Renuka Narayanan, Hindustan Times July 1, 2006
It's harder than one expects, to make sense of Sabari Mala’s ban on women (I’ve been there twice, as a pre-teen).On principle, why should women be banned from Sabari Mala in Kerala? Apropos of this, my colleague Zia Haq wrote in Inner Voice last week defending the right of women to pray at Ajmer Sharief with the sensible point that men and women freely perform the all-important Haj together with no talk of ‘distraction’. En principe, no house of God should deny admittance to anybody because they’re the ‘wrong’ gender or caste.
It’s a straight violation of the divine principle, despite the silly old patriarchy’s hangups. Nor should Hindu temples deny admittance to non-Hindus. You can ban photography and demand a ritual wash and dress code though ‘dress code’ — principle again — shouldn’t be a restriction on someone who just wants to pop in and pray in a temple. However, you do have to cover your head in all gurdwaras and in some churches, you can't wear sleeveless clothes if you’re calling on the Pope — everyone seems to have rules about ‘appropriate’ dress at a house of worship, so why not Hindu temples, is one argument.
I’m dismayed that perhaps I’m not sincere enough about this in my heart. Despite all my soul talk, I dislike the thought of being jostled at a private, beautiful moment in temple, like arati, by some of the unwashed firangis I’ve seen scrounging around India, even at the ‘best places’. They look and smell as if the last time they touched water was as babies in the baptismal font, whereas the laziest or poorest Hindu seems to wash up for temple.
My soul reproaches me, though, that this is unfair to non-Hindus who approach a temple with respect. Is it tourists one wants to keep away, then, because usually they don’t know how to behave, it’s too much fiddle to tell them and too much of a pain to have them bumbling around underfoot when you’re praying?
After all, you have the right to order your own house of worship, don’t you? The next question, logically, is how clean are Hindu temples? Not very. Not most old temples, though spanky modern ones like Akshardham are. Hindus have zilch respect for others’ spaces, even for ‘God’s house’. We may have once, perhaps in some Hindutvist fantasy when, as writer Bill Aitken sarkily puts it, “fair-skinned maidens spoke in San skrit to milch cows.” But it’s the old East-West difference.
‘They’ are personally dirty, we think, but scrupulous about maintaining public spaces. ‘We’ wash ourselves with great ritual care but treat the tribhuvanam (three worlds) as our personal dustbin. Bottomline? We’ll take a call by and by on ‘non- Hindus’ being allowed into temples, though in Kerala, you can sign a little form saying you’re Hindu – there’s always a clerky way out in this country. Meanwhile, how about cleaning up our own act and learning some civic sense? What better place to start, than a temple?
In fact, the Acharya Sabha, a loose confederation of ‘mutt heads’ and mahamandaleshwars, formed two years ago, could print booklets and do verbal campaigns, sort of an Adab Nama or Code of Manners. But they don’t seem to do much besides political griping. Back then, I enthusiastically sent them an all-India plan for distributing saplings and plants just before the monsoon instead of gheeful prasad, so that we could soften the edges of our tenements.
The idea came from Anandpur Sahib during the Khalsa Tercentenary. But no feedback, though I was frightfully keen to set it up and called people a few times. I’m sure there are heaps of us who want to do things or at least ideate but the net- work doesn’t get activated and meanwhile you’ve got to earn a liv- ing, so you give up? What does all this have to with Sabari Mala? Simply, that it’s bizarre to keep away the energy of women. And while it was thought okay to have a God’s Boys' Club those days, it’s not okay now, so get real. On the other hand, like Maggie Thatcher about the Commonwealth, shall we disdainfully say, “Oh, let them have their little club!”