The Sabarimala temple case is widely expected to be another landmark judgment from the outgoing Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi. The judgment on the petition seeking a review of the ban on entry of women of certain ages into the Sabarimala temple will be delivered on Thursday.
The judgment will impact the faith of millions who worship Lord Ayyappa, but will also provide a direction to the idea of “One Nation, One Law”, or the “uniform civil code” vision of the Modi government.
In September 2018, the five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court, headed by then Chief Justice Dipak Misra, had ruled by a majority of 4:1, that women of all age groups can enter the Sabarimala temple. This verdict was in response to a case filed by the Indian Young Lawyers’ Association.
Opponents of PM Modi had cried foul saying that this was a BJP ploy to win over the women voters in Kerala and other southern states, where the party was desperate for getting a foothold, for 2019 parliamentary elections. Realising that this made no great impact, the party is now appearing to favour status quo, say political analysts.
This judgment declared that, “We have no hesitation in saying that such an exclusionary practice violates the right of women to visit and enter a temple to freely practice Hindu religion and to exhibit her devotion towards Lord Ayyappa.
The denial of this right to women significantly denudes them of their right to worship.” The apex court had observed that the custom of barring women was in violation of Article 25 (Clause 1) and Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Worship.
Justice Indu Malhotra, who was not in agreement with the other judges, had said that every individual should be allowed to practice their faith irrespective of whether the practice is rational or logical.
This SC judgment was followed by several public protests, criticism by political parties and leaders, and incidences of pubic violence with reportedly more than 3,500 persons being arrested, as per news reports.
Sabarimala temple context
Located in Sabarimala, in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, the temple is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa. Historically,women pilgrims in the menstruating age were not allowed to worship in the temple as LordAyyappa was said to be the eternal Brahmachari. In 1991, the Kerala High Court had legalised this practice by forbidding women from entering the temple.
Overruling this, in September 2018, an SC verdict had ruled that all pilgrims regardless of gender, including women in the menstruating age group, should be allowed entrance to Sabarimala, by holding that “any exception placed on women because of biological differences violates the Constitution - that the ban violates Article 14, the right to equality, and Article 25, the freedom to practice religion.
This SC judgment was followed by public protests and many women activists trying to forcibly enter the Sabarimala temple.
In favour of the ban
Those favouring the ban believe that most women choose voluntarily to not enter the temple in deference to the centuries old belief that it was Lord Ayyappa himself who placed restrictions on women entering the temple because he wanted to be celibate, and that the presence of women of reproductive age group would distract him from his cosmic penance.
Another group believes in the age old taboo that menstruation is impure (thereby making women of menstruating age also impure), and that it is a sin to visit a Hindu god while they are impure.
Others feel that 500-year-old religio-cultural tradition should be allowed to continue, without the interference of modern law.
Some argue that women will 'defile temple premises', and 'distract' the pilgrims who follow a 41-day period of strict abstinence from sex. The Travancore Devaswom Board representative had even reportedly stated that allowing women to the temple will lead to 'immoral activities' and turn the place into 'a spot for sex tourism like Thailand'.
Sai Deepak, the lawyer representing two women's groups and a devotee, argued in the SC case that the deity should be considered as a person, and given the Constitutional right to privacy under Article 21, thus restricting women of menstruating age from visiting him as per his will.
Those voicing their support for entry of women to Sabarimala claim that menstruation is natural to women and not wrong or impure. They strongly claim that menstruation is a mere bio-physiological nature of women and should not be made a subject of gender discrimination.
Historians believe that there is"neither ritual sanctity nor scientific justification" for the argument of menstrual pollution.
According to one of them, Sabarimala shrine was originally a "cult spot" for a tribal deity, Ayyanar of local forest dwellers before it became a place of worship for Lord Ayyappa in the 15th century.
They point out that unlike the traditional Hindu mythological and religious beliefs that menstruation is impure, the tribals considered it to be auspicious and a symbol of fertility.
They thronged the temple along with their women and children of all ages until the 1960s. These historians also claim that there is documented evidence of young caste women making their way into the temple till the 1980s.
