Neyyar tribals are up in arms against a HC verdict that allows women trekkers on Agasthyarkoodam peak as they believe it to be the abode of a celibate god.
Bengaluru: Kerala is set for another Sabarimala-like flashpoint as tribals in the Neyyar region near capital Thiruvananthapuram are up in arms against a state high court order allowing women to trek to the Agasthyarkoodam peak.
The peak, a popular trekking trail in the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, had been informally out of bounds for women for decades but in 2016 the Kerala forest department issued a circular explicitly stating that women cannot apply for a trekking permit.
The department cited local tribal traditions, pointing out that members of the Kani tribe, who live within the reserve, believe that the peak is the abode of their deity, Sage Agasthya, who like Lord Ayyappa is celibate and had hence wanted women banned from the mountain.
Forest Minister K. Raju initially justified the ban claiming there were also practical difficulties such as security for women but following a furore, the government in January 2017 decided to allow women up till Athirumala, the base camp for the trek that is 16 km from the peak.
The matter then went to the Kerala High Court, which, acting on a petition filed by women organisations, ruled on 30 November that women cannot be excluded from the trek.
There was nothing offensive in women trekking to the peak nor was there any intent to wound the religious sentiments of the tribals, the court said. It, however, made it clear that no puja or religious offerings should be made at the Agastya temple atop the mountain.
The Kerala government has decided to abide by the high court order.
“Everybody is allowed and we will follow the high court verdict. The matter is settled,” P.P. Pramod, conservator of forests, Kerala government, told ThePrint.
The sought-after trek
The Agasthyarkoodam peak is one of Kerala’s most exotic trekking sites and is part of the Agasthyamala Biosphere Reserve, which was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2012. At 1,868m, it is also Kerala’s second highest peak, behind the Anamudi peak (2,695m) near Munnar.
The reserve is spread across Kerala and Tamil Nadu but the much-sought-after trek is on the Kerala side. The trekking season at Agasthyarkoodam is generally limited to about 51 days in a year between January and March.
The Kerala government allows two-day expeditions during this period where groups can cover a 24 km trail starting from Bonnacaud, moving towards the base camp at Athirumala before the 16-km trek up to the peak. Only 100 people are allowed per trip to ensure safety and harmony of the sensitive biodiversity site.
Safety, a sticking issue
With the high court paving the way for women trekkers to scale the peak, their safety has become a sticking issue. There is a fear that the local tribesmen may retaliate if the women trek towards the peak.
In their submissions to the Kerala High Court, members of Kani tribe had said that they “have habitually been worshipping the idol of Agasthyamuni at Agasthyarkoodam and they have the traditional rights of such worship”. They also submitted that the women members of the tribe do not go near the vicinity of the idol.
Pramod, the conservator of forests, appeared to suggest that women trekkers would not be provided with any special security cover.
“Since the court order does not mention any special arrangement that needs to be made, the trekking facilities will be common for all,” he said.
Sources in the forest department also say that the area lacks basic amenities for women and that since it is a reserve forest, there is a threat of wild animal attacks.
K. Sulfath, a member of a women’s organisation, Pennoruma, which was among the five that filed the writ petition against the government’s notification, called the excuse by the Kerala government ridiculous.
“Do animals identify only women and attack them? It is an illogical argument,” she told ThePrint. “We are prepared to use the opportunity to learn and experience the beauty of this rich biodiversity just like the men. We are waiting for the government notification and when they start the online forms, we will be ready with our submissions.”
During the trial, the women bodies had argued that the trek was not a pilgrimage centre and that they had no intention to enter the temple of the local tribesmen, which is located within a heavily wooded area.
K. Ajitha, the head of NGO Anweshi, which too had approached the court, said the women have resolved to undertake the trek. “Now women will try to go there as we have a decision in our favour,” she said.
But the question remains on whether the women will be allowed to reach the Agasthyarkoodam peak or if they will face protests such as the ones during the Sabarimala row.