Thiruvananthapuram, Jan 2: Police fired tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon as protests and clashes erupted across the southern state of Kerala after two women entered the flashpoint Sabarimala temple, local media reported.
Violent clashes were reported between scores of people in front of the state parliament in Thiruvananthapuram, while protests with sporadic violence were also reported in several other towns across the state.
A tense standoff lasting more than four hours in Thiruvananthapuram was ongoing, with neither side showing any sign of backing down as rival groups shouted slogans.
Police with batons also charged at protestors who were trying to enforce a shutdown of shops in the area. Several policemen were injured as protesters threw stones.
Cloaked in black veils and shrouded in the early morning darkness, two women of menstruating age group made history on Wednesday when they stepped into the Sabarimala temple of Lord Ayyappa, breaking centuries-old tradition-defying dire threats from the Hindu right.
The women--Kanakadurga and Bindu--aged 44 and 42, stepped into the hallowed precincts guarded by police three months after the Supreme Court's historic judgement lifting the ban on entry of girls and women between 10 and 50 years of age into the shrine of Lord Ayyappa, its "eternally celibate" deity.
The women, draped in black and faces covered in veils, entered the temple at 3:38 am, a day after over 35 lakh women stood shoulder-to-shoulder across the national highways in Kerala, creating a 620 km-long human 'wall' from the northern end of Kasaragod to the southern tip in Thiruvananthapuram as part of the state-sponsored initiative to uphold gender equality.
As the news spread like wildfire from the hill shrine, protests erupted at several places, with Hindu right-wing activists blocking highways and forcing the closure of shops and markets.
Sabarimala Karma Samithi, an umbrella organisation of various pro-Hindutva groups, spearheading protests against the Supreme Court's September 28 verdict, and Antarrashtriya Hindu Parishad (AHP), have called a state-wide shutdown on Thursday.
Soon after some local TV news channels aired visuals of the two women trekking to the hilltop temple, Chief Minister Piranayi Vijayan, whose Left Front government is weathering a storm of protests by hardline Ayyappa devotees over his determination to enforce the apex court verdict, announced they had indeed offered prayers at the shrine.
"Earlier, women were not able to enter the temple due to certain hurdles. They may have entered the shrine today because they would not have faced any issues. It is a fact that the women have entered Sabarimala. Police have given them security," a visibly pleased Vijayan said.
The development did not go down well with the temple authorities, with the head priest ordering devotees out of the premises and closing doors to the sanctum sanctorum. He performed a "purification" ritual for an hour before the doors were opened again.
The women were whisked away from the temple by police soon after 'darshan'. They were brought to Pathanamthitta from where they left for an undisclosed destination, officials said.
Police contingents have been posted at the residences of Bindu, a college lecturer and CPI(ML) activist from Kozhikode district's Koyilandy, and Kanakadurga, a civil supplies department employee from Angadipuram in Malappuram.
Scores of women had made valiant attempts to visit the shrine since the Supreme Court verdict but were forced to retreat, menaced by hardline Ayyappa devotees.
Bindu later said the duo faced no protests from Ayyappa devotees, either during the climb or while offering prayers.
"Unlike in the past, there were no 'namajapa' (frenzied devotees chanting Ayyappa mantras) protests when we climbed the hills this morning. Only devotees were there and they did not stop us or stage any protests. Police offered us protection from Pamba, the foothills" she told a tv channel.
She said they wore the attire meant for women for Ayyappa 'darshan'.
Nobody knows exactly when girls and women of reproductive age were forbidden from offering prayers at Sabarimala, but according to a 19th-century British survey report the ban was in place even 200 years ago.
The informal restriction had got legal ratification and acceptance following a Kerala High Court judgement in 1991.
The Hindu right-wing organisations were up in arms against the government over the entry of the two women into the temple, with their activists disrupting vehicular movement on Kasargod-Mangaluru highway, while BJP workers took out a march outside the state secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram which turned violent.
Black flags were shown to Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran at Guruvayur and Health minister K K Shylaja at Kannur by the BJP and its youth wing activists.
Police broke up the protests at the secretariat and arrested some women.
Protesters allegedly attacked police and media personnel in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam.
Holding Ayyappa portraits and chanting hymns to the Lord, protesters marched through the streets at several places including Kochi, Pathanamthitta, Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam.
Reacting to the entry of the two women into the temple, senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala said it showed the "headstrong attitude" of the chief minister. P S Sreedharan Pillai said the CPI-M-led government had "betrayed" the sentiments of Ayyappa devotees.
Women's rights activist Trupti Desai, the leader of Bhumata Brigade who led the campaign for women to be allowed to offer prayers in Maharashtra's Shani Shingnapur temple, Haji Ali Dargah, Mahalakshmi temple and Trimbakeshwar Shiva temple, hailed the courage of the two women.
"This is a big victory for our agitation. Victory of equality...This is a good beginning for women in the new year," Desai told news agency from Pune.
Sabarimala row: Cops fire tear gas at violent agitators