Two women below 50 walked into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala before daybreak on Wednesday, becoming the first to do so since the Supreme Court ordered the end of a decades-old ban on women of menstrual age entering the shrine. The temple shut down for ritual "purification" for one-and-a half hours before reopening to devotees.
Bindu and Kanaka Durga, both in their early 40s, entered the hilltop shrine early this morning around 3.45 am. A video accessed by NDTV shows the women hurrying into the shrine, dressed in all-black and escorted by the police. A group of protesters also appear to be at the spot.
Confirming their visit, Kerala 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."
The women started the uphill trek to the temple around midnight, reached a little before 4 am and left after praying to Lord Ayyappa. There was no media glare and very few devotees were around at the time, which apparently facilitated the "sneak" visit.
"We did not enter the shrine by climbing the 18 holy steps but went through the staff gate," one of the women told local media, according to AFP.
The women were protected by small group of policemen, both in uniform and plainclothes.
"I don't think it is true...They might have done that in absolute secrecy. Once we know, we will take appropriate action," said Rahul Easwar, activist and leader of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena.
Bindu, 44, is a college lecturer and CPI(ML) activist, according to the Press Trust of India. Kanakadurga, 42, is a civil supplies employee who had come to Sabarimala on December 24 after 11 women activists of a Chennai-based outfit trying to reach the shrine were chased away by devotees chanting Ayyappa mantras.
Both women had tried to visit Sabarimala in the last week of December, but had been blocked by massive protests. The temple reopened on December 30 for the Makaravilakku festival and there has been a heavy rush of pilgrims since then.
Priests and many devotees strongly believe that the ban on women between 10 and 50 years should stay as the deity Lord Ayyappa is celibate.
In October, devotees clashed with police leading to the arrest of more than 2,000 people.
On Tuesday, there was more trouble when tens of thousands of women formed a human chain across Kerala state to back the demand for women's access to the temple. The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge to its ruling on January 22.
Since the top court overturned the ban on September 28, upholding the constitutional right of every individual to practice their faith, protesters had ensured that women below 50 were unable to enter the shrine. Over a dozen women tried but were stopped by a wall of protesters less than a km from the temple's entrance.