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 at several places to disperse stone-throwing protesters, 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. Protesters blocked several roads and threw stones at law enforcement officials, sparking clashes, said Kumar, the police spokesman, adding that police fired tear gas to quell the violence.
As soon as news of Wednesday's breach spread, the temple head priest ordered the shrine closed for a purification ritual. It reopened after around an hour.
The standoff petered out around five hours later after police intervened. Five female protesters who tried to barge into the state parliament were arrested.
Journalists were also assaulted in Thiruvananthapuram and in the city of Kollam while clashes were reported elsewhere.
Police with batons charged at demonstrators who were trying to enforce a shutdown of shops and businesses in the area called for by the Sabarimala temple hierarchy.
There were no immediate reports of injuries.
Kumar said police were gearing up for more protests on Thursday because several political and Hindu groups have called for a general strike to protest the women's entry. He said authorities would provide "all possible security" to businesses.
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.
On Wednesday, hundreds of women in Mumbai, India's financial capital, formed a human chain to express solidarity with the women in Kerala.
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.
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