Women form 385-mile 'wall' in protest against against Sabarimala temple ban

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Cloaked in black veils and shrouded in early morning darkness, two women of menstruating age group made history on Wednesday when they stepped into the Sabarimala temple of Lord Ayyappa, breaking a centuries-old tradition defying dire threats from the Hindu right.

Police fired teargas and used water cannons to disperse a large crowd of protesters in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, television news channels showed.

When Kerala Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran appealed to women in the age group of 10 and 50 not to attempt to enter the Sabarimala temple during the current pilgrim season, the right-wing outfits believed that at least the government and the police will stop aiding women from the barred age group in entering the temple.

Police with batons also charged at protesters who were trying to enforce a shutdown of shops in the area called for by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy. Several officers were reportedly injured.

Police were guarding the homes of the women after they left the temple and were prepared to let more women enter the temple, he said. The shrine was shut down for the ritual 10.30 am and was opened after almost one hour, sources said.

Conservative Hindus gathered in front of the state parliament after two women entered the nearby temple of Sabarimala.

One of the women, who both remain under police guard, later told reporters: "We did not enter the shrine by climbing the 18 holy steps but went through the staff gate". "Police are bound to offer protection to anyone wanting to worship at the shrine", he said.

"It's good that according to the Supreme Court judgement, some women could enter it (the shrine)", he told PTI.

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Addressing the media, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that this move has expressed satisfaction over the women's philosophy, and also said that this time there was no protest or demonstration as before.

The BJP's leader in Kerala described the women's visit as "a conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples", vowing to "support the struggles against the destruction of faith by the Communists". They argue that the court has ignored their beliefs that the deity Ayyappa was celibate.

In October previous year, devotees clashed with police in a town near the temple leading to the arrest of more than 2,000 people.

On the same day, thousands of women took part in the state-wide protest by forming a 620 kilometer (385 mile) human chain, termed the "women's wall", calling for gender equality and access to the Ayyappa temple.

The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge to its ruling on 22 January. "Lots of women have been visiting the temple after the verdict".

Many Hindu groups as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party fiercely oppose the court ruling.

The BJP is not in power in Kerala.

Protests erupted across the state soon after news of the women trekking to the hill shrine spread.