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Kerala braces for face-off after lifting of ban on Sabarimala entry for women of menstrual age

KOCHI, India (Reuters) - Hundreds of members of a conservative Hindu group in Kerala will lie down at the entrance of a hill temple to stop women of menstruating age from entering, its chief said, even after the Supreme Court last week lifted a centuries-old ban.

Hindu pilgrims queue outside the Sabarimala Temple to offer prayers to the Hindu deity "Ayappa", about 70 kms (43 miles) west of the town Pathanamthtta in Kerala, on January 15, 2003. REUTERS/Dipak Kumar

The government of the state of Kerala is bracing for a face-off between the protesters and women and girls aged 10-50 who want to visit the Sabarimala hill temple, which attracts tens of millions of pilgrims every year, when it re-opens on Oct. 17.

The state’s police force has asked neighbouring states to provide policewomen for the protests because some of its own have refused to be rostered for duty because they support the ban.

Last week, the Supreme Court lifted the ban, saying it was upholding rights to equality of worship.

The temple authorities had said the ban was essential to the rites related to the temple’s chief deity, Ayyappan, considered eternally celibate.

“Hundreds of our men will lie down at the entry point of the hill when the temple opens at 5 pm on Oct. 17” for the pooja, or prayer ceremony, said Rahul Easwar, chief of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena. The group of devotees is fighting the lifting of the ban and he is the grandson of a former chief priest at Sabarimala.

“Those women who come to worship defying the temple custom will have to walk through our bodies,” Easwar told Reuters, adding the protest was not against the judiciary but against the move by the state to implement the order hastily.

His group would file a plea on Friday seeking a review of the verdict, Easwar said, urging the state government to maintain the status quo while that is being considered.

The Communist party-led state government has accepted the order and vowed to provide protection to women visiting the shrine.

The state has witnessed sporadic protests from devotees, including women, since the order and both of India’s main political parties, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, have been critical of the lifting of the ban.

Congress is staging a day-long fast in Pathanamthitta district, which is home to the temple, on Friday.

“The political parties are trying to fish in troubled waters,” said P. Geetha, a prominent women’s activist, who has been demanding gender equality at Sabarimala.

She said that they were taking advantage of the protests for political gain and that those supporting the ban were trying to make Sabarimala a conflict zone to dissuade women of menstruating age from going there.

The police chief of Pathanamthitta district, T. Narayanan, said preparations are being made to implement the order.

“We have taken note of the protests. We will assess the situation next week and come out with the measures to be taken for the security at Sabarimala,” Narayanan said.

Writing by Malini Menon; Editing by Martin Howell and Nick Macfie