On September 28, the Supreme Court made history when it passed a judgement that allowed women to enter the Sabarimala temple, no matter what their age was, effectively bringing an end to a spiritual paradigm that has been carried forward since time immemorial and never challenged before.
However, very few know that one woman did manage to foray into the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa almost two decades ago—the journey wasn’t undertaken to prove a point but was just another day of work in the life of IAS officer (now retired) KB Valsala Kumari.
Valsala was the former district collector of Pathanamthitta, and she could visit the temple complex to administer the official duties required of a district collector, only after being granted a special order from the Kerala High Court.
It is the duty of the District Collector to coordinate the preparatory activities with different government agencies for the upcoming pilgrimage season in the district, and the temple’s strict rules barred Valsala from inspecting the arrangements, despite her position.
It took a court order to finally allow the officer to do her work, which considered the visit a strictly official one and not a pilgrimage.
The court, however, had particularly advised Valsala to neither enter the sanctum sanctorum of the temple nor climb the ‘Pathinettam Padi,’ the 18 gold-plated steps that lead to it. Being a devout follower of Ayyappa, she remained true to her beliefs and upheld the values of her community at the time.
“I had no permission to go and see the Lord Ayyappa idol when I reached Sabarimala with the court order. But, I prayed with folded hands and meditated for a while standing below the holy steps,” she told PTI, reports TOI.
With legal backing and special protection, Valsala became the first woman to enter the abode of Ayyappa. Just like every other pilgrim, she too partook in an hour-long trek through the forested thickets of Sabarimala to reach the shrine. Interestingly, when the high court had granted her permission, Valsala received lots of threat mails, but the diligent officer chose to ignore these and went ahead.
But what awaited her were piles of garbage along with years of worn clothes thrown away by devotees at Sabarimala and the temple premises. She also noticed that there was a grave sanitation issue in the area and that the sacred Pamba river that flew by the foothills of Sabarimala was severely littered with waste.
It was under Valsala’s leadership that a massive sanitation drive was started and environmentally friendly toilets made out of trenches with aluminium covers were installed. This ensured no trees were cut to build a concrete structure, with the aim to conserve the fragile ecosystem in Sabarimala. Alongside, she also led initiatives to clean the holy river and provide safe drinking water for pilgrims.
However, it was her visionary initiative of conceptualising and establishing the Sabarimala Sanitation Society (SSS) that should be truly appreciated, because this exclusive body was set up to upkeep its sanctity through regular cleanliness drives. Such was her commitment to work that the IAS officer had often led many of these drives.
Between 1994 and 1995, Valsala must have visited the hill shrine at least four times as part of her official undertakings.
It was only after she turned 50, did Valsala enter the sanctum sanctorum of Sabarimala to pay homage to her god like a true devotee.
The SC judgement must have earned the wrath of many across the country and Kerala, but Valsala views the verdict as a welcome change and added that anyone whose mind and body was pure can visit the shrine.
What must be appreciated of the former IAS officer is that she bravely chose to upkeep centuries-old religious beliefs while performing her duty as a civil servant without blurring the lines between the two, even when she had the opportunity to do so.
We equally salute her steadfast commitment to work and her unwavering devotion to the revered deity Ayyappa.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)