It was a rainy evening in the month of November 1998; it almost had rained for three hours with intermittent bursts of thunder. The power was out, nothing unusual in India especially in Elure, a small but a bustling town in the state of Andhra Pradesh. After hours of downpour, the rain settled to a mere drizzle which compelled me for a refreshing cuppa. I reached for my black jeans, a black cotton shirt and started walking bare-footed towards a cafeteria at the end of my street. Yes, bare-footed, not because I didn’t want my adidas shoes to be soaked in the rain-water gushing out of the deplorable and dilapidated sewage system, it was because I was under a vow, called Ayyappa Mala, a highly popular six hundred years old tradition, taken by hundreds of thousands of devotees, for 41 days to observe austerities and abstain from carnal pleasures before visiting the temple of Lord Ayyappa, a popular bachelor God, in the state of Kerala. Although not popular with North-Indians, this weird yet benign vow is a ubiquitous phenomenon in South. For those who are alien to this vow, a little introduction should suffice.
This vow is taken for 41 days usually in the month of October and a festoon called ‘Mala’ is worn around the neck to mark the start of the vow and once the vow is taken; one is called “Swami”-meaning Lord Ayyappa Himself. An ideal Swami abstains from drinking, smoking, non-vegetarianism and sex. The attire changes to a black dhoti/trouser and a black shirt and the footwear must not be worn. Swamis are supposed to get up before sunrise, take a bath with cold-water and visit every temple that is within the walking reach. Through out the day, Swamis are supposed to perform poojas- customized sets of unintelligible rituals masquerading as prayers, at every available opportunity. At the end of 41 days, usually in January, Swamis start on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala, the abode of Lord Ayyappa, with no less intensity and fervour than the Muslims on their pilgrimage to Hajj. After visiting Sabarimala and having offered prayers to Lord Ayyappa, the vow ends. Life returns to normal and the nicotine, alcohol, meat and other intoxicants that were missed for 41 days are replenished in a day or two. Needless to say, it is a hectic season for prostitutes at home and enroute, and this cycle continues every year.
I arrived at the cafeteria and the generator there was screaming at high decibels shattering my ear-drums but that’s the best place to get a hot tea. “A strong tea” –I said to the bearer and as I ordered I witnessed some raised eye-brows. “Here we go, a high-tech Swami who wears jeans”-commented my friend who just happened to visit the café for his cup of tea. “How on earth could you wear jeans and have a cup of tea while you are on the vow….aren’t you sinning?”-satirically asked my friend. It was news to me that wearing jeans and drinking tea are seen on par with smoking and consuming alcohol. Jeans were non-existent during the olden days when the practise originally started nor the concept of tea until Chinese introduced it to the British- I said to my friend and I asked him-“ how about driving a bike , using a computer or using a mobile phone, are they allowed?. He didn’t have any answers but argued that my argument didn’t stand. Anyway, it was the first time I took this vow that too upon persistent pestering from my Mum and although I was aware of major tenets of the vow I failed to grasp a few trivial ones, too trivial that I started to realize the ludicrousness of the vow. I neither stopped wearing jeans nor stopped drinking tea and returned from pilgrimage a few days later. Although my pilgrimage that year was successful and was still a believer, I wasn’t very happy about my pilgrimage and didn’t repeat my vow the next year. A few years later I migrated to UK, my views on religion changed and my transition from a believer to a secular humanist, albeit at times painful, was a rewarding and gratifying experience.
A couple of months ago, I was casually browsing through the BBC site on news on South-Asia, I came across a column which read “India actress defiles shrine” and to my surprise and chagrin the shrine was none other than Ayyappa temple in Kerala. And guess what sort of ridiculous act of this actress had defiled the shrine? – “she had unwittingly touched the idol of the deity”. Women who are fertile are barred from the temple because the legend has it that Lord Ayyappa, to whom the temple is dedicated, was a confirmed bachelor. A Minister in the Kerala state government ruled by inherently atheistic Communist party has also taken a serious view of the actress's statement and hinted that she would be prosecuted if found true. I wasn’t taken aback at this Minister’s demeanour as such political correctness, needless to say corruptness, is one of the malignant traits of India’s political leaders but what does surprise me is the expression of explicit misogyny that too in this part of country which boasts 99% literacy. Anyway, this prompted me to expose the absurdity and irrationality of this Ayyappa tradition.
It is really sardonic and at the same time paradoxical that, Lord Ayyappa, cannot stand the presence of His own creation – the fertile women. If a mere presence of fertile women would desecrate the sanctity of the most powerful Being, we can rationally construe that fertile women are more powerful than the most powerful which discredits the omnipotence of the God. Fertility is the raison d’etre of our continuing existence and it is ironical that such an instrumentally critical bodily function rather than being recognized, if not exalted, is being vilified in the name of this tradition.
Coming to the vow itself, I hardly understand the underlying sensible philosophy in why one should take a vow for 41 days abstaining from all carnal pleasures and return back to normal after breaking the vow. Of course, if the vow were to mean abstaining from alcohol and smoking for ever, if not sex, the temple would have already been closed. Most of the pilgrims, especially from the poorer economic classes spend thousands of rupees, twice, thrice and in some cases many times their monthly gross wages to travel to the temple in Kerala. And once one starts taking a vow, usually the vow is repeated every year - a perennial and recurring financial burden on the poorer households. Besides, the sanitation amenities are so repulsive that it is a honeymoon haven for viruses and bugs alike and most of them end up with infections which incur additional health costs, especially for those poorer pilgrims for whom decent healthcare is beyond their monthly income. If this were not enough, daylight robbers in disguise of shopkeepers and traders extort as much money as possible from the pilgrims with total impunity. The transportation facilities are often highly perilous and hundreds of fatalities are reported every year, yet again, most of the victims are from the poorer sections of the society trying to get the temple by means of inexpensive but dangerous and illegal trucks.
It looks like only beneficiary of this tradition is the Ayyappa Temple trust.