An estimated one million pilgrims flock to Sabarimala in Kerala’s Western Ghats mountains every year to pay homage to celibate deity Lord Ayyappan who, according to Hindu mythology, meditated at that spot.
But in recent weeks, the picturesque hilltop temple in the southern Indian state has emerged as a flashpoint with protests turning violent.
Since the country’s Supreme Court overturned a ban on women of reproductive age from entering the shrine, Hindu hardliners, opposed to the decision, have attacked female pilgrims, threatened journalists and pelted stones at police.
Not a single woman, aged 10 to 50, has made it through the sea of protesters to the temple.
Last week, thousands of people rallied in the streets and attended a protest in Kerala’s Kozhikode city, led by leaders of the right-wing BJP party, while many streets remained barricaded and parts of the city closed to traffic.
The Hindu nationalist coalition that rules India has been struggling to carve out a support base in Kerala, where the BJP has just one elected legislator in the state assembly.
BJP chief Amit Shah has thrown his weight behind the anti-women protesters despite the court order.
The party rose to prominence in the late 1980s on the back of a movement to build a temple in place of a medieval era mosque in the northern Uttar Pradesh state. The 16th century Babri Mosque was eventually torn down by Hindu mobs in 1992.
Charmy Harikrishnan, an editor at The Economic Times, told Al Jazeera, that the BJP was fanning the unrest to make inroads into the region.
“There are conservatives who are disenchanted with the Supreme Court judgment, but the BJP sees this as an opportunity to make inroads into Kerala where it is a minor political player.
“It wants to mobilise Hindus in the name of protecting the temple’s ‘age-old practices’,” she said.
“This is a moment of reckoning for the people of Kerala – whether to go for progressive practices or support misogynistic movements,” she added.
The BJP, which is trying to make political inroads into the state ruled by a communist coalition – the Left Democratic Front (LDF), says it is supporting Hindu conservatives on a “matter of faith”.
“This is an agitation against the atheist ministers in the state that is run by communists,” Sreedharan Pillai, the chief of the Kerala unit of the BJP, told Al Jazeera.
“They want to destroy Sabarimala. This is an ancient temple that has its foundations in our rituals and traditional customs. The people are resisting all these attempts to destroy the heritage of the temple.
“It is a spontaneous people’s protest. It shows the will of the people. The masses don’t want their traditions to be destroyed. So they are reposing their faith in the BJP. We will ensure our rituals and customs are not overturned,” he added.
But in a video leaked to local media earlier this month, Pillai was heard telling party supporters that the unrest was a “golden opportunity” for the BJP in Kerala.
The opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress party, which happens to be the main opponent to the ruling party at the federal level, seems to have joined forces with the BJP in opposing women’s entry to the shrine. And the state government is facing criticism for its inability to ensure safe passage for women into the temple.
Kapil Komireddi, author of the forthcoming book “The Malevolent Republic: India Under Modi” said India “has a tawdry history of governments surrendering to religious bigots”.
“What is different this time is the absence of resistance. Every major political party is afraid of offending Hindu men. Nobody has the courage to enforce the rights of the women emancipated by the Supreme Court from obscurantist restrictions placed on them,” Komireddi told Al Jazeera.
“The communist government of Kerala has suddenly got cold feet. The BJP, in opposing the Supreme Court’s order, is only upholding its sectarian creed. Congress party leaders, in doing the same, are revealing the ideological and moral bankruptcy of their party,” he added.
Since the temple began taking online bookings for an annual festival that starts on November 16, 539 women in the so-called restricted age group have registered online to visit the temple.
“Everybody is equal, why should women not be allowed to go?” Jyothi Narayanan, a resident from Kochi city told Al Jazeera.
“Who is anybody to judge who should be a devotee? The government must give security to us women who want to go.”
Such contests are becoming more acute as awareness of gender rights spreads among India’s largely conservative society, rights activists say.
But discriminatory attitudes – to lower castes, to women, to LGBT – still persist.
“This isn’t the first time women have been mobilised in defence of Brahmanical (upper caste) patriarchy,” Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, told Al Jazeera.
“Here, political forces are manufacturing ‘religious sentiments’ to dissolve women’s rights.”
Analysts have said India is struggling to balance competing interests of “believers” and the “rights” of citizens.
“The Constitution is very clear on this: Hindu places of worship cannot discriminate against Hindus. In the contest between fundamental rights and discriminatory religious beliefs, rights should win,” said journalist Harikrishnan who is based in New Delhi.
Komireddi, the author, said it had become increasingly difficult to rein in Hindu nationalist forces, with the face-off at Sabarimala highlighting the threat Hindu conservatism posed to India’s secular constitution.
Amid intense political pressure, the top court on Tuesday said it would review its earlier order, which was criticised by Hindu groups.
“When the defenders of secularism are spineless careerists, don’t be stunned by the triumph of religious nationalists,” author Komireddi said.
“The Supreme Court can of course set aside its decision and we can all uphold the pretence that India is a secular state. But nothing can conceal the squalid truth that Sabarimala is the ground on which Indian secularism is facing its final defeat.”
Additional reporting by Juhan Samuel in Kochi, Kerala