Sunday, November 18, 2007

Indian actresses’ temple entry sparks raging debate

Indian actresses’ temple entry sparks raging debate
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Call it publicity, identity crisis or a social issue; two actresses stirred a hornet¦s nest in South India when they entered two separate temples in Kerela. They incurred the wrath of the temple priests, who termed their acts as 'defilement' of the shrines and asked for its ¦purification¦ through elaborate rituals.

The incident flared into a debate over women¦s rights regarding Hindu temples in vernaculars of south India but the so called national media that went hammer and tongs on Shah Bano, Imrana or Guriya's case tried to soft peddle the issue and thus put themselves in a spot.

In the first case, a 46-year-old Kannada actress Jaimala claimed that at 27 she entered the sanctum sanctorum of the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala hills that bars women of 10 to 50 age group because its presiding deity is believed to be a celibate.

The Ayyappa temple is situated at about 4,000 feet above the sea level atop Sabarimala hill in Kerala. Every year during its annual pilgrimage session more than ten million devotees visit this shrine that does not bar people from other faiths. One has to brave an arduous trek of more than six kilometers through dense forest to climb to the temple top. Only persons carrying 'offering' are allowed to take the 18 steps to the sanctum sanctorum, others after paying obeisance from below take the separate route of exit.

Jaimala claims that some 19 years ago on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala, she was "pushed" into the sanctum sanctorum by the crowd and she caught hold the idol's feet to steady her self. The actress said she did not knew then what she was doing and had touched the feet of the idol because that's the way she was taught to pray at home. She later realized what this amounted to 'sin' and faxed an apology to the concerned authorities as her atonement.

The actress alleged that the shrine authorities had reneged on their promise of immediately destroying her confession by leaking it to the press and thus creating unnecessary controversy. Jaimala refuted the allegations that she did all this for money or publicity and insisted that her apology was an act of repentance.

The temple's board that manages the affairs of the shrine took strong exception to the actress claim and sent its own investigative team to probe the veracity of her statement. The investigating team however could not carry on the probe due to inter- state ramifications of the case and sought the involvement of the state government in the investigation.

The matter rocked the Kerala assembly and state government took a stand that it would not interfere in the customs followed by the temple including its ban on women from praying at the shrine.

This prompted a communist member to ask whether the practice of debarring women from visiting the temple did not amount to gender discrimination.

Contrary to Kerala government's stand, the Karnataka state assembly hailed Jaimala's action and a Congress member described the curbs on women visiting the temple as an "insult to the entire womenfolk and nothing short of practicing untouchability".

Controversy surrounding women's entry to Sabirimala is not new. A few years ago, actress Sudha Chandran had performed a dance programme below the 18 holy steps of the temple leading to a hue and cry. The temple¦s board moved the Kerala High Court seeking a direction in this issue and the court ruled that the authorities should disallow women from climbing to the hill shrine.

Close on the heels of Jaimala controversy, a Malayalam actress Jasmine Mary Joseph also known as Meera Jasmine, sparked off another row by offering prayers at a temple in Kerala where the entry of non-Hindus is prohibited. The temple authorities protested the Christian actress action and demanded a fat sum for the purification rituals to restore the "lost divinity¦ of the temple. Meera apologized her action and sent Rs 10,000 ($225) to the temple authorities and on hearing it to be less sent an additional Rs 15, 000 (over $ 350) with which the authorities performed elaborate purification rituals involving ten priests for two days in the shrine.

The two controversy when seen in the backdrop of the media treatment meted out to the Shah Bano, Imrana or Guriya case, tend to suggest the biased attitude of the so called mainstream media when it comes to the treating the issues related to the Hindu religion.

While the so called mainstream media showered heaps of muck on Muslim personal law and its self styled priests and made Shah Bano, Imrana issues as a national calamity, the same media allowed the Jaimala and Meera Jasmine controversy to blow over giving a clean chit to the archaic practices of the Hindu priests.

The news room¦s editorial policy to soft peddle the issue of Hindu women's right to enter a temple also exposes the upper caste bias of India media that fixes priorities as to whom to demonize and whom to overlook.

There is no doubt that the acts of conservatism by priests of any religious faith have to be taken head on and there should not be any selective targeting. This however does not mean the progressive contributions of the Indian media that by and large remains the most fair and unbiased in the world.

There may be some who may question that when Muslim women are not allowed to enter their mosques why comments are made on fringe incidents that have little social ramification either to the Hindu religion or to the country.

On this one should be clear that Islam do not prohibit women from entering the mosque. This practice is South Asia specific and has to be seen in regional rather than religious terms. A very silent change in this direction is taking place in south Indian mosques particularly in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where separate chambers are being built for women to pray. One can witness this spectacle during the festival prayers when the entire family dress up to go to the mosque to underscore the point that both men and women are equal before the Lord whom they call ¦Allah.¦


Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai, India. He can be contacted at


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