NILAKKAL, India, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Hundreds of police guarded the main gateway to an Indian hill temple on Wednesday to prevent clashes between women of menstrual age entering for the first time in centuries and conservative Hindu groups out to stop them.
The Sabarimala temple in the southern state of Kerala has been the cause of tension since India’s top court ruled last month that banning some women from entering infringed on freedom to worship.
Hardline Hindu groups have threatened to commit mass suicide to prevent women from entering in a cultural battle between the Supreme Court, that has recently delivered landmark judgments legalising gay sex and adultery, and traditional groups that still hold sway in a deeply religious country.
The groups, that include Shiv Sena, a former ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, say the prohibition on women of menstrual age entering is required to appease the temple’s chief deity, Ayyappan, depicted as a yoga-practising God considered eternally celibate by followers.
Police said on Wednesday around 500 police, including 100 women, have been deployed at Nilakkal, the gateway to the temple around 18 km (11 miles) from the site, where many of the protests have been taking place.
“Nobody will be allowed to prevent anybody. We will do everything possible to implement the law of the land,” said Inspector General of Police Manoj Abraham. “None will be allowed to take law into their hands.”
But some female worshippers were prevented from proceeding to the temple site on Wednesday.
A lone woman travelling to Sabarimala by bus was stopped at the bus stand near the gateway by a group of protesters.
The woman, identified as Libi by local language channel Asianet News, came from the neighbouring district of Alappuzha.
“When democracy and the Supreme Court order are being defied by protesters, I have come with the firm intent of visiting Sabarimala,” Libi, who uses only one name, told the channel.
“I am not scared. The police are providing full security. I have come alone,” she said, adding she was ready to face trouble.
Police have registered cases against more than 50 people in connection with the incident, media reports said.
A family of four from neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state, including at least one woman, were shielded by police carrying sticks after protesters shouting slogans prevented them from reaching the temple.
Overnight, police cleared hundreds of protesters from a site in Nilakkal and said no new protesters would be allowed to gather near the temple. There were at least six arrests, with a group of three arrested in connection with an assault on a woman and her husband from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.
Pilgrims have for centuries visited the Sabarimala temple, in a remote tiger reserve in the Western Ghats mountain range.
Many of those visiting the site take a vow of celibacy for 41 days before beginning a trek through the mountains to the temple, located around 3,000 feet above sea level, according to the temple’s website. (Reporting by Jose Devasia in NILAKKAL, additional reporting by Malini Menon in NEW DELHI, writing by Alasdair Pal; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Nick Macfie)