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She made history by entering a holy Indian shrine. Her family locked her out of the house.

She made history by entering a holy Indian shrine. Her family locked her out of the house.
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ANGADIPPURAM, India — A mother of two from a conservative family in southern India, Kanakadurga was told over and over again by her relatives how a good wife should behave.

She should obey her husband’s wishes. She should adapt to his family’s ways. And she should not even contemplate visiting the Sabarimala temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines.

But Kanakadurga, 39, a civil servant who goes by one name, went anyway. Since then, nothing in her life has been the same.

Last month Kanakadurga, along with another woman, accomplished a historic feat. Together they disrupted a centuries-old tradition that had barred women of menstruating age from the temple, which is devoted to a god considered celibate.

The two women became the first to exercise their constitutional right to enter Sabarimala under a landmark ruling issued last year by India’s Supreme Court that opened the temple to women of all ages. The ruling sparked violent protests across the state of Kerala. For months, younger women attempting to visit the shrine were forced to turn back for their safety.

For Kanakadurga, the decision to make history has come at a cost. When she returned home, her mother-in-law beat her, Kanakadurga says, sending her to the hospital. Her family locked her out of the house and refused to let her talk to her sons. All but one of Kanakadurga’s five siblings stopped speaking to her. Police now shadow her everywhere for her protection.

Such consequences reflect the ongoing struggle over societal change in this country of 1.3 billion people, where new demands for equality are challenging age-old customs and traditions.

The controversy over Sabarimala — an ancient shrine devoted to the deity Ayyappa that draws tens of millions of devotees each year — has proven particularly fierce. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sided with those who say the Supreme Court decision is an affront to Hindus. And opponents of the verdict have launched an attempt to overturn it.

But the tide appears to be turning. Last week, the religious board that oversees the Sabarimala temple reversed its stance and said that it, too, supported allowing all women into the shrine. “We are against any form of discrimination,” the board president told reporters.

In this file photo taken on January 11, 2019, Kanakadurga, one of the two women who entered the Sabarimala Ayyapa temple, poses for a photograph during an interview in the southern state of Kerala. STR / AFP

Kanakadurga, a small woman with dark curly hair who wears a gold chain with an image of the Hindu god Krishna around her neck, is an unlikely revolutionary. As a child, she used to see pilgrims clad in the black garb of devotees setting off for Sabarimala and longed to go with them.

To this day, Kanakadurga’s family observes the practice of keeping women apart from the functioning of the household while they menstruate because they are considered to be impure. During those times, she would eat and sleep in a different room and was not allowed to cook or touch utensils.

“I come from such a traditional family,” said Kanakadurga, her eyes alive with pride as she recounted her journey to Sabarimala. “And I have managed to do this job.”

Kanakadurga studied commerce and later married a man from the same upper-caste community in an arranged union. One source of friction in the relationship was her love of writing poetry, she said. She described a bitter fight with her husband over her desire to travel to a poetry conference, which he said no respectable woman would do. Kanakadurga’s husband declined requests to speak with The Washington Post.

I come from such a traditional family. And I have managed to do this job
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