Police escort Madhavi and her family members after she was heckled by protesters. Photograph:( PTI )
The iron gates of Sabarimala temple opened Wednesday for the first time since the Supreme Court allowed women of menstrual age to enter the shrine but by all indications none from the "banned" age group could make it to its hallowed precincts amid a welter of protests and violent clashes.
Women journalists were heckled, their vehicles smashed and young female Ayyappa devotees turned back as hordes of Hindu right activists besieged the road leading to the hill-top temple, abode to Lord Ayyappa, its eternally celibate deity, officials said.
Chaos and mayhem ruled supreme on the road leading from Nilackal, the gateway to the shrine, to Pamba in the foothills from where the devotees start the arduous treck to Sabarimala, as activists of Hindu fringe groups fought pitched battles with police, leaving many injured and bleeding.
Incensed over Kerala's Left Front government's decision not to file a review plea against the Supreme Court's September 28 landmark order, protesters pelted police with stones and the latter hit right back with vengeance wielding batons with telling effect, leaving many fallen and writhing in pain on the road.
Several protesters were seen being bundled into police vehicles, while siren blaring ambulances carried some to hospitals.
Simmering tension prevailing in Nilackal since morning erupted into raucous rowdyism as scores of activists of fringe groups heckled women journalists of at least four national TV channels and vandalised their vehicles.
National TV showed protesters wearing black and saffron turbans running after their cars, violently pounding and kicking the vehicles in a bid to stop them from proceeding to Pamba from Nilackal on way to Sabarimala.
At least 10 people from the media, including reporters and photojournalists, were injured and equipment of several of them damaged, senior minister E P Jayarajan said.
Denouncing the attacks on media, he said cases were being registered against the suspects under sections relating to non-bailable offences.
Unfazed by the unfolding violence, Madhavi, a gutsy woman from Andhra Pradesh in her 40s, tried to climb the Sabarimala hills to reach the Lord Ayyappa temple but was forced to return to Pamba, menaced by agitated male devotees.
Liby, a woman from Kerala's Alappuzha, also in the "banned" age group, was prevented from proceeding to Sabarimala at Pathanamthitta bus terminal. She was escorted to safety by police.
Both the Congress, the main opposition party in Kerala, and the BJP, which is desperately seeking to expand its footprint in the state, have lent support to the agitation against the Supreme Court verdict.
State Congress working president K Sudhakaran led his party workers in a protest at Nilackal to express solidarity with Ayyappa devotees.
An embattled Left Front government reacted sharply to the protests, with the state's religious trusts minister Kadakampally Surendran calling them "politically motivated".
Surendran, who reviewed the situation and preparations for the three-month-long Mandalam-Makaravilakku-festival beginning November 17 at Sannidhanam (Sabarimala temple complex), said the government would tackle the agitation politically.
"The BJP-RSS are trying to create tension and destroy the peaceful atmosphere in Kerala for political gain. We know the agenda of the RSS and BJP very well," he said, and insisted the government did not want any confrontation with believers.
The BJP rejected the allegation, saying the government was responsible for the "collapse" of law and order.
Party leader and MP V Muraleedharan said the government should shed its stubbornness and respect the sentiments of the people of Kerala.
Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala blamed both the ruling CPI(M) and the BJP-RSS combine for violence.
Even as streets in Nilackal and Pamba erupted in tumult, thousands of bare-chested Ayyappa devotees waited patiently in the vast concourse outside Sabarimala for its gates to open at the appointed hour--5 pm.
Carrying "Irumudikettu" (the sacred bundle containing ghee-filled coconuts they offer to the deity), they calmly walked past security personnel to take their place in the long queue where they would wait for hours on end for a glimpse of Lord Ayyappa.
Though older women and very young girls could be seen in the crowd, none of menstrual age was spotted.
"No girl or woman in the age group of 10 and 50 has so far visited Sannidhanam (the temple complex) so far," a senior official of the Travancore Devaswom Board, the body which manages the shrine, told PTI wishing not to be named.
The shrine will remain open for the 5-day monthly pooja during the Malayalam month of Thulam before being closed on October 22.
The Pathanamthitta district authority has promulgated prohibitory orders under section 144 CrPC banning assembly of four or more people in strife-torn Pamba and Nilackal following Wednesday's violence and a strike called by right wing outfits.
'Antharashtriya Hindu Parishad' led by Pravin Togadia and the 'Sabarimala Samrakshana Samithi', an outfit of devotees, have called a 24-hour-long hartal starting midnight.
The BJP and its NDA partners have backed a 12-hour 'hartal' called by Sabarimkala Action Council to protest the police action against devotees. The Congress said it would not join the strike but hold protest demonstrations across the state on Thursday.