At a time when the debate rages on regarding the entry of women in Sabarimala, a matter which is pending in the Supreme Court, I was searching for the voice of women devotees in this debate and their views on this. Most media debates were studded with rabid feminists on one side who might have not even heard of such a deity called Ayyappa before, and committed male devotees on the other.
Amidst the heightened attack on the traditions of Sabarimala, it was a moment of great joy to finally see women devotees of Lord Ayyappa rally around a social media campaign going by the hashtag #ReadyToWait, and asserting their voice and devotion towards Ayyapa, willing to wait to receive darshan of Lord Ayyappa.
I was so moved by the campaign, that I tweeted my own experiences on how women were an integral part of the journey taken to Sabarimala. My family has a long relationship to Lord Ayyappa. Right through my childhood I saw my father observe the traditional 40 day vratam (austerities) and subsequently leave for the pilgrimage to Sabarimala with his group of friends and fellow Ayyappa devotees. Many a time the final “irumudi” (Irumudi is a cloth bag with two compartments containing offerings for the Lord) puja happened at our house. I have had the privilege and blessing to go to Sabarimala twice, once with my father and grandmother.
Going beyond my family ties, I want to shed light on the Mandala season Makaravilakku Mahotsavam that happens in our local Ayyappa Temple in Pune where I lived and how women were central to this entire celebration that goes on for almost 2 months. I don’t want to delve into the reason behind the tradition of women of a particular age not being allowed in the temple, as many have already clarified that effectively – those interested can read these 2 articles: article 1, article 2. But if an ignorant person listens to the high-decibel, malicious debate on Sabarimala, he/she would think that it’s all a male dominated, patriarchal process with women relegated to the background. My experience has been very different and completely contrary to the perception being built up.
Mandala season typically starts around mid November and ends on Makara Sankranti day. We have a pretty packed schedule in our Ayyappa temple throughout these two months, from Bhagavath Saptaham, to Bhajan programmes, to classical musical concerts, to cultural programs, dance performances, dramas etc. Every weekend we have Annadanam (lunch prasadam). All Ayyappa devotees in town are busy with tasks related to temple programs and activities during the Mandala season. And women are not only a part of this, but are more often than not leading from the front.
And mind you these are all volunteers. The temple staff comprises of hardly 10 people including the priest. It is largely driven by volunteer devotees. I can vouch for this because I have myself volunteered in many of the activities, and participated in various programs, and was lucky to perform for Ayyappa in two solo Carnatic concerts. An old lady, ardent devotee of Ayyappa, who has dedicated her life in the service of the temple and Ayyappa enthusiastically co-ordinated and led the activities during the Mandala season. She conducted week long Nama Sankirtana programs, organized discourses and you could find her every single day at the temple.
The last 5 days of the celebrations just before Makara Sankranti are the most joyous and elaborate. A temporary stage would be set up just outside the temple. And evening programs are organized on that stage starting from 6:30-7:00 pm going upto 10 pm – open to public. Professional concerts, Kathakali/Bharatnatyam performances, and cultural programmes, orchestras etc are organized in these last 5 days. I vividly remember my participation in one of the cultural programs. Several children and teenagers, both boys and girls in the locality, gathered together and prepared for the cultural program. Skits were written and then rehearsed for many weeks in the temple premises itself. Many of the participants are not particularly Ayyappa devotees, but this celebration becomes a great excuse for community to get together, and it has become an annual ritual for all those living there.
And the celebrations end with the grand procession of Lord Ayyappa around the streets of the locality. Several men and women work together to prepare for this procession, decorating the temple, the Lord’s chariot, doing hard labor over the night sometimes. Procurement of flowers, the finances, logistics, and getting permission from the Police – it’s a grand event in itself driven by committed volunteers year after year. The procession starts at 6pm, Lord’s chariot goes around the locality and returns to the temple by midnight.
Few hundred women would get all decked up in “settu mundu” (the white mallu saaree) or in “pattu pavadai” – carrying lamps in their hand leading the procession followed by the Panchavadyam and then the Lord’s chariot. One can understand how these festivals help bring the community together, when one sees several households in the locality at different junctures of the procession distributing food, drinks, and water. Families would come out on the street as soon as they hear the sounds of the procession, waiting with their offering to the Lord. Many of the families won’t even know about Sabarimala, but would gladly partake the blessings of Lord Ayyappa, and get their forehead smeared in Vibhuti.
You will see women dancing in circles on the road, singing hymns or bhajans, some adventurous ones go on to play the Panchavadyam. Many Ayyappa devotees would have left for Sabarimala for the Makara-Jyoti darshanam few days prior, but women devotees continue to pour their heart and soul in service to Lord Ayyappa in the temple.
Only a diseased mind would find an issue with this spirit of devotion that’s shared by men and women devotees of Ayyappa. Those who have followed the well co-ordinated missionary attacks that have happened on Sabarimala for several decades, know that their objective is to destroy the strong social-bonds that these rituals and pilgrimage create, thereby leaving Hindus vulnerable for conversions. Demographic plunge of Hindus has its own story to tell, but Sabarimala provides the strongest of resistances to bind Hindus together. And women provide the strongest of shields in countering this malicious agenda that is hiding behind feminism. My humble pranaams to all the women who are lending voice to the #ReadyToWait campaign. As a male, I have no business to tell you to be #ReadyToWait, it is your devotion that dictates your choice.
Harihara suthan ayyan ayyappa Swamiyeeee Sharanam Ayyappa
By Srinivas Hariharan (twitter id: @)