As the forest trekking path of the lofty Agasthyarkoodam, the panoramic second highest peak of Kerala near Thiruvananthapuram is set to be opened for women for the first time, it is ecstasy to some and agony for few others.
For the women trekkers, the news of the state government's decision to lift the long-standing ban to enable them to scale the 1,868-metre-high scenic peak, located inside the fragile reserve forest of Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, is all excitement.
When they are all set to pack their bags to climb the peak soon and enjoy the magical beauty of nature, which they have heard only from their male counterparts so far, an indigenous tribal group is worried about the breaking of their traditional belief and centuries-old forest customs.
According to Kani tribes, living on the foothills, the mountain range is the holy abode of their deity 'Agastya Muni,' the mythical Hindu sage who is believed to be the guardian of the inhabitants, and women are traditionally not permitted to climb the peak, where his idol is located.
The tribal women have been following the restrictions from time immemorial and they would not go beyond Athiramala, the base camp located about 6 km away from the peak. They also have apprehensions that the increasing number of trekkers would pollute their holy place of worship, which is an ecologically sensitive zone.
Besides being the trekker's paradise, Agasthyarkoodam is a prominent pilgrimage destination of Hindu devotees who believe that Agastya, one among the Saptarishes (seven sages of the Puranas) is meditating atop the hills.
"We are very much pained and depressed on the Forest department's decision to permit women trekkers," State president of Adivasi Mahasabha, Mohanan Triveni told PTI.
"But, what can we do..? We are weak and marginalised. We do not have any strength to fight any long-drawn legal battle to go against their decision. The entire community is sad," he said.
For the forest department and the trekkers, it is an adventurous spot, but for us, it is our life and belief, he noted.
"It is such a fragile area. We fear that the high flow of trekkers will result in the piling up of plastic waste and liquor bottles there even though such things are banned there. It will destroy the entire biodiversity there," Mohanan, also the president of the Agasthyarkoodam Temple Kanikkar Trust, said.
Known as 'Kanikkar' in local parlance, around 2,000 tribals are living on the foothills of Agastyarkoodam, located about 70 kms away from the state capital.
The Kerala High Court had on November 30 last year ruled that no gender-based restrictions can be imposed on those who intend to trek Agasthyarkoodam, and lifted the unofficial ban on the entry of women to the peak.
The government had told the high court that no one had any vested right to trek to Agasthyarkoodam. Based on the court order, the Forest department has decided to allow women trekkers also at Agasthyarkoodam for the first time, following which a number of female have now registered for that.
The trekking season would begin from January 14 to and go on till March 1 and the number of trekkers would be restricted to 100 per day, department sources said. The department charges Rs 1000 per trekker, they said. Interestingly, the annual pilgrim season of Agastyarkoodam is also scheduled to begin on January 14, which would be concluded with the special Sivaratri poojas on March 2, 3 and 4.
Bhagavan Kani, the tribal priest, would reach Athiramala, the base camp, and perform the customary rituals on the first day.
Kani and his assitants would perform special prayers and offering before the idol of Agastya on January 15 and descend the hills. Mohanan said the forest department had assured them that no woman would be permitted at their ritual site and promised to erect fencing around the area.
He also alleged that the department was giving pass only to the trekkers and not allow other devotees, who used to come to offer worship, at their ritual site.
"It is strange that they are distancing believers and welcoming trekkers," he said.
Mohanan also said there was no facility for women there other than toilets and accommodation at the base camp. The 6 km path from Athirala to the peak is very steep and one can climb only using ropes. It is highly risky for women, he said.
Noting that they were law-abiding citizens, Mohanan said they would not try to prevent the women trekkers in view of the High Court order.
"But, we are planning to stage a protest demanding protection for the unique traditions and beliefs of Agastyarkoodam on the day when the women come for trekking. At least 200 Kani women and men are expected to participate in it," he said adding the protest venue is yet to be finalised.
Meanwhile, G Rejitha, an activist and nature buff, said she was eagerly waiting for the day to trek Agastyarkoodam. However, she was not ready to disclose the date of her group's trekking expedition owing to security reasons.
"We have heard that there may have protested by Kani tribes. But, we are not intending to go near their ritual site," she told PTI.
The issue of women's visit to the Agastya Mala might trigger fresh controversy in Kerala, which has been under the grip of violence since the entry of young women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple following a\ Supreme Court verdict.