Adivasi Claims Over Sabarimala Highlight the Importance of Counter-narratives of Tradition

In the context of the Supreme Court’s verdict on the entry of women in Sabarimala, the article examines the claim raised by the Mala Araya Adivasi community in Kerala over the Sabarimala temple and its rituals. The verdict provided momentum to the tribal community's articulation of their rights in the public sphere, especially about their tarnished history, stolen gods and the socio-economic alienation inflicted upon them by the state and its agencies in collusion with caste forces.

Spirituality plays a significant role in shaping Adivasi social life, cohesion, and values. Stories and patterns of indigenous people’s land and their cultural alienation have been widely discussed in academia. However, there are few stories about the people reclaiming their lost traditional rights. Why is that so? It is a near-impossible task for the community to restore their rights because the perpetrators are usually sheltered by the state and its agencies. Positioning the state as an adversary while reclaiming one’s rights can be more confrontational and asymmetrical. As a result, for Adivasis, this has not yielded favourable results. However, such instances have not stopped them from recovering resources that are appropriated by the state and its agencies. Recently, the claim raised by the Mala Araya Adivasi community over the Sabarimala temple and its rituals had a significant impact on the discussion between political parties and caste organisations after the Supreme Court’s verdict on the entry of women in Sabarimala.

Political parties are using this verdict to convince the believers that the ruling government is less concerned with their [believers’] sentiments. The sudden entry of Adivasi communities reclaiming the temple’s rituals and custodianship has given a new dimension to the issue. On a theoretical level, their claim has the potential to develop a structured counter-narrative against the arguments of those who are supported by the religious fundamentalist organisations against the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict. For the Mala Arayas, the deity Ayyappan is their ancestral god and it was Brahminism that, with the help of state institutions, forcefully appropriated their god and the rights over the temple in the beginning of 19th century (Kannadu 2012). 

Reclaiming History 

These indigenous communities have been living on 18 forest-clad hills in and around the temple since time immemorial (Kannadu 2012). Moreover, it is not the first time that the community is asserting their rights over Sabarimala.[1] Both, the government and the Travancore Devaswom Board that controls the temple, are reluctant to accept the facts simply because doing so would essentially reaffirm Adivasi land dispossession and cultural alienation, and unsettle the popular casteist version of narratives of Sabarimala and its history. In 2013, the Adivasis had filed a writ petition in the Kerala High Court to reclaim the rights for lighting the Makaravilakku, an annual ritual of the temple.[2] The court has not pronounced any verdict on this petition yet. Reverend Samuel Mateer, who visited south India in the middle of the 18th century, elaborates on the bond between the Mala Araya community and Sabarimala in his work Native Life in Travancore published in 1883. During his field survey, Mateer came across the Mala Araya community in the forested hills of the southern Western Ghats. He documented the story of a Mala Araya man named Talanani, who was the priest in Sabarimala four generation ago. Mateer wrote,

“Talanani was a priest or oracle-revealer of the hunting deity, Ayyapan, whose chief shrine is in Savarimala, a hill among the Travancore ghats. The duty of Talanani was to deck himself out in his sword, bangles, beads, etc and highly frenzied with excitement and strong drink, dance in a conclusive hurried fashion before his idols, and reveal in unearthly shrieks what the god had decreed on any particular matter. He belonged to the Hill Arayan village of Eruma-para (the rock of the she-buffalo), some eight or nine kilometer away from Melkavu, and was most devoted to his idolatry and rather remarkable in his peculiar way”.

The fourth generation of Talanani’s descendants converted to Christianity and the belongings that the community possessed in his memory were handed over to Reverend Richard, a British missionary, in 1881 (Mateer 1883). Later, Thurston and Rengachari (2013) and  Iyer (1922) also endorsed these facts. Beyond popular Hindu mythology, the oral history of the Mala Arayas has a more rational and convincing description about Sabarimala temple and its deity. They believe that the history of the temple dates back merely 900 years and the deity was a young, tribal man who was later appropriated by Brahmins in the early phase of 19th century (Kannadu 2012). 

