Sabarimala: With the Lord Ayyappa temple opening for a day on Monday for a special puja, a thick cover of over 2,000 personnel has been put in place after violent protests were witnessed last month by devotees preventing entry of women of all ages into the hill-top shrine despite the ruling by the Supreme Court.

Apart from the deployment of 2,300 police personnel, including a 20-member commando team and 100 women, Section 144 – banning assembly of four or more people – has been imposed in Sabarimala and nearby areas of Pamba, Nilackal, Elavungal, and Sannidhanam for 72 hours from midnight Saturday.

The Kerala government’s move to turn the hill temple into a fortress with such heavy security cover to ensure smooth ‘darshan’ and security of devotees invited sharp criticism from the erstwhile royal family of Pandalam, the BJP and the Congress.

Ayyappa devotees from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have already reached Erumeli and they will be permitted to go to ‘sannidhanam’ only on Monday.

This is the second time the hill temple would open for ‘darshan’ after the Supreme Court allowed entry of women of all age groups into it.

The temple had witnessed high drama last month following frenzied protests leading to around a dozen women in the age group of 10-50 being prevented from reaching it and police and the agitators fighting a pitched battle over the LDF government’s decision to implement the court order.

The shrine would open at 5 pm Monday for the “Sree Chitira Atta Thirunal” special puja slated for the next day, marking the birthday of last king of Travancore Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, and close at 10 pm on that day.

Ahead of the opening of the temple gates, the Sabarimala Karma Samiti, a platform of right-wing outfits, including VHP, on Sunday appealed to media houses not to depute women journalists in the menstrual age group to cover the developments in Sabarimala.

Objecting to the samithi’s appeal, the Network of Women in Media, India said it was ‘unjustified’ and ‘unacceptable interference’ in the functioning of the media and an ‘unfair obstacle’ in the way of journalists who happen to be women wishing to cover an important story of public interest.

So far no women in the ‘barred’ age group had approached police for protection to offer prayers at the hill shrine, he said.

A high-level meeting of senior police officers was held to take stock of the situation.

During last month’s pujas, media persons were attacked by a section of protesters and police had to face criticism.

Dismissing reports that media was being restrained from going to Sabarimala, Kerala Director General of Police Loknath Behara said there was no bar on entry of journalists.

No restriction of any sort has been imposed on media persons, he said.

“To ensure necessary protection to the media, we are not allowing them now. As soon as security arrangements are complete, media will be allowed in Sabarimala and nearby places.”

The Pandalam royal family, closely associated with the Ayyappa shrine, said it was “pained” at the heavy security in and around Sabarimala.

Noting that the situation in Sabarimala was “explosive,” Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president Mullapally Ramachandran accused the CPI(M)-led LDF government of ‘failing’ to handle it.

BJP leader M T Ramesh warned that any attempt by police to hinder devotees from visiting Sabarimala would lead to “serious repercussions.”

Police would not be allowed to inspect the ‘irumudikettu’ (offerings devotees carry for lord ayyappa), he said.

So far, 3,731 people have been arrested and 545 cases registered in connection with last month’s violence.

BJP and various Hindu outfits are on a warpath against the Left-front government over its decision not to seek a review of the top court verdict.

(With PTI inputs)