Conservative Hindu groups forced India's southern state of Kerala to a standstill yesterday as they protested against the state government for allowing two women to defy an ancient ban and enter a Hindu temple.
About 400 protesters, including some women, took to the streets of Kochi, the commercial capital of Kerala, in the early morning, backed by officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP.
Many stores and other small businesses were shut after the Hindu groups called for a state-wide stoppage. Most bus services were halted and taxis were refusing to take passengers as some drivers said they feared they would be attacked.
The state's Chief Minister, Pinarayi Vijayan, told reporters that women were the target of some attacks by protesters, including women journalists covering the events.
India's Supreme Court in September ordered the lifting of the ban on women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala hill temple, which draws millions of worshippers a year.
The temple has refused to abide by the ruling and subsequent attempts by women to visit have been blocked by thousands of devotees.
In the early hours of Wednesday, two women were escorted by police into the temple through a side gate without being spotted by devotees guarding the temple.
The women offered prayers from the back of the crowd from the top of a staircase where they could see the deity below without drawing the attention of the priest or other devotees, a police official familiar with the operation said.
He did not wish to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
"Surprise was the biggest element here," the official said.
Protests erupted soon afterwards. A woman police constable was attacked and molested by five protesters in one of the districts near Kochi on Wednesday, while a protester was pelted with stones and killed in a southern district of the state, police said.
Yesterday, protesters were seen marching towards the main city junction to stage a sit-in protest, shouting slogans and waving flags, with streets deserted.
The protests remained largely peaceful yesterday, Vijay Sakhare, Inspector General of Police Kochi Range, told Reuters.
"We arrested more than 600 people on Wednesday from Kochi and four other adjoining districts and took nearly 300 into preventive custody," Sakhare said.
In several places protesters damaged state transport buses, VP Pramod Kumar, deputy director, public relations, state police headquarters, told Reuters.
The Kerala state government is run by left-wing parties and has sought to allow women into the temple - a position that has drawn criticism from both of India's main political parties, the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress.
The two women, Bindu Ammini, 42, and Kanaka Durga, 44, had approached the state police to find a way to enter the temple after a failed attempt on Dec 24.
For more than a week before Wednesday's visit, the women were under police protection at an undisclosed location, unknown even to their families, to prevent the plan from leaking out, he said.
In the early hours of Wednesday, the police took the two women to the hill temple inside an ambulance to avoid attention. Medical services are frequently used outside the temple because the elderly who go on the trek often face discomfort, the official said.
After offering prayers, the women merged with the crowd and headed to the exit, accompanied by four police in plain clothes, the police official said.