ANGADIPPURAM, India – A mother of two from a conservative family in southern India, Kanakadurga was told over and over again by her relatives how a good wife should behave.
She should obey her husband’s wishes. She should adapt to his family’s ways. And she should not even contemplate visiting the Sabarimala temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines.
But Kanakadurga, 39, a civil servant who goes by one name, went anyway. Since then, nothing in her life has been the same.
Last month Kanakadurga, along with another woman, accomplished a historic feat. Together they disrupted a centuries-old tradition that had barred women of menstruating age from the temple, which is devoted to a god considered celibate.
The two women became the first to exercise their constitutional right to enter Sabarimala under a landmark ruling issued last year by India’s Supreme Court that opened the temple to women of all ages. The ruling sparked violent protests across the state of Kerala. For months, younger women attempting to visit the shrine were forced to turn back for their safety.
For Kanakadurga, the decision to make history has come at a cost. When she returned home, her mother-in-law beat her, Kanakadurga says, sending her to the hospital. Her family locked her out of the house and refused to let her talk to her sons. All but one of Kanakadurga’s five siblings stopped speaking to her. Police now shadow her everywhere for her protection.
Such consequences reflect the ongoing struggle over societal change in this country of 1.3 billion people, where new demands for equality are challenging age-old customs and traditions.
The controversy over Sabarimala – an ancient shrine devoted to the deity Ayyappa that draws tens of millions of devotees each year – has proven particularly fierce. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sided with those who say the Supreme Court decision is an affront to Hindus. And opponents of the verdict have launched an attempt to overturn it.
But the tide appears to be turning. Last week, the religious board that oversees the Sabarimala temple reversed its stance and said that it, too, supported allowing all women into the shrine. “We are against any form of discrimination,” the board president told reporters.
Kanakadurga, a small woman with dark curly hair who wears a gold chain with an image of the Hindu god Krishna around her neck, is an unlikely revolutionary. As a child, she used to see pilgrims clad in the black garb of devotees setting off for Sabarimala and longed to go with them.
To this day, Kanakadurga’s family observes the practice of keeping women apart from the functioning of the household while they menstruate because they are considered to be impure. During those times, she would eat and sleep in a different room and was not allowed to cook or touch utensils.
“I come from such a traditional family,” said Kanakadurga, her eyes alive with pride as she recounted her journey to Sabarimala. “And I have managed to do this job.”
Kanakadurga studied commerce and later married a man from the same upper-caste community in an arranged union. One source of friction in the relationship was her love of writing poetry, she said. She described a bitter fight with her husband over her desire to travel to a poetry conference, which he said no respectable woman would do. Kanakadurga’s husband declined requests to speak with The Washington Post.
When the Supreme Court announced its verdict in September opening Sabarimala to women between the ages of 10 and 50, Kanakadurga was elated. She joined groups on Facebook and WhatsApp, where women discussed plans to make the pilgrimage. When she finally decided to join them, she was too afraid to tell her husband where she was going.
Before setting out on the pilgrimage, she met Bindu A., a law professor who would become her partner on their historic trek. (Bindu, too, usually goes by one name). They first attempted to reach the shrine in late December but turned back after confronting a crowd of 1,000 protesters.
The next time, they succeeded. Accompanied by plainclothes police officers, Kanakadurga and Bindu set out on the three-mile uphill walk to the temple early on Jan. 2, arriving at the innermost sanctuary just before 4 in the morning. They prayed for about five minutes, Kanakadurga said, then descended.
The backlash was immediate. Priests closed the shrine to conduct a purification ritual. The BJP called for a statewide strike, and violent clashes broke out between its supporters and backers of the state government, which is run by India’s main communist party. One person was killed.
For Kanakadurga, the worst hostility was yet to come. Early on Jan. 15, she returned home to Angadippuram, a small town in northern Kerala. As she walked in, her mother-in-law came out of the kitchen and started shouting at her, Kanakadurga said. Then she grabbed a piece of wood and hit Kanakadurga on her head, drawing blood, she recalled. Not long after, Kanakadurga’s 12-year-old twin sons arrived and began to cry. Police officers took Kanakadurga to the hospital.
Sumathi Amma, 73, Kanakadurga’s mother-in-law, denied the assault. “Nothing like that happened,” she said. Kanakadurga “pushed me and I fell down. That’s it.”
Kanakadurga “is not an ordinary woman,” she added. “Even her own mother doesn’t like her now.”
After leaving the hospital, Kanakadurga came home to find her house locked. Her husband had left and taken their children to a rented house nearby, forcing Kanakadurga to move to a government-run women’s shelter. Earlier this month, an anonymous letter earlier had arrived at the shelter, promising to exact “punishment” against the two women who entered Sabarimala.
On Feb. 5, a local court ordered Kanakadurga’s husband to unlock their home. After sunset, she walked – surrounded by her police escort – down the narrow lane to her home and through the wooden front door. The two-story bungalow appeared to have been hastily vacated: Onions spilled out of a basket and dirty dishes sat in the kitchen.
Despite the mess, Kanakadurga was relieved to be home. Now all she wanted was to be reunited with her sons to explain what had happened. Otherwise she had no regrets.
“I’m only worried about my children,” she said. “I want to convince them that what I did was right.”