Ayodhya checked, Sabarimala next

A group photo of the five-judge bench comprised of Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi (C) flanked by (L-R) Justice Ashok Bhushan, Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, Justice Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud, Justice S Abdul Nazeer after delivering the verdict on Ayodhya land case. PTI

After Ayodhya, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi has four more important judgments to pronounce, including on Sabarimala, before he steps down on November 17.

The Supreme Court verdict in 2018 permitting women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple raised an absolute frenzy not just in Kerala but throughout the country. Much like Ayodhya, the BJP features prominently in the Sabarimala issue as it heavily protested against the verdict and organised various hartals.

What is the Sabarimala controversy?

The Sabarimala Temple houses the deity of Lord Ayyappa, considered to be the son of Shiva and Mohini (an incarnation of Vishnu). The popular belief is that menstruating women should not be allowed to enter the temple's premises due to Ayyappa's celibate nature. This belief got legal recognition in 1991 as the Kerala High Court forbade the entry of women between aged between 10 and 50 years.

Six women members of the Indian Young Lawyers' Association filed a suit challenging the ban in 2006. They claimed it was defying the provisions and essence of the Indian Constitution. The Supreme Court, in September 2018, reversed the 1991 judgment and allowed the entry of women citing that depriving a gender on biological-difference grounds defied Articles 14 and 25 of the Indian Constitution. Article 14 safeguards the 'right to equality' and Article 25 lists the provision of 'religious freedom' for all.  However, popular sentiment in the Kerala and various parts of the country was against the ruling.

Despite a number of women embarking on the journey to enter the 'sanctum sanctorum' of the temple, only two were finally able to enter the site in January 2019. Several women before them were stopped by angry protestors.

The Nilakkal and Pamba base camps became witnesses to most of the protests that stopped many women, including journalists, from traveling to the Sabarimala temple. While hartals organised by the BJP and outrage at the verdict did not seem to halt, some celebrities too joined the anti-women-entry brigade. A Malayalam actor, Kollam Thulasi, said that women entering the temple should be 'ripped in half' - a comment which earned him an FIR.

Background and build-up to the latest review

The Sabarimala temple rests atop a hill at an altitude of 480 metres and can be located inside the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Pathanamthitta District of Kerala.

According to folklore, Manikandan, a Pandalam dynasty prince and an avatar of Ayyapan, meditated in the Sabarimala temple. He is said to have become 'one' with the divine here.

Dense Poongavanam forests envelop the temple built in the 12th century. It was rebuilt in the ’50s after arson and hosts one of the world's largest annual pilgrimages. Devotees, mostly men clad in blue or black, undertake the tedious journey to the temple after observing vratham or abstinence for a period of 41 days.

While the entry of women has been a frowned-upon subject in the temple, there have been various recorded instances of women inside the temple prior to the 1991 ruling of the Kerala High Court, most commonly for the first 'rice-feeding' ceremony of their children.

Protests against the 2018 ruling happened on grounds of a plethora of reasons which included beliefs that menstruating women were 'impure' (and a threat to the temple's sanctity), age-old traditions should not be meddled with and the presence of women who were of reproductive age in the premises would disturb the celibate God. Some women too are of the opinion that they should not enter the temple as that would be an act of disrespect towards Malikappurathamma.

The 2018 verdict was passed with a 4-1 majority with opposition from Justice Indu Malhotra. About 65 petitions were filed after the Supreme Court's ruling, seeking a review which is due in the coming days.

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