Violence erupted in southern India on Wednesday after two women defied traditionalists to enter one of Hinduism’s holiest temples for the first time since a landmark court ruling.
Police fired tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon as protests and clashes between rival groups erupted across the southern state of Kerala, local media reported. Several officers were reportedly injured.
The supreme court in September overturned a decades-old ban on women of menstruating age — deemed as those between 10 and 50 — setting foot inside the gold-plated Sabarimala temple.
In recent weeks Hindu traditionalists, backed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have prevented attempts by women to access the hilltop site, with some hardliners turning violent.
But in a surprise pre-dawn operation on Wednesday heralded by activists but enraging conservative devotees, police enabled two women to penetrate the hilltop temple and then leave again undetected, officials confirmed.
Video images showed the 42-year-old women, Kanaka Durga and Bindu, who has only one name, wearing black tunics with their heads bowed as they rushed in.
“We did not enter the shrine by climbing the 18 holy steps but went through the staff gate,” one of the women, who both remained under police guard on Wednesday, later told reporters.
Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said: “It is a fact that the women entered the shrine. Police are bound to offer protection to anyone wanting to worship at the shrine.”
As soon as news of Wednesday’s breach spread, the temple head priest ordered the shrine be closed for a purification ritual. It reopened after about an hour.
Later violent clashes were reported between scores of people chanting slogans in front of the state parliament in Thiruvananthapuram.
Police with batons also charged at protesters who were trying to enforce a shutdown of shops in the area called for by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy.
Modi’s government did not immediately react to news of the women entering the temple, but activists celebrated.
“Watching the visuals of them making their way into the shrine makes me cry in joy — how long it has taken for us to claim space, to write our way into history,” wrote feminist author Meena Kandasamy on Twitter.
Local BJP leaders have said they would observe a two-day protest across Kerala against the breach. The state is governed by an alliance of left-wing parties.
Rahul Easwar, a right-wing activist in Kerala, condemned the state authorities for helping organise the secret operation.
“Such cheap tactics are unbecoming of a state government,” he said on Twitter.
September’s verdict was the latest progressive ruling from the court, with judges also overturning bans on gay sex and adultery in 2018, posing a challenge to Modi’s traditionalist BJP.
In rare comments regarding the Sabarimala temple on Tuesday, Modi — running for a second term in elections later this year — appeared to support the ban, saying the matter was related to tradition.
“There are some temples which have their own traditions, where men can’t go. And men don’t go,” Modi told Indian media.
The restriction on woman at Sabarimala, situated on top of a 915m-high hill in a tiger reserve that takes hours to climb, reflects a belief — not exclusive to Hinduism — that menstruating women are impure.
Traditionalists argue also that the temple deity, Ayyappa, was celibate.
Repeated efforts by women to enter the temple since September have been angrily rebuffed by Hindu devotees with police having to step in to escort them away to safety.
In October, devotees clashed with police in a town near the temple leading to the arrest of more than 2,000 people.
On Tuesday, tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across Kerala to back the demand for access to the temple. Media reports said some were heckled by right-wing activists.
The supreme court is to start hearing a legal challenge to its ruling on January 22.
Women are still barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women at Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala high court in 1991.