Violence broke out Wednesday at two base camps leading to Kerala's Sabarimala Temple, as protesters forcibly stopped women from entering the hilltop shrine despite a Supreme Court ruling last month that permits their entry.
For decades, women of menstrual age were not allowed to enter the temple as its presiding deity, Ayyappa, is believed to be celibate. Temple authorities justify the long-standing practice on the basis of "tradition."
In many South Asian cultures, menstruating women are considered "impure." For instance, menstruating Muslim women are not allowed to perform certain religious rites while having periods.
But in a landmark judgment last month, the South Asian country's top court lifted the ban that prevented women and girls from entering Sabarimala temple, which draws millions of pilgrims and devotees every year.
Since Monday, thousands of temple devotees - both men and women - have gathered at the temple to make sure that women cannot visit the temple.
On Wednesday, police cracked down on these vigilantes to make way for women, but they were soon outnumbered by belligerent devotees.
"We will make sure that women won't get to the shrine. We will not allow the Ayyappa temple to be desecrated by menstruating women. We have to protect our faith," Padmavati, a protester, told DW.
A hard-line approach
The Sabarimala Temple opened on Wednesday – the first time since the Supreme Court's September verdict – to start a five-day religious festival.
Hard-line religious groups have the backing of some political parties, which have mobilized their supporters to prevent women devotees from entering the temple.
"This Supreme Court order does not respect people's sentiment and their traditions. Our protests will continue," Sreedharan Pillai, the head of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kerala, told DW.
Rahul Eashwar, one of the protest organizers, warned the top court judges to respect Sabarimala customs.
However, Kerala's Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said he would not be intimidated by violent protests.
"We will protect everyone… My government will not allow any violence in the name of Sabarimala Temple," Vijayan said in a statement.
The state government said it would not seek a review of the Supreme Court's temple order.
Mixed reactions to the court's verdict
India's civil society groups have welcomed the Supreme Court's verdict.
"Women have a constitutional right to be able to visit any place of worship," Mariam Dhawale, the general secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association, told DW.
M C Josephine, chairperson of the Kerala state's Women Commission, said the "judgment paves the way for Hinduism to be even more inclusive."
But not everyone is happy with the judgment.
The Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), which manages the affairs of Sabarimala temple, urged the top court to avoid getting involved into sensitive religious matters.
TDB president K Padmakumar said the board will take into account all viewpoints before implementing the court's verdict.
On Tuesday, TDB members met with various stakeholders to discuss the situation.
Members of the local Pandalam royal family and temple devotees took part in the discussion, however they could not reach a consensus on women's temple entry.
"We will follow the Supreme Court order. We are monitoring the situation," Kadakampally Surendran, Kerala's tourism minister, told DW.
Fight for equality
In recent years, rights groups have filed a number of cases against restrictions on women's entrance to places of worship, arguing it is unconstitutional to allow such practices.
In 2016, women were allowed to enter Haji Ali mosque in Mumbai. Prior to that, women could only go up to the mazaar (grave) of Sayyed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, a Muslim saint, but their movement was barred beyond that area.
"It is a fight for equality. We want an end to gender bias and demand our constitutional rights. We are happy that our campaign has yielded positive results," Noorjehan Niaz, who was at the forefront of the Haji Ali mosque movement, told DW.
Similarly, women gained entry into the famous Shani Shingnapur shrine in the western state of Maharashtra last year, ending the six-decade long tradition.
But activists say the battle for gender equality in India has a long a way to go. Many temples in the northern states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan do not allow women of menstruating age to enter temples. But they hope that September's ruling will set a legal precedent that could be applied to all places of worship in India.
The Supreme Court has delivered a number of progressive rulings recently, including striking down two separate colonial-era laws that criminalized adultery and gay sex.
Read more: India's top court decriminalizes adultery