The entry of two women into a temple shrine in India has sparked violent protests and clashes across the state of Kerala and led to hundreds of arrests.
India’s Supreme Court lifted a ban on women of menstruating age in the Sabarimala temple in September. Women between the ages of 10 and 50 had traditionally been banned because Lord Ayyappa, the revered Hindu god who is worshipped in the temple, is a celibate bachelor. More generally, Hinduism forbids women who are menstruating to enter temple complexes, but does allow women to worship when they are not menstruating.
“We are all for gender equality, but Sabarimala is not about gender equality. It is only a matter of age regulation because of the nature of the deity, Lord Ayyappa, who is eternally celibate,” said Rahul Easwar, a high-profile local activist who has opposed entry of women of menstruating age into the temple.
On Wednesday, two women, identified by police as Bindu, 41, and Kanaka Durga, 40, both residents of Kerala, successfully entered the shrine early in the morning dressed in black. Their entrance was captured on a video that was posted to social media.
The women were the first to successfully enter the temple after the Supreme Court's ruling. Despite the ruling, other women who tried to enter the shrine over the past few weeks were stopped from doing so by devotees and other groups who strongly oppose the entry of women of menstruating age into the temple complex. The issue is a deeply emotive and divisive one in the state of Kerala stemming from a centuries-old tradition.
“We are extremely hurt that they [the Kerala government] did this midnight drama. This is a betrayal," Easwar said of the women's entrance into the temple.
Attempts by ABC News to contact the women were not successful.
Reports that the women entered the shrine lead to right-wing political parties like the BJP, among others, to call for a state-wide shutdown of businesses and other government organizations.
"The police took two ladies, early in the morning, they brought them into the temple. Immediately Hindu organizations, including the BJP, have called for a hartal [shutdown]. Today is the hartal [shutdown]," explained B. Gopalakrishnan, a spokesperson for the BJP in Kerala.
Incidences of violence have also been reported across the state, but VP Pramod Kumar, a Kerala Police spokesperson, told ABC News authorities are prepared.
"The police is prepared to meet any type of eventuality. The Kerala police have launched ‘Operation Broken Window,’ this is a special drive across the state to deal with the situation," Kumar said.
Over the past two days, the police have arrested 256 people and 334 others have been taken into "preventive custody," a precaution often taken by the police to prevent the spread of the violence, the police said.
In some sporadic incidents, tear gas was also used.
Meanwhile, the chief minister of Kerala condemned the temple authorities for carrying out a "purification ritual" after the women had entered the temple, in violation of the court's ruling.
"A strange thing happened at the Ayyappa temple yesterday. The tantri [priest] closed the shrine and performed the purification rituals. This was a violation of the Supreme Court verdict," the chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, said during a press conference, according to local outlet NDTV reported. "The tantri should have quit, if he had any objection to the apex court order as he was also a party to the case."
The Supreme Court is set to review a plea against the ruling on Jan. 22.