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Unlike the tepid opening of the pilgrimage season last year that was marred by violent clashes, the Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala has seen record crowds and revenues as the annual season began on Saturday.

According to figures released by temple authorities, the opening day’s collection was Rs 3.30 crore as compared to Rs 2.04 crore last season which was marred by the controversy over the entry of menstruating women. Over 70,000 devotees offered prayers at the shrine on the first day of the opening of the festival. Last year, the temple had witnessed a 50 per cent dip in the number of pilgrims since the September 2018 court verdict. The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which administers the temple said only about 90,000 devotees visited in the first three days when that many routinely used to turn up every day.

Last year, the temple witnessed violent protests between pro and anti-women’s entry groups after the state government decided to implement the September 28, 2018 verdict of the Supreme Court allowing women of all ages to enter the shrine. Kerala’s Marxist led Left Democratic Front also provided security to women who wanted to visit the temple. Matter got out of hand after the government and its police department managed to ensure that two young women, both left sympathizers, entered th sanctum sanctorum leading to protests and clashes across the state.

Things are much different this time. Though the Supreme Court has not stayed its September 2018 order allowing entry of women into the Ayyappa temple, few women are willing to take the chance. And to those who still want to, the state government has made it clear that the temple was not a  place for activism  and it would not encourage women who want to visit the temple for publicity. Thus despite the top court’s order, women’s entry remains a tough proposition even for the grittiest of them.

A five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court had on November 14 in a 3:2 verdict decided to refer to a larger bench to re-examine religious issues including those arising out of its 2018 verdict lifting a centuries-old ban on women of menstruating age visiting the shrine.

—India Legal Bureau

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