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Third woman enters flashpoint Indian temple

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The Sabarimala temple in Kerala state has been at the centre of a prolonged showdown since India's top court overturned in September a ban on women aged 10 to 50 setting foot inside.

[THIRUVANANTHAPURAM] Police in southern India said Friday that a third woman has defied traditionalists to enter one of Hinduism's holiest temples, stoking tensions after two days of clashes.

The Sabarimala temple in Kerala state has been at the centre of a prolonged showdown since India's top court overturned in September a ban on women aged 10 to 50 setting foot inside.

Before dawn on Wednesday two women in their 40s, escorted by police, wrong-footed devotees to become the first to access the shrine since the landmark verdict, sneaking in via a side entrance. They remained under police protection on Friday.

The third to enter the temple, on Thursday night amid the throng of thousands of other devotees, was a Sri Lankan woman who reportedly lives with her family in France.

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"She entered the temple yesterday night. She is 47 years old and came as a devotee. We were aware and watched the situation," Balram Kumar Upadhyay, a police official, told AFP.

Mr Upadhyay said that the situation at the temple on Friday was "normal for now".

Thousands of Hindu hardliners - many of them female - had previously succeeded in preventing women from accessing the site in the weeks following the landmark ruling, with some hardliners throwing stones at police and assaulting female journalists.

Wednesday's news sparked uproar among Hindu devotees, including many in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who believe that women of menstruating age should not enter the temple because its diety, Ayyappa, was celibate.

Chaotic and sporadic clashes erupted on Wednesday and Thursday among devotees, activists linked to Kerala's ruling leftist alliance and riot police firing tear gas and water cannon.

One man died in the unrest and at least 15 people were injured, including four who were stabbed.

Police said that 1,369 people had been arrested, with a further 717 taken into preventive custody across Kerala, and that the situation remained tense.

"Today there were some processions and stone-pelting incidents in some parts of the state and prohibitory orders have been issued in parts of three state districts," police spokesman VP Pramod Kumar told AFP.

"Overall, the situation is calm, especially around the Sabarimala temple where large number of devotees continue to visit," he said.

Much of the sporadic violence this week took place as Hindu hardliners sought to force shopkeepers to comply with a dawn-til-dusk "hartal" shutdown called by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy, media reports said.

On Tuesday tens of thousands of women, in an initiative backed by the state government, had formed a huge human chain called the "Women's Wall" across Kerala to back the demand access.

The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge on its temple ruling - the latest in a series of verdicts to upset traditionalists and reflect a more liberal outlook in Indian society - from January 22.

Women are barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women of menstruating age to Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalised by the Kerala High Court in 1991.

AFP