Breaking yet another 'gender' barrier, a woman Monday started scaling Agasthyarkoodam -- the second highest peak of Kerala-- where the fair sex had been barred owing to an age-old tribal custom. K Dhanya Sanal, armed with a recent high court order which lifted the 'unofficial' ban on entry of women to the peak, began the arduous journey along with male trekkers through the traditional forest path from Bonacaud, located about 50 km from here.
A spokesperson of the Defence Ministry here said Dhanya was the only woman in the first batch of 100 trekkers who set out to scale the 1,868-metre lofty peak, known for its panoramic beauty and unique biodiversity. Clad in jeans and shirt and carrying a travel bag, Dhanya seemed content and confident as she manoeuvred her way through the 22 km-long forest path.
"The journey is to understand the forest more and share the unique experience with others," she said before starting the journey. Agastyarkoodam, located in the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary, opened for the annual trekking for the first time after the Kerala High Court ruled last November that no gender-based restrictions would be imposed on trekkers. The local Kani tribes living on the foothills have opposed the scaling of the lofty peak by women. They had staged protests against permitting women to the peak but did not attempt to stop the trekkers, including Dhanya, in view of the court order.
Over 100 indigenous people, including women, gathered at Bonacaud, the pick-up station, and sang folk songs as a mark of protest. "We staged the protest to express our pain and anguish at breaking the customs of the Agastya hills. We never attempted to check the trekkers...because we respect the court order," Mohanan Triveni, state president, Adivasi Mahasabha told PTI. According to Kanis, the mountain range is the holy abode of their deity 'Agastya Muni', the mythical Hindu sage who is believed to be the guardian of the inhabitants. Women are traditionally not permitted to climb the peak, where his idol is located.
The Kerala Forest Department, which organises the trekking programme, said a total of 4,700 people had registered this year, of the 100 were women. More women are expected to trek the peak in the coming days. A total of 100 trekkers assembled at the Bonacaud estate from where they were divided into five groups of 20 members each Monday morning, officials said.
The department also arranged for canteen facilities at the base stations of Bonacaud and Athiramala and the service of women guard, they said. Though guidelines of the forest department specifically permit physically fit women above the age of 14 years to participate in the annual trek, there was opposition from some quarters to women's entry. In 2015, a women's group noticed that forest officials had promulgated a notification excluding women and children below the age of 14 from participating in the trek that includes an overnight stay in a base camp at Athirumala.
Pennoruma, an organisation headed by M Sulfath, and Anweshi led by former Naxalite leader K Ajitha joined another organisation, Women Integration and Growth Through Sports. They moved the court to fight against the gender bias. The Kerala High Court on November 30 last year observed, "In case, permission is being granted for trekking in the year 2019, it is made clear that restrictions shall not be imposed only on the ground of the gender of the trekker".
The trekking by women in the men-only Agasthyarkoodam has garnered media attention as the development comes days after three women of menstruating age trekked Sabarimala and offered prayers at the Lord Ayyappa temple, defying the traditional restrictions imposed on them. Agasthyarkoodam is a reserve forest and a UNESCO heritage site. The 47-day trekking programme to the peak will continue till March 1.
(With inputs from agencies.)