By Jose Devasia
NILAKKAL, India (Reuters) - Tensions rose at an Indian hill temple on Tuesday before an expected face-off between women of menstrual age who can enter for the first time in centuries and conservative Hindu groups who want to stop them.
The Sabarimala hill temple in the southern state of Kerala has been the site of widespread protests since late September, when the Supreme Court ruled that a ban on women between the ages of 10 to 50 entering the temple infringed on rights to equality of worship.
Final talks between the state and temple priests broke down after the secular government said it would defend the rights of women to enter the site. Their first chance since the ban was lifted will come at 5 p.m. local time (1130 GMT) on Wednesday.
Hindu groups say the prohibition is required to appease the temple's chief deity Ayyappan, depicted as a yoga-practicing god considered eternally celibate by followers.
In some Hindu communities, menstruating women are regarded as unclean, leading to restrictions and in a few cases outright bans on women of child-bearing age from entering certain places.
One of the groups, Shiv Sena, a former ally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, said its members will commit suicide if women in the age group enter the temple.
"Seven members of our organisation are ready to sacrifice their lives if the women come forward to defy the customs and traditions of the temple," said Peringamala Aji, a Shiv Sena leader.
On Tuesday in Nilakkal, the main access point, 18 kilometres from the temple, female devotees belonging to a tribal community called Malayarayan were pulling over traffic to check for women of menstrual age, forcing a group of female journalism students off a government-run bus.
"We stop those defying our request and are detaining them at Nilakkal," the group's leader, Sujatha, who goes by only one name, told Reuters.
A 51-year-old woman from the tribe tried to commit suicide at the site, before being saved by other female protesters. The woman, known as Ratnamma, later told Reuters that she was protesting against attempts by some women to enter the temple.
The Kerala state government, led by the Communist Party of India, has said it will not give in to attempts by Hindu groups to prevent women from entering that temple.
"We will not allow anyone to take law and order into their hands," Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan told reporters.
A release by Vijayan's office said the government would deploy sufficient police, including female officers, to uphold the Supreme Court's decision.
Pilgrims have for centuries visited the Subarimala temple, in a remote tiger reserve in the Western Ghats mountain range.
Many of those visiting the site take a vow of celibacy for 41 days before beginning a trek through the mountains to the temple, located around 3,000 feet above sea level, according to the temple's website.
(Reporting by Jose Devasia in Nilakkal, writing by Alasdair Pal, editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Larry King)