Police in southern India said Friday that a third woman has entered a flashpoint temple, stoking tensions after days of clashes involving Hindu hardliners and police. The Sabarimala temple in Kerala state has been at the center of a prolonged showdown since India's top court overturned in September a ban on women aged 10 to 50 setting foot inside.
Before dawn on Wednesday two women in their 40s, escorted by police, wrong-footed devotees to become the first to access the shrine since the landmark verdict, sneaking in via a side entrance. They remained under police protection on Friday.
The third to enter the temple, on Thursday night, was a Sri Lankan woman, police said. "She entered the temple yesterday night. She is 47 years old and came as a devotee. We were aware and watched the situation," Balram Kumar Upadhyay, a police official, told AFP.
Thousands of Hindu hardliners, many of them female, had previously succeeded in preventing women from accessing the site in the weeks following the landmark ruling, with some hardliners throwing stones at police and assaulting female journalists.
Wednesday's news sparked uproar among Hindu devotees, including many in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who believe that women of menstruating age should not enter the temple because the diety it is dedicated to, Ayyappa, was celibate.
Clashes on Wednesday and Thursday between devotees, activists of Kerala's ruling leftist alliance and riot police firing tear gas and water cannon, left one man dead and at least 15 people injured, including four who were stabbed. Police said that 1,369 people have been arrested, and that the situation on the ground on Friday was peaceful but tense.
The Supreme Court is to start hearing a legal challenge on its temple ruling, the latest in a series of verdicts to upset traditionalists and reflect a more liberal outlook in Indian society, from Jan. 22.
Women are barred from a handful of Hindu temples in India. The entry of women of menstruating age to Sabarimala was taboo for generations and formalized by the Kerala High Court in 1991.