Sabarimala Sri Ayyappa Temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, is the most famous and prominent among all the Sastha temples in Kerala. The temple is situated on a hilltop about 4000 feet above sea level named Sabarimala, which is unique in many respects.

The uniqueness gathers its voice, as the temple is open to all, irrespective of caste, creed, or religion. There is a place near the temple; east to Sannidhanam, dedicated to the Vavar (a sufi and Lord Ayyappa friend) called ‘Vavarunada’, an epitome of religious harmony.  The temple remains open only for 127 days a year.  The journey to the temple is to be taken through difficult paths in the forest as the vehicles can go only up to Pampa.


What is the Sabarimala case?

A group of five women lawyers has challenged Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, which authorizes restriction on women “of menstruating age”. They moved the apex court after the Kerala HC upheld the centuries-old regulations, and ruled that only the “tantri (priest)” was empowered to decide on traditions.

Senior Advocate Indira Jaising, who represented the petitioners, said the restrictions went against Articles 14, 15, and 17 of the Constitution. They argued that the custom is discriminatory and stigmatized to women and that women should be allowed to pray at the place of their choice.

Indian Young Lawyers Association vs The State Of Kerala

Dipak Misra, C.J.I., A.M. Khanwilkar, Rohinton Fali Nariman, Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra.

Sabarimala temple is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve, Kerala. The temple has a unique practice in which devotees must undertake 41 days of penance and renounce worldly things. According to devotees, Lord Ayyappa is unmarried. Women of menstruating years were prohibited from entering the temple to protect the purity of the deity.

This was first challenged in Kerala High Court. The court in S. Mahendran v The Secretary, Travancore held that the exclusion was constitutional and justified.

In 2006, the Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court challenging the Sabarimala Temple’s prohibition of women. In their PIL they challenged that the practice is unconstitutional as it violates Article 14 ‘Right to Equality and Article 25 Freedom of Religion of women.

On August 18th, 2006, the Supreme Court issued notices to the parties. On March 7th, 2008, the matter was referred to a 3-Judge Bench. The matter was next heard seven years later, on January 11th, 2016. On February 20th, 2017, the Court expressed its inclination to refer the case to a Constitution Bench. Finally, on October 13th, 2017, the three-Judge Bench composed of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justices R. Banumathi, and Ashok Bhushan ordered a 5-Judge Constitution Bench to pass Judgement on the case.

Issue Before The Court:

  1. Whether the practice of excluding women on the ground of biological factor amounts to “discrimination” and violates Articles 14, 15, and 17?
  2. Whether the practice of excluding such women constitutes an “essential religious practice” under Article 25?
  3. Whether the temple has a denominational character?
  4. Whether Rule 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Rules permits religious denominations to ban entry of women and if so would it not violate Articles 14 and 15(3) of the Constitution?

Arguments By Petitioners

  1. The Petitioners contested that Sabarimala temple is not a separate religious denomination as religious practices performed in Sabarimala temple at the time of puja and other religious ceremonies are similar to practices performed by any other Hindu temple.
  2. They said that in the Hindu religion, discrimination in matters of entry to temples is not ceremonial. Restriction on the entry of women is not the essence of the Hindu religion.
  3. The Petitioners submitted that mere sight of women cannot affect one’s oath of celibacy. The devotees do not go to the temple for taking oath but for seeking the blessings of Lord Ayyappa.
  4. Petitioners submitted that the expression ‘at any such time’ occurring in Rule 3(b) does not lead to the complete exclusion of any woman.
  5. Petitioners contested that as per Article 14, if any law is discriminatory in nature, it has to have rationality and the difference must be capable of being understood (intelligible differentia). The object, what has been claimed that is to prevent the deity from being polluted which runs counter to the constitutional object of equality and fraternity.
  6. The petitioners have also put forth that the practice per se violates Article 15(1) of the Constitution which is to discriminate on the basis of sex as menstruation is exclusive to females. It was submitted by the Petitioners that this practice violates Article 25 of the Constitution as this is the right of Hindu women to enter temples dedicated to the public.

Arguments By The Respondent

  1. The Respondent submitted that Lord Ayyappa is a hyper-masculine god born out of the union of two male gods Shiva and Mohini, where Mohini is Vishnu in female form. Therefore Sabarimala Temple is supposed to depict Naishtika Brahmacharya.
  2. The Respondent has drawn the attention of the Court toward the basic tenets of the establishment of the temple. As per Respondent, Ayyappa had explained the manner in which the Sabarimala pilgrimage was to be undertaken emphasizing the importance of Vrutham’ which are special observances that need to be followed in order to achieve spiritual refinement, and that as a part of the Vruthum’, the person going on pilgrimage separates himself from all family ties for 41 days and during the said period either the woman leaves the house or the man resides elsewhere in order to separate himself from all family ties. Thereafter, the Respondent has pointed out that the problem with women is that they cannot complete the 41 days Vruthum as their periods would eventually fall within the said period and it is a custom among all Hindus that women do not go to temples or participate in religious activities during periods and the same is substantiated by the statement of the basic Tantric text of temple worshipping in Kerala Tantra Samuchayam, Chapter 10, Verse II.
  3. The Respondent has laid emphasis on that the Vruthum is an age-old custom and anyone who cannot fulfill this, cannot enter the temple hence women who have not attained puberty and who are in menopause alone can take the pilgrimage.
  4. The Respondent has also submitted that this condition is not applicable to women alone, even men who cannot observe 41 days of Vruthum due to births and deaths in the family, which result in breaking of Vruthum, are also not allowed to take a pilgrimage.
  5. The Respondent draws the attention of the Court to the fact that religious customs as well as the traditional science of Ayurveda consider the menstrual period as an occasion for rest for women and a period of uncleanliness of the body and during this period, women are affected by several discomforts and, hence, observance of intense spiritual discipline for 41 days is not possible. Respondent No. 4 has also contented that it is for the sake of pilgrims who practice celibacy that young women are not allowed in the Sabarimala pilgrimage.
  6. The Respondent contested that the prohibition is not social discrimination but is only a part of the essential spiritual discipline related to this particular pilgrimage.

Ratio decidendi:
On 28th September 2018, the Court delivered its verdict in this case by a 4:1 majority which held that the restriction of women in Sabarimala Temple is unconstitutional. Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice R F Nariman, Justice A M Khanwilkar, and Justice D Y Chandrachud constituted the majority. It held that the practice violated the fundamental rights to equality, liberty, and freedom of religion, Articles 14, 15, 19(1), 21, and 25(1). It struck down Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act as unconstitutional.

The lone woman on the bench, Justice Indu Malhotra, dissented. She said that issues of deep religious sentiments should not be ordinarily interfered with by the Court. The Court should not interrupt in this matter unless there is any resentful person from that section or religion. The notion of rationality should not be seen in religious matters. She also held that the shrine and the deity are protected by Article 25 of the Indian Constitution.







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