The two women who broke with centuries of conservative taboo Wednesday to enter a temple in the southern Indian state of Kerala are now in hiding, as violent protests left at least one person dead.
The pair, aged 42 and 44, became the first women to access the shrine after the country’s Supreme Court overturned a centuries-old ban on women aged 10 to 50 from entering the temple in September last year, ruling it to be discriminatory and arguing that women should be able to pray at the place of their choice.
A police spokesman told CNN Thursday that the women — identified only by their given names Bindu Ammini and Kankadurga — are currently in an undisclosed location along with some of their relatives. The spokesman added the women had previously attempted to enter the temple in December but were stopped by mobs of angry hardliners shouting and blocking their path.
Those same protesters were out in force again Wednesday, forcing police to deploy tear gas and water cannon to separate demonstrators both for and against the ban.
Police said a protester belonging to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who are seeking to uphold the gender ban, died Wednesday night after being hit in the head by a stone thrown by counter demonstrators.
The Sabarimala shrine, which is thought to be more than 800 years old, is considered the spiritual home of Lord Ayyappa, a Hindu god of growth. Proponents of the ban on women of menstrual age argue that since Ayyappa is considered celibate, allowing “impure” women into the temple would be disrespectful.
For months, the area around the Sabarimala Temple complex has been the scene of angry clashes, as protesters attempted to prevent the court’s decision from being enacted.
A 1,300-strong contingent of police officers, deployed to ensure the safety of any woman wishing to visit the temple, had previously not been enough to resist the overwhelming hostility of thousands of Hindu traditionalists bent on preventing them from entering.
“Many people … came to enter the Sabarimala Temple (since September) but these people were blocked by the public, so they couldn’t enter into the temple,” said Prasad Amore, a supporter of the women. “Thousands of police were deployed at the temple premises but they were helpless.”
Amore was part of a group which accompanied Ammini and Kankadurga on the long, arduous trek up the mountainside to the famous golden-roofed temple under the cover of darkness in the early hours of Wednesday morning, when they successfully entered the shrine.
“We found many devotees who did not make any trouble on the way to the Sabarimala Temple,” he said. “We were a total of six people, including police officials. It was the first time I visited the temple.”
In the wake of Wednesday’s visit, priests at the temple moved to “purify” the grounds, leading to the temporary closure of the site. “These two women broke the social taboo,” said Amore. “I gave advice (to them) on the way and how to behave… how to distract people who opposed (them), how to deal with panic situations,” he added.
Speaking Thursday, Pinarayi Vijayan, chief minister of Kerala, blamed the BJP for politicizing the issue and turning the state into a battleground.
“The two women asked for police help to enter the temple and we provided that to them because that was our duty,” he said. “We fulfilled our constitutional responsibility.”
The issue has become a point of contention between the local government, run by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM), and the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP.
Amit Shah, the leader of the BJP, has characterized the debate as one between people of faith and an “oppressive” state government in Kerala. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also appeared to support the ban Wednesday, highlighting that some temples do not allow men to enter.
Earlier this week, as many as five million female protesters took part in a peaceful “women’s wall” protest organized in part by the CPIM in support of gender equality and the right of women to enter the temple freely. They formed a human chain, extending an estimated 620 kilometers (385 miles) across Kerala.
“There were so many women and there wasn’t even space for women to extend arms. If they had extended their arms, the length of the wall would have increased so much that women would be falling in the Arabian Sea,” said Subhashini Ali, a local civil servant and CPIM member.
Vijayan said police will provide protection for any other women seeking to enter the temple. Those against the move will likely now turn their attention back to the Supreme Court, which is due later this month to hear petitions to revise its order.