“The appropriation of Adivasi god Ayyappan by the king and Brahmins happened through the mystification of history,” says P K Sajeev, the secretary of Aikya Mala Araya Maha Sabha (Madhyamam Weekly 2018). The Travancore Devaswom Board and forest officials displaced Mala Arayans from their land through violence and intimidation. The community has a list of priests who had association with the Sabarimala temple to substantiate this claim. They were: Karimala Arayan, Talanani, Korman, and Kochuraman. They lost their rights over the temple around 1800. As P K Sajeev says, “The forest officials harassed our community members living in the forests in various ways. They used to go back to practise the ritual even after that. But when threats and harassment increased, it became impossible. Aruvikkal Appooppan was a priest and an oracle in Karimala. He had to move to Kalaketty village due to the threats. He still walked all the way back to light the lamp and had to trek several hills to make it. Forest officials and people from the Devaswom board threatened him and drove him away.” (Konikkara 2018).  

Question of Women Entry

The oral history of this Adivasi community established that the temple was gender neutral before falling into the hold of Brahminism. The practice of excluding women on the basis of age and bodily conditions was never imposed. It was only after 1950s that Ayyappan was turned into a hyper-masculine deity. According to Osella and Osella (2003), it brought a sense of transcendence specific to men with a hyper-masculine heroic overtone. Few attempts have been made to codify the Mala Araya’s oral history tradition in line with this argument. In 2005, a community member and  self-taught ethnographer K K Prabhakaran[3] said,

“our ancestors have been living in these eighteen hills since last thousand years. And worshiping our Adivasi lord Ayyappan with our own customs and traditions. Our customs and traditions are way different than of Hindu system.  My community was driven out from these hills by the government agencies in later half of the 19th century. Remnants of our villages can be still found in these forests. The oorazhma families (descendants of the people who built the temple) are still living in the tribal settlements outside the forests. There is enough evidence to substantiate the fact that this temple was never out of bounds for women. Women restrict themselves during the monthly menstrual period, which is quite normal in any temple. Therefore, the question of purity on the basis of certain age categories seems to be extremely paradoxical for indigenous communities and it seems that the so-called believers and those who stand for the right of the deity seem to be afraid of losing the hegemony they have created over a period of time. The verdict has legalised Sabarimala as a public place and made the deity more secular than any god in south India. And one can still see the remnants of our civilization and decaying ancestral settlements in these forest ranges, which are currently out of bounds for us” (Kannadu 2005).

Beyond testimonies, it is not the first time that customs in Sabarimala have undergone change. The worshiping practices followed by the Adivasi communities have been stopped abruptly by the Brahmins and while earlier the temple was opened for worship only in the festival season, now it opens for a few days in every month of the Malayalam calendar. Why are the so-called believers concerned about a particular custom that blatantly violates fundamental rights mentioned in the Constitution?

The Haunting Spectre  

The claims of the Mala Arayas need further scrutiny and thorough archaeological, textual and oral investigation because they have the potential to pierce through the most exclusionary paraphernalia erected and protected by the caste hierarchy on this entire issue. The community must also be conscious about the rituals and traditions they are choosing to reclaim because over a period of time, these rituals and customs have undergone Brahminisation and the community itself has been subjected to the cultural invasion of Hinduism, which supports graded inequality. Surprisingly, the claim of the Mala Arayas has shifted the point of discussion in three different dimensions. First, it more or less helped the government to successfully counter the right-wing narrative that vehemently opposed the court verdict. It is no wonder that some members of the right-wing intelligentsia became co-petitioners with the Mala Arayas in high court to reclaim their rights to light the Makaravilakku, and sometimes tried to use them as cannon fodders in the protests against the court verdict. Second, it is the first time the progressive intelligentsia in Kerala’s public sphere passionately listened and became more sympathetic towards Adivasis’ concerns and stood by them. Finally, it gave a momentum to the tribal community to successfully articulate their rights in the public sphere, especially their history, stolen gods and the socio-economic alienation inflicted upon them by the state and its agencies in collusion with Brahminism. The caste organisations and right-wing political parties were against the court verdict. Many of them blamed the government for the Supreme Court order. In fact, many parts of Kerala were on the verge of experiencing communal tension. The timely intervention of the state prevented escalation of the violence. The message given by the indigenous community on this issue seems to be significant. It also has the potential to rupture this violent celebration of masculinity that not only deems womanhood inferior, but also tries to destroy the much cherished secular fabric of Kerala. 

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