Kerala Tuesday waited with bated breath for the opening of the gates of Sabarimala temple tomorrow, the first time since the Supreme Court allowed women of all age groups to enter the shrine, under the shadow of ominous warnings of "mass suicides" and threats of disruption.
The last gasp effort by the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), which manages the temple, to defuse the situation came to nought with the Pandalam royal family and other stakeholders walking out of a meeting called by it over its reluctance to discuss the issue of filing a review petition against the apex court order.
Meanwhile, hundreds of women devotees of Lord Ayyappa, the eternally celibate deity of Sabarimala, picketed the road to the hill shrine and prevented women they suspected were of menstrual age from proceeding to the shrine some 20 km away.
Lustily chanting "Swamiya Saranam Ayyappa" hailing the Lord, the devotees checked buses and private vehicles for girls and women of the "banned" age group and forced them to abandon their journey.
Among those was a woman journalist Ritu, who claimed she was heading for the temple on assignment and had no intention of entering the shrine, something that could have offended the religious sensibilities of Ayyappa devotees.
"No woman belonging to the banned age group of 10-50 will be allowed to travel further from Nilackal and offer prayers at the shrine when it opens for the monthly pooja tomorrow evening," asserted a woman protester as tempers ran high at Nilackal, the gateway to Sabrimala.
A small police contingent looked the other way.
Television channels showed some college students, including young girls wearing black dresses, being ordered to get down a bus.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, facing a tough time tackling the highly emotive religious issue which has also acquired political overtones, issued a stern warning to those who dared block devotees from entering the temple.
"We will ensure security to all. Nobody will be allowed to take law into their hands. My government will not allow any violence in the name of Sabarimala," he told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram as followers of Lord Ayyappa virtually besieged Nilackal, about 225 km from the state capital.
"Stern action will be taken against anyone who prevents devotees from going to Sabarimala," he warned, and ruled out any rethink of his government's decision against seeking a review of the Supreme Court order.
"We will go by what the Supreme Court says," he asserted.
The Travancore Devaswon Board (TDB), meanwhile, went into a huddle with stakeholders, including the Pandalam royal family representatives and priests, to soothe frayed tempers amid escalating protests by the Hindu right and common Ayyappa devotees. There was, however, no breakthrough.
The meeting also attended by Ayyappa Seva Samajam and Yoga Kshema Sabha ended in a deadlock as the TDB stuck to its stand of not filing a review petition.
"It is very painful and we cannot agree. We wanted a decision on filing the review petition to be taken today itself, but the board said it can be discussed only at the next meeting of TDB on October 19," Shashikumar Varma, a member of the Pandalam royal family said.
"We all wish that Sabarimala should not be made a war zone," Varma, the president of Pandalam Royal Palace Trust, told journalists after walking out of the meeting in a huff.
TDB president A Padmakumar, however, dismissed suggestions that the meeting was a "failure".
"What they (stakeholders) wanted was to file the review petition now itself. But the Supreme Court is closed till October 22. They also wanted to maintain the status quo on the customs and traditions.
"As the Supreme Court has passed a verdict, what can the board do? But the board will continue to talk with them to resolve the issue," Padmakumar said. He said the October 19 meeting will take up the issue of the review petition.
Kerala has witnessed a series of protests and prayer marches over the last few days over the government's decision to enforce the Supreme Court order.
The Shiv Sena recently warned of "mass suicides" if women of menstrual age were allowed into the temple. Some other organisations have said women and girls aged between 10 and 50 years will have to tread on them before entering the temple.
Actor-turned-BJP politician Kollam Thulashi went to the entent of saying women of "banned age" visiting the shrine should be "ripped apart".
Even though Kerala is on edge a day before the temple gates open, some intrepid women like Reshma Nishanth, a 32- year-old Kannur native, has decided to offer prayers there despite being "slut-shamed".
Claiming she is an ardent Ayyappa devotee, she said she had started the 41-day 'vrata' (penance) to trek to the forest temple during the annual pilgrimage season beginning Wednesday. She wears the 'bead chain' and locket with the image of Lord Ayyappa as part of the customary rituals before proceeding to Sabarimala.
"A large number of people have extended support for my decision to visit the shrine. But slut-shaming and body shaming are also going on," she said Monday.
Bindhu, a young homemaker from Kozhikode also plans to visit the shrine with 30 other women during the three-month- long Mandala-Makaravilakku season.
The TDB, meanwhile, covered a signboard at the base camp in Pamba which said the entry of women of menstrual age into the temple was prohibited.
The multi-lingual board reading "Women between 10-50 are not allowed to visit Sannidhanam (Sabarimala temple)" was covered in the evening with a plastic banner that said: "Use of plastic is prohibited here".