India's Jain community has scored a legal victory when the Supreme Court temporarily lifted a ban on the traditional ritual of Santhara, or fasting to death.

Community leaders welcomed the ruling on Monday and said it would give them time to make their case to the Supreme Court.

"Our principles have won. The Supreme Court has stayed the order," Subhash Oswal, the vice president of the Jain Conference, said.

Thousands of Jains protested across India last week after a court in the western state of Rajasthan ruled that Santhara was a form of suicide, which is illegal in India.

Jainism is an ancient ascetic religion whose followers adhere so closely to the principles of non-violence that many do not even eat root vegetables because uprooting them could harm tiny creatures living in the soil.

Only a small minority of 4.2 million Jains, estimated at a couple of hundred every year, take the vow to give up food and water as a way of embracing death.

But those who do are held in huge esteem by the community and thousands protested the ban in Rajasthan, saying it violated their constitutional rights to practise their religion.

Rajesh Jain, a lawyer representing the community, said the court had issued a temporary stay order on the ban pending a full hearing into a legal challenge by Jain groups.

In December the Indian government said it would decriminalise attempted suicide, but the law has yet to be amended.

Source: AFP