Will women head to Sabarimala temple as court ruling lifts ban on their entry?

A landmark ruling by India’s Supreme Court on Friday lifted the centuries-old ban on millions of women of menstrual age from entering Sabarimala temple, above, one of the country’s holiest Hindu hill shrines.

Women between 10 and 50 years of age were barred from entering the 800-year-old temple as the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is considered to be a celibate sitting in a meditative state atop the Sabari hill.

In a 4:1 ruling, Chief Justice Dipak Misra said women devotees are in no way inferior to men.

While women are worshipped as Goddesses in India, they should not face restrictions in worshipping a God. Relationship with a God cannot be defined by biological or physiological factors, the court said.

Banning women of a certain age group from entering the temple cannot be treated as an essential religious practice. It is gender discrimination, Misra said.

Justice Chandrachud said exclusion of women violates their right to liberty, dignity and equality. Such exclusion on the ground that a woman menstruates is unconstitutional.

Restricting menstruating women from entering a temple is almost like untouchability, the judge said.

Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone woman on the bench who had a dissenting view, said courts should not interfere in issues that evoke deep religious sentiments which may be beyond notions of rationality.

What constitutes essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide, she said.

The ruling came after the petitioners led by Indian Young Lawyers Association and ‘Happy to Bleed’ said the ban on worship violated women’s right to equality guaranteed under the constitution and prejudiced against them.

A Padmakumar, president of Travancore Devaswom Board which runs the Saabarimala temple, said they will file a review petition after securing support from other religious heads.

According to the board, the temple ban was not anti-women. It was voluntarily accepted by women of menstrual age.

The head priest of Sabarimala temple, Kandaru Rajeevaru, called the ruling a big disappointment.

Meanwhile, several women in Kerala state, where the temple is based, said they would not visit the Ayyappa shrine despite the favourable court ruling.

According to them, traditions and values cannot be changed overnight. Rules followed by temples and devotees over centuries have to be respected.

Most Hindu women during menstrual period do not visit temples for seven to nine days. It is a discipline followed from generation to generation in homes.

The pilgrimage to Sabarimala demands rigorous vows or vrata for 41 days. Women pilgrims of menstrual age will be forced to suspend their rituals during their period. This was the reason why women devotees of Ayyappa never undertook the pilgrimage to Sabarimala.

While women devotees of Lord Ayyappa face such hurdles on the way, the historic ruling by the top court has, for the first time, given them the opportunity to have a darshan (view of the holy idol) of the god atop the mountain.