But in a surprise pre-dawn operation on Wednesday that was heralded by activists but that enraged conservative devotees, police enabled two women to penetrate the temple and then leave again undetected, officials confirmed. "We offered prayers before Lord Ayyappa and returned without any problem from any quarters", she said. "We are 100 percent sure that we didn't hurt people".
A local police spokesperson said officers walked with the two women Wednesday to provide protection during their visit. Reuters reports that thousands took part, while other local news outlets put the number at hundreds of thousands, and other local outlets estimated the figure was in the millions.
Despite the Supreme Court's historic decision on September 28 previous year, permitting women in the 10-50 age group, no children or young women in the "barred" group were able to offer prayers at the shrine following frenzied protests by devotees and right-wing outfits.
According to India's News Minute, "In what is being seen as a defining moment for feminist politics in Kerala, leaders and members from political parties, socio-political organizations, and progressive Hindu organizations, too, joined the event". Bindu, who serves as a guest lecturer in the legal studies department of Kannur University, described the fete as the first step towards ensuring gender equality in the famous temple.
Two women in their 40s entered the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala early on Wednesday and offered prayers at the shrine, where women of menstruating age are traditionally not allowed.
Violent protests broke out across the southern state with Indian police firing tear gas, stun grenades and water cannons.
"We did the trek to the shrine just like any other devotees", said Hariharan in remarks released to reporters.
But the state government defended its decision to protect the women as they went into the temple, saying it was a matter of civil rights.
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. Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president Mullappally Ramachandran said that the party will strengthen the agitation if the government continued with the support to the women. "Some believe that's because such women are impure".
This is a conspiracy hatched by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples. The BJP will support the struggles against the destruction of faith by the Communists.
Modi, in an interview with ANI on Tuesday, indicated he felt that the temple issue was more about a religious tradition than gender equality.
Legend says that the goddess Malikapurathamma asked Ayyappa to marry her. Groups of women had been prevented from entering since the court decision was reached by massive crowds of male pilgrims who barred the way. "After the apex court verdict the system was withdrawn as it would have tantamount to violation of the court order", the minister told the media.