With just four days left for the culmination of the first phase of the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage, a group of 11 women of menstruating age Sunday made an unsuccessful bid to offer prayers at the Lord Ayyappa shrine as they were forced to return by protesting devotees.
Accompanied by police personnel, the members of Chennai-based women empowerment outfit 'Manithi' could barely move 100 metres through the traditional forest path towards the temple when hundreds of devotees rushed down to the valley to chase them away.
The women and the police had to virtually run from the scene to the safety of a nearby guardroom, abandoning the trekking plan.
Defying prohibitory orders, hundreds of devotees thronged the forest path here blocking the way of the women, who reached in the early hours from Chennai.
Police tried to remove the protesters by force as they were not ready to budge despite their repeated announcements to disperse leading to the arrest of some of the protesting devotees.
Before returning, Selvi, the co-coordinator of the outfit, told reporters here that the police had forced them to abandon their plan to visit the hill shrine and return.
However, rejecting the charge, the police said that the activists had came back on their own due to security issues, adding that two cases were registered against the protesters based on the complaint lodged by Manithi members.
Earlier, braving several protests on their way, the 11-member team, all belonging to the traditionally-barred age group, reached here by 3.30 am through the Idukki-Kambamedu route on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.
Of the 11, six carried the traditional irumudikettu which is mandatory to climb the 'pathinettam padi' (holy steps leading to sanctum sanctorum).
But, the women could not move forward and had to wait at the entry of the forest path for over six hours following 'namajapa' (chanting sacred hymns) protests staged by hundreds of devotees including children.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other right-wing activists too staged namajapa protests across the state including before the Cliff House, the official residence of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in Thiruvananrhapuram.
Kerala-based Dalit activist, Ammini, who announced to trek to Sabarimala Sunday, also returned after reaching Erumely, over 50 kilometers away from here.
The police's attempt to take Manithi members to the shrine also triggered a political row with the opposition Congress and the BJP lashing out at the ruling CPI-M led Left Democratic Front.
BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai said the left government was trying to turn the hill top shrine into a "war zone" and alleged that there were no devotees among the Manithi members who attempted to trek to the shrine.
He also sought a probe into the matter by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and announced that his party will observe a daylong protest in the state on Monday.
Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala alleged that the Pinarayi Vijayan government was attempting to destroy the Ayyappa temple.
Joining the attack, the Pandalam royal family, attached to the Ayyappa temple, accused the left government of taking "activist women" to the hill shrine with police escort .
However, refuting the charges, senior minister, E P Jayarajan told reporters that "the government is committed to protect the belief of devotees. We want peace at Sabaraimala."
Meanwhile, heavy rush of devotees continued to pour in at the Sabarimala temple with the auspicious Mandalapuja being just four days away.
The first phase of the 41-day long annual pilgrim season at the Lord Ayyappa temple would culminate on December 27 with the puja.
Kerala had witnessed massive protests by devotees opposing the apex court verdict on September 28 permitting women of all age groups into the shrine.
Over a dozen women including a journalist and an activist of menstruating age had earlier tried to trek to the shrine, nestled in the Western Ghats forests, but could not make it due to protests by devotees and right-wing activists.