Prelims cum Mains

The road to Sabarimala

The News

  • Recently, the Sabarimala temple opened its doors for the first time since a Supreme Court ruling allowed women of all ages to enter the temple.


About Sabrimala Temple

  • Sabarimala is a Hindu pilgrimage centre located at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of  Kerala
  • The Sabarimala shrine is an ancient Hindu temple of Lord Ayyappan, who is also known as sasta or Dharmasasta.
  • Lord Ayyappan is the presiding deity. Ayyappan is believed to have been found as a baby by the river, and raised by the King and Queen of Pandalam.
  • According to legend, the Prince later renounced the kingdom and the King built a shrine for him atop a hill, 3,000 ft above sea level, at Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala.
  • While various routes lead to Pamba, including an arduous one through forest, the journey from Pamba to the temple is an uphill trek.
  • The temple is a prominent pilgrimage site among the Hindu devotees in the state of Kerala.
  • Sabarimala is the second largest seasonal pilgrimage after the Islamic holy site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
  • An estimated 3.5 crore Hindu pilgrims visited the shrine in 2017.
  • The temple is administered by the Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous authority under the state government.


What was the issue?

  • Restricted entry of women of a certain age in Sabarimala Temple.
  • The temple used to prohibit women aged between 10 and 50 from undertaking pilgrimage to Sabarimala, which means women are banned from even making the arduous trek to the shrine.
  • The ban on ‘menstruating women’ was enforced under Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorization of Entry) Rules 1965.
  • This is a stigma built up around traditional beliefs in the impurity of menstruating women.


  • While it has traditionally restricted the entry of women, the pilgrimage accommodates all devotees irrespective of religion and caste.
  • It opens to devotees for the first five days of every month in the Malayalam calendar, as well as during the Mandalam and Makaravilakku festivals in winter


What was the reason for the restriction?

  • The restriction finds its source in the legend that the Sabarimala temple deity, Swami Ayyappa, is a ‘Naishtika Brahmachari’ and should not be disturbed.
  • The Mythological story behind the restriction
    • Ayyappan is worshipped as celibate, and pilgrims assume his identity once they take the initiation vows; they are expected to practice celibacy and abstinence during the 41-day vratam.
    • This belief is linked to a legend around Ayyappan’s relations with Malikapurathamma, a minor deity, who resides close to his abode.
    • Malikapurathamma wanted him to marry him but he had vowed to remain a brahmachari; he promised that he would marry her the year no kanni ayyappan (first-time pilgrim) would visit him.
    • Beginning with the Makaravilakku festival, Malikapurathamma leaves her shrine on three successive nights to inspect if the time has come for Ayyappan to fulfil his promise.
    • A procession from the Malikapurathamma temple goes to a banyan tree not far from the Ayyappan shrine, where the first-time pilgrims leave an arrow to announce their presence.
    • Every year, a crestfallen Malikapurathamma returns to continue her eternal wait.
    • This too contributed to establishing a tradition to restrict the presence of women.


Verdits on the Issue

  • In 1991, the Kerala high court upheld the ban in the S.Mahendran vs the Secretary, Travancore case and directed the Devasom Board to implement it.
  • In 2008, Kerala’s LDF government files an affidavit supporting a PIL filed by women lawyers questioning the ban on the entry of women in Sabarimala
  • In 2016, the India Young Lawyers Association revived the issue in Supreme Court through a PIL contending that Rule 3(b) violates constitutional guarantees of equality, non-discrimination and religious freedom (Articles 14, 15 and 25).
  • Later in november 2016, Kerala’s Left Front government favours the entry of women of all age groups filing an affidavit to the effect.
  • In early 2018, the Supreme Court indicated that it will refer the Sabarimala temple entry restriction on women of a certain age to a Constitution Bench. On hearing the PIL, SC questioned the temple’s authority to deny entry to a particular section of women
  • Now, in recent verdict the Supreme Court declared that it was not an essential religious practice and “the attribute of devotion to divinity cannot be subjected to the rigidity and stereotypes of gender”.
  • It also opened the doors of the Sabarimala temple in Kerala to women of all ages.


How was the entry ban against essence the constitution of India?

  • The menstrual status of a woman cannot be a valid constitutional basis to deny her the dignity of being and the autonomy of personhood, and that no body or group can use it as a barrier in a woman’s quest for fulfilment.
  • Preventing women’s entry to the Sabarimala temple with an irrational and obsolete notion of “purity” offends the equality clauses in the Constitution.
  • It denotes a patriarchal and partisan approach.
  • The entry prohibition takes away the woman’s right against discrimination guaranteed under Article 15(1) of the Constitution.
  • It further curtails the religious freedom assured by Article 25(1).
  • Prohibition of women’s entry to the shrine is done on the basis of womanhood and the biological features associated with womanhood, which Article 51A (e) aims to renounce


The SC arguments in support of the verdict

  • Rule 3(b) “that stipulates exclusion of entry of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years, is a clear violation of the right of Hindu women to practise their religious beliefs which, in consequence, makes their fundamental right of religion under Article 25(1) a dead letter.
  • The right guaranteed under Article 25(1) has nothing to do with gender or, for that matter, certain physiological factors, specifically attributable to women. Women of any age group have as much right as men to visit and enter a temple in order to freely practise a religion as guaranteed under Article 25(1).
  • Ayyappa devotees do not constitute a separate religious denomination within the meaning of Article 26 of the Constitution.
  • By allowing women to enter into the Sabarimala temple for offering prayers, it cannot be imagined that the nature of Hindu religion would be fundamentally altered or changed in any manner.
  • The social exclusion of women, based on menstrual status, is a form of untouchability which is an anathema to Constitutional values. Notions of ‘purity and pollution’, which stigmatize individuals, have no place in a Constitutional order.
  • Also there is no scriptural or textual evidence supporting the exclusionary practice followed at the Sabarimala temple

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