The Mala Araya Community’s Claim to Sabarimala

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On the 28th of September, 2018, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court declared in a landmark judgement, that women of all ages would be allowed into the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district. It officially lifted the ban, that was instilled in 1955, against menstruating girls and women. As discussions escalated, with conversations surrounding the court’s decision to break religious tradition and how this was a win for women rights and empowerment, a parallel conversation arose about the original Adivasi heritage of the temple.

The temple, managed by the socio-religious trust Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), is a shrine to Ayyappan, a deity regarded as a Naishtika Brahmachari—eternally celibate—in Hindu mythology. The TDB had prohibited the entry of women in the age group of 10–50 years to “protect Ayyappan’s vow of celibacy.” In the wake of the verdict, the Mala Araya, an Adivasi community listed as a Scheduled Tribe by the central government entered the conversation with an entirely new objective in mind — to reclaim what was once theirs.

The Mala Araya, claim that they used to practise religious duties in the temple. That is until they were forced to stop after the Thazhamon Madom, a Brahmin family, took over the priestly responsibilities of the temple in 1902. This was when the Brahminisation of the temple, and more importantly, the deity, began. The rituals and history of the temple were effectively erased, thus, ousting the Adivasi community from the temple that was once theirs.

The Mala Araya is one of the major tribes of Kerala. They are found in Meenachil and Changanasseri Taluks of the Kottayam district. Due to the educational work of the CMS missionaries, they are well educated, socially and economically more developed than any other tribal communities in Kerala. The name Mala Araya means King of the Hills.

According to Samuel Mateer in his book, Native Life of Travancore, which was published in 1883, he says that “Mala Arayans reside generally on the western slopes of the higher range of mountains or their spurs… Their villages consist of houses scattered all over the steep hill slides.”

In the Mala Araya community, women are given the same opportunities, respect and regard as men were. “A woman from the community could become the ruler. Similarly, a woman who is an ascetic can also rise up. None of that is forbidden in terms of faith.” says PK Sajeev in an interview with The Caravan. Women could enter the temple without regard to age, but only if they were going out of faith. While women would generally not go to the temple during the 7-day period when they would menstruate out of respect for the deity, although they were not banned from entering. Women of all ages, according to the faith of the Adivasi, are allowed to enter the temple. It considered, that they are there out of faith and because they were invited by Ayappan, the deity of the temple.

But why now? Why is this conversation resurfacing now? The claim by the Adivasi tribe over Sabarimala comes at a time when leading Adivasi and Dalit organisations have come together to reinstate the right of these communities to run more than 100 temples in the state. It is not just Sabarimala that is being fought for. The Avakasha Punasthapana Samithi or Committee for Reinstating the Rights is demanding the return of several temples to their original Dalit heritage. The Aikya Mala Araya Maha Sabha has already demanded that the government hand over Sabarimala to members of the tribe. It has also demanded ownership of three nearby temples – Karimala, Ponnambalamedu and the Nilakkal Mahadeva temple.

With the recent happenings in Kerala due to the entry of a woman inside the temple, the mass media was forced to highlight the history of the temple. However, this is long overdue, and it brings into question of whether or not the media, and the people, are deliberately trying to forget certain parts of history as to maintain the mainstream narrative. According to PK Sajeev, history is being deliberately neglected. Caste politics in India have evolved. Along with blatant casteism, and a rise of Brahminical mindsets, there is a new form that has become embroiled through the media, the government and the public. There is a redefining of history. Whether it be the declaration that a temple existed on the land of Babri Masjid or the brahminization of a traditionally tribal deity, narratives are being changed to exclude the minority. This trend can be seen in the case of Sabarimala and in the current Hinduistic ideology that is being propagated by the State machinery.

Samragni Dasgupta is the Outreach Officer – Bangalore at One Future Collective.

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