NEW DELHI – Two women on Wednesday entered one of India's largest Hindu pilgrimage sites that had been forbidden to females between the ages of 10 and 50, sparking protests across a southern state, with police firing tear gas in at least one place, police said.
The Supreme Court lifted a ban in September on women worshipping at Sabarimala temple in Kerala state. The ban was informal for many years, but became law in 1972.
Despite the ruling, demonstrators including Hindu priests and conservatives continued to block women of menstruating age from entering the centuries-old temple.
The two women in their forties entered the temple early Wednesday and worshipped there, said Pramod Kumar, the state police spokesman. Officers escorted the two women to the hilltop temple because of "police responsibility to provide protection to any devotee irrespective of gender," Kumar said.
Kerala's top elected official, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, told reporters that under the Supreme Court order, police were bound to safeguard worshippers.
"Earlier, women were not able to enter the temple due to certain hurdles. They were able to enter the shrine today," Vijayan said.
Protests broke out in several places in the state after the women entered the temple, and police fired tear gas to disperse at least one of them. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
On Tuesday, millions of women formed a human chain more than 600 kilometers (375 miles) long from Kasargod in the northern part of the state to Thiruvananthapuram, the southernmost city and the state capital, to support gender equality.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the ruling party in Kerala, said about 5.5 million women participated in the protest, called by the state government.
The Supreme Court has agreed to re-examine its decision to lift the ban later this month in response to 49 petitions filed against it.
Opponents of the ruling say the celibacy of the temple's presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is protected by India's Constitution, and that women of all ages can worship at other Hindu temples. Some Hindus consider menstruating women to be impure.