Thousands of pilgrims offered prayers at Lord Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala early Saturday, the first day of Malayalam month of 'Vrischikom,' even as a 12-hour strike against the preventive detention of a Hindu Aikya Vedi leader began. Pilgrims, including children, queued up in large numbers since the temple opened at 3 am.
The temple had opened Friday evening for the two-month-long annual pilgrim season as a stand-off continued over the entry of menstrual age women into the shrine. All regular pujas began this morning under the supervision of the new Melshanti (chief priest) Vasudevan Nampoothiri.
Amid unprecedented security, Kerala State Transport Corporation buses were bringing pilgrims from Nilackal to Pamba and no services had been stopped, KSRTC sources said. Shops and hotels near the temple complex were open.
However, normal life was hit elsewhere in the state as the strike progressed; buses and auto-rickshaws remained off roads in several areas.
KSRTC Managing Director Tomin J Thachankary said the corporation was running buses in Sabarimala with police protection to help pilgrims reach the temple.
In Balrampuram near Thiruvananthapuram, protesters attacked a KSRTC bus and damaging its windows, he told PTI.
In the state capital, passengers had a tough time in getting vehicles to reach their respective destinations due to the hartal. Many patients and their relatives were unable to reach the regional cancer centre and Thiruvananthapuram medical college hospital.
The Aikya Vedi state president, K P Sasikala, who was on a pilgrimage to the Ayyappa shrine, was taken into "preventive custody" near Marakkootam, close to Sabarimala, at 2.30 am after she allegedly defied the orders, police said.
Police had decided not to allow devotees enter the temple premises when it was closed for the night.
Sasikala was stopped by them late Friday night when she was on her way to the shrine with the traditional "Irrumudikettu" (offerings to Lord Ayyappa carried by devotees on their head) as the temple would have been closed by the time she would have reached there.
She was later taken to Ranni police station.
Sudheer, leader of another outfit, was also taken into preventive custody.
Aikya Vedi protesters, meanwhile, gathered outside the Ranni police station and Erumeli and began "Nama Japa" protests Saturday morning.
Condemning the police action, BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai said the state government's effort is to "destroy" the Sabarimala pilgrimage.
"Government wants to destroy the traditions of Sabarimala. Why was Sasikala and Sudheer arrested? The BJP will strengthen its protests and support the hartal," Pillai told reporters at Kozhikode.
VHP state president S J R Kumar alleged that Sasikala was "arrested".
"Some other activists have been taken into preventive custody," Kumar told PTI at Kochi.
The temple opened Friday evening, for the third time since the Supreme Court lifted the ban on entry of women of menstrual age, though no girl or woman pilgrim in the 10-50 age group has been able to offer prayers because of resistance by devotees and activists opposing any change in the temple tradition.
The Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which manages the shrine, has made it clear that it would approach the apex court either Saturday or Monday, seeking more time to implement its September 28 verdict permitting women of all ages to offer prayers at the Sabarimala temple.
Devotees are facing difficulties at Pamba as floods destroyed the facilities there.
Muthu Karthick, a pilgrim from Chennai, said there are no facilities at Pamba... No water, toilets are filthy causing difficulties to devotees," he lamented.
However, at the Sannidhanam (temple complex) the facilities are better.