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India temple turned into fortress for new gender battle

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Police wield their batons against demosntrators during a protest against the lifting of ban by Supreme Court that allowed entry of women of menstruating age to the Sabarimala temple, at the Nilakkal Base Camp in Pathanamthitta district in the southern state of Kerala, India, October 17, 2018

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Indian Hindu devotees are pictured at the Sabarimala hilltop temple in the southern state of Kerala. - A new standoff between Hindu traditionalists and Indian police over a flashpoint shrine is looming next week, with 560 women reportedly registering to visit the side when it reopens on November 17.

[PAMBA, India] Indian police mounted a major security operation Friday to prevent hardliners blocking women from entering one of Hinduism's holiest shrines despite a court order.

In September India's top court ruled that women of all ages could pray at the Sabarimala temple in the southern state of Kerala, the latest in a series of defeats for traditionalists.

But when Sabarimala, perched on top of a hill, re-opened for a few days twice in mid-October, hardliners prevented women from getting anywhere near, clashing with police and assaulting female journalists.

Police in riot gear had escorted two out of a handful of women wanting access to within 500 metres (yards) of the temple but were forced to turn around. Some 2,000 people were later arrested.

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The temple, reached via a long trek through a tiger reserve up a long mud path that devotees are meant to walk barefoot, opened again late Friday a day ahead of a two-month Hindu festive period.

Among the several hundred thousand devotees who have registered online to visit between now and mid-January are 700 women.

This time Kerala's communist government is determined to ensure there is no repeat of October's ugly scenes.

More than 3,400 police, many in riot gear, lined routes to the temple on Friday.

"We will deploy over 15,200 police around the temple for the entire season up to January 15," Kerala police spokesman Pramod Kumar told AFP.

Press reports said the police were even considering using helicopters to take women to the site.

Activists say that the ban at Sabarimala reflects an old view that connects menstruation with impurity.

The traditionalists argue that women are allowed in most Hindu temples and the practice at Sabarimala is part of their tradition, and not anti-women.

On Friday wet weather was making it hard to reach the site, and among those that did few were in favour of women being allowed.

One exception was N.S Prakash Rao, from Vishakhapattanam in Andhra Pradesh.

"I am coming here for seventh or eighth time and I am OK with women being allowed. Times have changed and so should we," he told AFP.

"But I don't think activists - who only come here to create noise - should be allowed."

One such activist is Trupti Desai. She flew into Kochi airport, four hours from Sabarimala, on Friday morning but was prevented from leaving by a 500-strong crowd of protestors clapping and chanting.

"We tried to hire taxis several times but the agitators are not allowing them to take us. They have threatened violence if they do," Desai told Indian television.

"A while back they tried to take us out from a back door but the protesters spotted us and attacked the cars," she said.

The state government had called a meeting of all political parties in a bid to reach an agreement on letting women into the temple on certain days.

But the talks ended late Thursday in an acrimonious failure.

"We are at a standstill and now the situation is becoming even worse," said Sasikumar Varma, a top representative of the Pandalam royal family that has been traditionally involved in the temple's management.

"The government stuck to its stance of allowing women's entry and we are opposed to it."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not spoken about the standoff, but members of his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party oppose the Supreme Court decision.

"The communists (in Kerala's government) are atheists and want to destroy the Sabarimala temple culture," said the head of the BJP in the state, PS Sreedharan Pillai.

AFP