Thiruvananthapuram: Chanting mantras of Lord Ayyappa and waving party flags, thousands of BJP workers on Monday staged a massive protest in Kerala's capital Thiruvananthapuram. They demanded that the Left Front government file a review petition against the Supreme Court verdict allowing female devotees of menstrual age to offer prayers at the shrine.

With the contentious issue fast acquiring political overtones, BJP workers and sympathisers, including a large number of women, laid a virtual siege to the state secretariat in a massive show of strength against the government. The Pinarayi Vijayan-led government has said it would enforce the apex court's order and not go for a review.

The protesters, some clad in black and many others carrying garlanded pictures of the eternally celibate deity had begun the 'Save Sabrimala March' from Pandalam in Pathanamthitta district to Thiruvananthapuram, a distance of around 90 km, on October 10.

Addressing the gathering outside the secretariat, BJP general secretary P Muralidhar Rao assailed Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for the government's decision against filing a review petition. "Ayyappa devotees not only in Kerala, but across the country are disturbed by the recent developments. The state government is responsible for the crisis," he said.

The protest march concluded just two days before the Sabrimala shrine opened to public on October 17. It would be closed on October 22 after the five-day monthly puja during the Malayalam month of Thulam.

Enforcing the Supreme Court order allowing girls and women between 10 and 50 years of age into the shrine could be a daunting task for the government with several religious outfits threatening protests.

The state's industries minister, EP Jayarajan, meanwhile, accused the opposition of trying to incite violence over the emotive issue. "The Congress and the Sangh Parivar are deliberately trying to trigger violence under the cover of the Supreme Court verdict on entry of women into the Sabarimala temple," he said, and added it was the government's duty to implement the court's order.

Jayarajan, however, noted the government does not want any confrontation with Ayyappa devotees. He said women in the state were being "misled" by people with "vested interest".

The BJP, a marginal player in Kerala politics, has been extremely critical of the Communist government's decision against seeking a review of the Supreme Court order, while the Congress, which earlier welcomed it, changed tack and said it was with the Ayyappa devotees.

Politics in Kerala has been dominated for years by the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front spearheaded by the Congress, and political power has alternated between the two for decades.

The divergent stand of the Left and the Congress, which may seek to align at the national level before or after the Lok Sabha polls next year, stems from their adversarial relations in Kerala politics.

The BJP, despite expanding its presence in the state over the last few years, largely remains a fringe player. The BJP and its local partner Bhartiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) pocketed over 14% votes in the 2016 assembly polls, but the saffron party could manage to win just one of the 140 Assembly seats.

The BJP-RSS cadre are locked in bloody feuds with the CPI(M) for quite some time, leaving scores of people dead over time.

Addressing Monday's gathering outside the secretariat, speaker after speaker claimed there was a "conspiracy" to destroy the tradition of the hill shrine to which lakhs of devotees flock every year during the pilgrim season beginning in the middle of November.

Several NDA leaders including actor-turned-MP Suresh Gopi, Nalin Kumar Kateel, BDJS chief and Rajya Sabha MP Thushar Vellappally and state BJP president P S Sreedharan Pillai were at the forefront of the march.

"We will meet each villager in Kerala and chalk out a massive agitation plan to protect the Sabarimala Temple, its centuries-old traditions and the sentiments of Lord Ayyappa devotees," Pillai asserted.

He said if the government failed to resolve the issue "in the next 24 hours", the NDA will formulate an elaborate agitational programme to "reach our goal". Amidst escalating protests, the Travancore Devaswom Board, the body that manages the shrine, is holding a meeting of stakeholders, including the Tantri (head priest) family, Pandalam royals and Ayyappa Seva Sangam, on Tuesday, a day before the doors of the shrine open for the first time after the SC verdict.

The board on Sunday decided to convene the meeting, apparently to discuss the preparations for the three-month-long annual Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrim season starting Wednesday, but the Supreme Court's order and its fallout would weigh on their minds.

The TDB, which was initially critical of the apex court order, had later said it would not file a review petition against it.

The Supreme Court had on September 28 passed a historic judgement lifting the ban on entry of girls and women of menstrual age into the temple, a verdict that was hailed by rights activists but opposed by traditionalists.