New Delhi: No woman can be stopped from entering Sabarimala temple, the Supreme Court ruled on Friday, ending a traditional ban on the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age to the hilltop shrine in Kerala.
“Religion can’t become a cover to exclude and deny basic right to worship… nor can physiology be a reason,” the top court’s five judge bench said in a 4:1 majority verdict.
Women of reproductive age were restricted from entering the over 800-year-old shrine in south Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district as its presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is considered to be a celibate.
The Supreme Court, which tested this traditional ban against the constitutional right to equality before law, had asked the temple board to establish that the restriction was an “essential and integral” part of religious faith.
“Exclusionary practise given support by a subordinate legislation is neither essential nor integral part of religion. We hold rule… is ultra vires,”Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra who headed a five-judge constitution bench , said. The bench also comprises justices Rohinton Fali Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, DY Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra.
Lawyer Indira Jaising, who appeared for the petitioners, the Indian Young Lawyers Association, argued the temple rules on entry of women were discriminatory as they were based on sex alone. Citing the Constitution, she contended that any custom or practice which violates its Articles 14 and 15 pertaining to equality should be struck down.
The restriction on women was first challenged in Kerala High Court that decided in 1991 that it was part of an age-old tradition and not discriminatory.
Nearly 15 years later, the Indian Young Lawyers Association challenged the practice in the Supreme Court, saying it was discriminatory in nature and against gender justice.
A pilgrimage to Sabarimala situated in Western Ghats mountain ranges is unique in many ways. A devotee has to observe 41 days’ fast abstaining from all worldly pleasures followed by a rigorous trek through forests. Lord Ayyappa’s favourite disciple is a Muslim saint ‘Vavar Swami’ and devotees will have to worship first at his mosque before proceeding to the hilltop.
Women aged between 10 and 50 are allowed only till Pamba, the base camp before a 5-km arduous trek to the hill shrine begins. Women cops are employed in Pambha in large numbers to screen devotees. If police become suspicious, women devotees will have to furnish proof to verify their age.
The temple management had earlier told the apex court that the ban on entry of women of the particular age was because they cannot maintain “purity” on account of menstruation.