India Supreme Court overturns ban on women at Sabarimala temple

India’s Supreme Court says barring women aged 10 to 50 from entering Sabarimala Ayyappa temple was unconstitutional.

India Sabarimala temple
An estimated one million Hindu pilgrims travel to the Sabarimala temple every year to pray to the deity Lord Ayyappa [File: Hareesh Kumar AS/The Associated Press]

New Delhi – India’s Supreme Court has overturned a decades-old ban by religious authorities that forbid women from entering one of the holiest Hindu temples in the country.

The Sabarimala Ayyappa temple was one of the few temples in India that barred women aged between 10 and 50 from entering.

“Religion cannot be a cover to deny women the right to worship … to treat women as children of lesser God is to blink at constitutional morality,” Justice DY Chandrachud said on Friday while reading the judgment. 

An estimated one million Hindu pilgrims travel to the Sabarimala temple in the southern state of Kerala annually.

The ban on female devotees was being upheld by the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the famous Sabarimala Ayyappa temple.

The ban, defended by the government and conservative Hindu bodies, came under legal scrutiny in 2016 after the Young Lawyers’ Association filed a petition seeking entry for all women.

Women’s rights lawyer Flavia Agnes said “spaces have to be created for judicial intervention”, but warned that determining what is the core or essential practices of religions was riddled with complexities.

“Today’s ruling can affect other similar strictures like ‘Christian women cannot become priests’. All these things can now be challenged,” Agnes told Al Jazeera. 

“It will be interesting to watch how the courts proceed from here for those practices – whether they hold this as ‘discrimination’ or freedom to practise your religion.” 

Sabarimala Ayyappa temple’s website explains that since Lord Ayyappa was “Nithya Brahmachari” – or celibate – women in the 10-50 age group are not allowed to enter.

“Such women who try to enter Sabarimala will be prevented by authorities,” the website reads.

The head of the temple had said earlier he would consider allowing women to enter if there was a machine to check if they were menstruating.

In the ruling, Justice Chandrachud criticised this diktat, saying: “The ban says presence of women deviates from celibacy. This is placing the burden of men’s celibacy on women. It stigmatises them, stereotypes them.”

Menstruation is rarely discussed openly in India and menstrual blood is considered impure by many communities. Across cities and towns, menstruating girls and women are not allowed to prepare food, enter a temple or touch an idol. 

Reaction to the decision

Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone dissenting judge on the 5-judges bench at the top court, said she did not agree with the majority ruling on the ban. 

“What constitutes essential religious practice is for the religious community to decide, not for the court … notions of rationality cannot be brought into religion,” said Malhotra.

“A balance needs to be struck between religious beliefs and the cherished principles of non-discrimination and equality laid down by constitution.”

Conservative Hindu groups have reacted, saying they will challenge the decision of the top court.  

“We are going for a review petition by the first week of October. The Deity’s concept was not taken into consideration,” said Rahul Easwar, president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena (Ayyappa Religious Army), that claims to protect the interests of the Lord Ayyappa.

“The Deity has rights which were not mentioned here. So a conglomerate of Hindu groups will appeal against this decision.”

Source: Al Jazeera