Will abide by Supreme Court verdict: TDB President
With the Supreme Court set to deliver its final verdict on a batch of petitions seeking re-examination of its decision to allow entry of women of all age group to the famed Sabarimala temple on Thursday, the Travancore Devasom Board (TDB) said they will abide by the top court’s decision. TDB is the body that looks after the administration of most temples in South Kerala districts, including Sabarimala. At present, TDB is headed by former CPI-M legislator A Padmakumar. “The final verdict will come tomorrow. We are duty-bound to abide by the court’s ruling,” Padmakumar said. “I have full faith in the SC and whatever is the verdict, both the TDB and the government will accept it,” added Padmakumar, whose three-year-term will end tomorrow. Meanwhile, State BJP spokesperson MT Ramesh said that he expects a verdict which will favour the believers.
Anxiety grips Kerala ahead of verdict
Political parties, right-wing outfits and devotees in Kerala are keeping their fingers crossed as the Supreme Court is set to pronounce its verdict. Kerala had witnessed high drama and protests by devotees and right-wing activists last year against the CPI(M)-led LDF government's decision to implement the top court's order. The verdict was also crucial for the LDF government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, as the beginning of the annual pilgrimage season at Sabarimala is just three days away. The portals of the hill shrine, located in a reserve forest in the Western Ghats in Pathanamthitta district of the State, would be opened for the two-month-long Mandalam Makaravilakku season on November 16 evening. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had on Saturday taken stock of the preparations being carried out by various departments to ensure a hassle-free pilgrimage. DGP Loknath Behara has said there will be tight security during the pilgrimage season. Over 10,000 police personnel will be deployed in phases in and around the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple during the two-month-long pilgrimage season.
History of Sabarimala
- The Ayyappa shrine is located in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala
- Ayyappa was the abandoned son of Shiva and Mohini (an incarnation of Vishnu)
- As per legend and folklore Ayyappa, the deity at the Sabarimala temple is a Brahamchhari (celibate)
- When he defeated the evil demon Mahishasuri, she turned into a beautiful young woman (who had been cursed to live the life of a demon until the child born out of the union of Shiva and Vishnu defeated her in a battle)
- The young woman proposed marriage to Ayyappa, but he refused her saying that he had been ordained to live the life of a celibate
- When the woman was persistent, Ayyappa promised to marry her the day kanni swamis (new devotees) stopped visiting him at Sabarimala
- As Sabarimala was visited by kanni swamis every year, and she was not able to marry Ayyappa
- The woman is worshiped as goddess Maalikappurathamma at a neighbouring temple
- Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States, published in 1893 and 1901 by the Madras government mentions women of menstruating age being denied entry into the Sabarimala temple
- Numerous official records and unofficial accounts talk of women visiting the temple, prior to the 1991 Kerala HC judgment
- Even the Travancore queen is reported to have visited the temple in 1940
- Reports say there were instances of women visiting the temple occasionally for non-religious reasons (for conducting Choroonu of
- their children)
- In 1986, actresses of the Tamil movie Nambinar Keduvathillai, Jayashree, Sudha Chandran, Anu, Vadivukkarasi and Manorama, along with the director of the film, were fined Rs 1,000, for shooting a dance-sequence near the 18 steps leading to the deity
- The Devaswom Board, responsible for upkeep of the Sabarimala temple, was also fined Rs 7,500 for granting permission
- A female minister in the Karnataka government claimed to have entered the Sabarimala temple and touched the deity in 1986
- In 1991, the Kerala HC prohibited the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age to Sabarimala, while hearing a case filed in connection with the rice feeding ceremony of the granddaughter of the former Devaswom commissioner, which was attended by women
- The Kerala HC had said: Such restriction imposed by the Devaswom Board is not violative of Articles 15, 25 and 26 of the Constitution. It is also not violative of the provisions of Hindu Place of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965, since the prohibition is only in respect of women of a particular age group and not women as a class
- In 1995, the first woman to visit the shrine legitimately was district collector Valsala Kumari (42), who took prior permission to visit Sabarimala (but didn't visit Sannidhanam)
- In 2006, six women members of the Indian Young Lawyers' Association petitioned the SC to lift the ban against women between the ages of 10 and 50 entering the temple. They argued that the practice was a violation of their constitutional rights and questioned the validity of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules Act of 1965
- In January 2018, the temple authorities made it mandatory for female devotees to furnish proof of age when visiting Sabarimala
- In September 2018, a five-judge constitution bench of the SC headed by then CJI Dipak Mishra, with a majority, ruled that women of all age groups can enter Sabarimala temple
News Research Department