By John Mary
BBC News, Trivandrum
An Indian actress has kicked up a storm after revealing that she had unwittingly touched the idol of a deity at a prominent temple where fertile women are banned from entering.
Jayamala says she prayed for her husband's health at the temple
Jayamala, 46, has said she had prayed for her late husband's health at the famous southern Indian hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala in Kerala state in April 1987.
Women who are fertile are barred from the temple because of the legend that Lord Ayyappa, to whom the temple is dedicated, was a confirmed bachelor.
The controversy is about the violation of a tradition that women aged between 10 and 50 years are barred from worshipping at the temple in keeping with the Hindu belief that the presence of menstruating women in its premises would mar the sanctity of the shrine.
Shaken by the actress's statement, temple officials have decided to launch an investigation into the incident.
"We cannot just ignore it. It is unthinkable that such a thing could happen. We have to find out the truth," senior official G Raman Nair said.
A minister in the Communist state government has also taken a serious view of the actress's statement.
"She is liable for prosecution if what she said is true," said G Sudhakaran.
'Figment of imagination'
Jayamala has said she regretted her action, but clarified that she was pushed into the shrine by a crowd of devotees.
"I fell flat on the floor, touching the feet of the Lord. It was a moment of ecstasy. I didn't know then that I wasn't supposed to touch the idol," she told reporters.
"When I got up, a priest standing nearby gave presented me a rose. As I came out, devotees touched me in veneration because I had felt the Lord."
A temple priest Kantararu Maheswararu had dismissed the actress's statement as a figment of her imagination.
The temple attracts thousands of male devotees [Pic: Anil Warrier]
"How could Jayamala, then 27 years old, slip through several rungs of security and reach the innermost precincts of the Lord where women between puberty and menopause are strictly barred from entering?," he said.
"The distance between the temple doors and the idol is at least 15 ft and to reach there one has to climb five steps. How can she claim she was shoved all the way up and thrown 15 ft towards the temple."
Why did Jayamala make her 'disclosure' after nearly two decades?
The actress said she read a newspaper report a fortnight back saying that a group of astrologers had found that the "temple had been defiled by the presence of a woman artiste in the past two decades".
The team of astrologers was led by Parappanangadi Unnikrishna Panicker, whose celebrity clientele includes former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha.
This is not the first time that an actress has found herself in the middle of a controversy involving the temple.
Sudha Chandran and co-stars on the cast of a Tamil film were accused of defiling the temple when they danced on its steps a few years ago.
A devotee took them to court. Chandran and her fellow actors were fined and set free.
The controversy has sparked off a debate on the discrimination towards women in a literate state like Kerala.
Women devotees of Lord Ayyappa are disappointed that they should be discriminated against in the name of temple sanctity.
Astrologers said the deity had been defiled [Pic: Anil Warrier]
"It would be primitive to keep women of fertile age off the temple citing decadent myths," lamented a woman on local television.
The controversy is not going to die down since Hindu activists have demanded a proper atonement by those defiled the temple, especially by Jayamala.
Some eight to ten million devotees worship at the temple every year.
The shrine earns revenues worth one billion rupees from pilgrims from all over the country.