day after roughly three million women in Kerala stood hand-in-hand in a 620-kilometre human chain, running from Kasargod in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south. The chain stood for gender equality, Brinda Karat, a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said at the rally.
Some women may believe in staying away from Sabarimala, "and we respect that," Ms Karat said on Tuesday. "However it is unconstitutional to stop women who want to seek his darshan [blessings] directly."
The two women's successful entry into the shrine has now prompted an even heavier layer of security on the roads winding up to the temple, in anticipation of fresh demonstrations.
Although Mr Vijayan promised police protection for women headed to Sabarimala, the aggravated face-off between security forces and protesters will make it harder, in the next few days, for any woman to complete the pilgrimage.
"We want the chief minister to resign," K P Sasikala, the president of the Hindu Aikya Vedic, an activist group that works to protect Hindu heritage in Kerala, told The National. "We're going to organise more protests, we're talking to other organisations. They can't hurt our sentiments like this."
In an interview to India Today TV, Ms Ammini, a lecturer in a college in the town of Koyilandy, said that she and Ms Kanakadurga, a government employee in Malappuram, represented millions of women devotees.
They encountered no opposition or protesters on their way, she said. “We were not scared at all,” she said. “We followed our legal right as women.”