Scores of devotees climbed the sacred Pathinettam Padi to enter the Sabarimala Temple on Monday to offer prayers to Lord Ayyappa on the first day of the two-day special pilgrimage amid heavy security.

The temple, which opened this evening, will be closed after the ‘Athazha puja’ tomorrow evening. Devotees carrying the sacred Irumudi over their heads began their trek from Nilakkal base camp to the hill shrine before the portals opened at 5 pm today.

Prayers will be offered till 10 pm today before the temple is closed. The temple will reopen on Tuesday morning before finally closing at 10 pm.

Reports say that the number of devotees this time was five times that of last year on the same day.

A thick security cover was in place in and around Sabarimala, which had witnessed protests last month after the Supreme Court permitted women of menstrual age group to offer prayers at the shrine.

Around 2,300 personnel, including a 20-member commando team and 100 women, were deployed to ensure smooth ‘darshan’ and security of devotees. At least 15 women police personnel, who are over 50 years of age, have been deployed at ‘Sannidhanam’ (temple complex).

“We’ve made adequate security arrangements for facilitating ‘darshan’ of all devotees. We have various threats in this area, taking into consideration various threat perceptions, we’ve provided security arrangements for everyone,” IG Ajith Kumar, security in-charge of Sabarimala, was quoted as saying by ANI.

All 15 women officers offered prayers, which, according to ANI, was the first time ever.

“They’re all inspectors and SI. We’ve brought eligible police officers, didn’t choose on basis of their age,” IG Ajith said when asked why all of them were above 50 years.

At 8 am, the police opened the barricade and started allowing devotees to walk to Pamba – the base town of the temple. Hundreds of pilgrims at Nilackal and Erumely were seen arguing as they faced repeated obstacles from the police for advancing.

What irked them the most was the policemen’s insistence to check their identity proofs and the need to answer several questions as they tried to reach the sanctum sanctorum.

At Erumely, all pilgrim vehicles were stopped. The devotees protested and shouted Lord Ayyappa slogans as they arrived at a bus depot of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), demanding transport to proceed to the hilltop shrine.

“We have been asked to wait since last (Sunday) night. We are all on a pilgrimage and we have no other intention. We are not particular that our vehicles should be allowed. The KSRTC should then operate the buses to take us forward,” said an angry devotee, as others echoed his demand.

Following the growing number of protesters, the police have agreed to allow private vehicles from Erumely till Nilackal.

Vishnu Das, 70, was angry at the way the police were managing the pilgrims’ progress. He said it was the first time in his 56 years of visit to the shrine that he has been put to such difficulties.

“The police are out to create trouble and the scene here is as if it’s a battleground. The police is very intimidating. Till last year, there were no issues at all.

The arrangements at the temple town are such that all pilgrims arriving by their vehicles have to get down at Nilackal and then take a KSRTC bus to Pamba, about 20 kilometres, and then start the trek to the temple, situated on a hilltop.

Sreekumar Varma of the Pandalam Royal family, the custodian of the jewellery of the Sabarimala temple, said he was hurt by the way things have unfolded.

“All along it has been a peaceful pilgrimage to Sabarimala. But today the temple has been turned into a ‘police station’. It pains us all,” said Varma.

Senior BJP leaders MT Ramesh and K. Surendran were spotted at the temple top and both of them said they are there as pilgrims.

“Our only request to the temple authorities is that the pilgrims should be given facilities, and we seek nothing else,” said Surendran.

The media was allowed to go up the pathway at 9.15 am.

The Kerala government has announced it would implement the apex court’s ruling, pitting it against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and numerous Hindu groups which have been up in arms against the verdict.

From 17 to 22 October, when the temple was open for the monthly puja, the temple tantri and officials said they would close the shrine if any female devotee in the 10-50 age group tried to enter the sanctum sanctorum, as it was against the temple tradition.

Though attempts had been made by some young women, including an activist, to enter the temple of the ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’, the eternally celibate deity, the devotees backed by priests stood their ground, saying they would not allow the tradition to be breached.

(With inputs from agencies.)