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Tensions rise over women's entry to Indian temple
[NEW DELHI] Thousands of devotees joined street marches in southern India on Monday as tensions mounted over a recent Supreme Court verdict revoking a ban on women entering a famous Hindu temple.
The Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala - considered one of the holiest for Hindus - in Kerala state has traditionally barred all women of menstruating age, between 10 and 50.
But India's top court revoked the ban on women entering the temple in September, ruling that patriarchy cannot be allowed to trump faith.
Those protesting against the court's decision on Monday, including hundreds of women, warned they would step up their protests before the temple reopens on Wednesday, when it will have to allow all women entry as per the court order.
"These protests have taken place in several districts over the last few days. We don't yet have an exact number but the people ended their march in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram today," Pramod Kumar, Kerala police spokesman, told AFP.
Local media showed thousands participating in the march supported by the local unit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Smaller protests have also taken place elsewhere in India in recent days including in Ahmedabad in western India.
Modi's BJP - which has historically been on the margins of state politics in Kerala - and its allies have supported these marches in different parts of the state over the last few days.
Several other local religious and political organisations have also given their support to the protest marches.
"We will meet each villager in Kerala and chalk out a massive agitation plan to protect the temple, its centuries-old traditions and sentiments of Lord Ayyappa devotees," Kerala BJP president PS Sreedharan Pillai told NDTV.
Mr Pillai warned the local government of even bigger protests if the issue wasn't resolved within the next 24 hours.
Millions of devotees visit the temple every year to seek the blessings of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity who is believed to be celibate.
According to the temple website, pilgrims have to observe celibacy for 41 days before entering the shrine. Some worshippers take an arduous forest route to reach the hilltop temple, located some 1,200 metres above sea level.
Dipak Misra, Chief Justice of India at the time the ban was revoked, said banning the entry of a large section of women was discriminatory and violated their rights.
"Prohibiting women (from entering the temple) violates the right of a woman to worship and practise religion," he said.
Activists batting for women's entry into the temple argued that the ban reflected an old but still prevalent belief that menstruating women were impure.
The devotees opposed to the court ruling have argued that it affects the core belief of the decentralised Hindu temple system, where the deities have certain rights.
Women in India have been intensifying campaigns in recent years to be allowed to enter temples and other religious sites.
In 2016, women campaigned in Maharashtra state to successfully end a ban on women entering the Shani Shingnapur temple.
Women were also prevented from entering Mumbai's Haji Ali Dargah mausoleum until the court scrapped the rule in 2016.