Protests have broken out in the Indian state of Kerala, where groups of angry traditionalists waving black flags blocked traffic and staged demonstrations outside government offices to oppose the entry of two women into a Hindu temple.

Police used teargas and water cannon to disperse the protesters outside government buildings in the state capital of Thiruvanthapuram, according to local news channels. The police intervened after clashes between Bharatiya Janata party and Communist party workers.

The BJP, which rules India, opposes the entry of women into the Sabarimala temple in the southern state. The Communists, who rule Kerala, support the right of women to pray at the temple.

Indian woman who braved temple protest arrested for ‘exposed thigh’

BJP leaders are angry that the two women entered the temple to offer their prayers in the early hours. Priests “purified” Sabarimala after hearing of the visit and will keep it closed on Thursday as a mark of protest.

The two women, who have been given police protection, were defying a centuries-old ban on menstruating women entering the temple. The supreme court lifted the prohibition three months ago, but protesters set on upholding tradition have stopped all attempts by the Communist government of Kerala to let female devotees enter Sabarimala.

The women, Bindu and Kanaka Durga, who are in their 40s, left after offering prayers to the deity Lord Ayyappa, who is celibate. It is this celibacy that is cited by Hindu traditionalists as the reason women under 50 should not enter the temple. The fear is that the women could “tempt” the deity.

The BJP’s head in Kerala, PS Sreedharan Pillai, called the visit “a conspiracy by the atheist rulers to destroy the Hindu temples”. Speaking to local television news channels, he said: “Let all the devotees come forward and protest this.”

Amit Malviya, the national head of the BJP’s information and technology wing, tweeted: “Have the Communists desecrated Sabarimala shrine by facilitating entry of women of restricted age group into the temple? Devastating, if true.”

Two women enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, India
 Two women enter the Sabarimala temple. Photograph: Reuters

Hindu groups have called for a state-wide strike on Thursday to protest against the temple’s “defilement”.

For three months, Kerala has been the scene of an angry showdown between Hindu traditionalists and supporters of the supreme court ruling that women of all ages must be allowed to enter the temple.

After the ruling, several women tried to reach the shrine but were forced to retreat by activists comprising ordinary women and political groups, including the BJP.

The country’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said in an interview on Tuesday that the ban was a matter of religious belief, not gender equality.

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of women in Kerala formed a human chain 380 miles (610km) long across the length of the state to demonstrate their support for gender equality. The “women’s wall” rally was backed by the government.Play Video0:46 Indian women form 620km human chain in support of lifting of temple ban – video

Seema Mustafa, a political commentator, said the call for a strike could trigger more violence. “Given how the BJP simply isn’t prepared to let go of this issue, despite the supreme court ruling, it means the violence is likely to continue,” she said.

On 22 January, the supreme court will hear a handful of petitions asking it to cancel its earlier ruling.

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