#DHRecaps | Sabarimala- a case yet to be solved?

#DHRecaps | Sabarimala- a case yet to be solved?

Annaprashanam.Illustration by Prakash S

Kerala, God's own country, is amidst a series of controversies with regard to the Sabarimala issue. DH brings out a series of events with a detailed chronology and tries to loosen the knots in helping the reader know the facts of the case.

The temple

The temple is one of the ancient mountain shrines situated in a deep, dense forest on the hill of Sabari, in the Ranni-Perunad village of Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, in South India.

The shrine is about 4,000 ft above the sea level, surrounded by dense tropical jungles and 18 hills. 

Rush at Sabarimala. Swamis gather at sannidhanam to get a glimpse of divya makara jyothi. Wikipedia 

The temple which can be reached only on foot has been captivating devotees from ancient times. The arduous trek of nearly 4 km through the thick jungle, after crossing River Pampa, has been a source of spiritual chastisement and cleansing for the devotees who visit the shrine annually during Mandalapooja (November 15 to 26 December), Makara Sankranti (14 January) and Maha Vishuva Sankranti (14 April), and the first five days of each Malayalam month.

The deity

the royal family of the kingdom of Pandalam was childless. One day king Raja Rajasekhara Varma found a baby boy in a forest with a bell (Mani) tied on his neck (Kanta). The king was unsure of carrying the child with him but Sage Agasthya who arrived there said to accept the child and raise him like his own. After Manikanta, the queen delivered a second child. At age 12, the king wanted to coronate the child as the heir prince.

PTI file photo. 

However, the queen under the influence of an evil minister objected as Manikanta was not her child and she acted being sick. Manikanta is then sent to the forest to get the tigress milk to cure her illness, which he succeeds. The king, recalls the prophecy of sage Agasthya (recognising Manikanta to be a divine being), resolves to make a shrine for him. For location, Manikanta shoots an arrow that lands 30 km away. The young boy then transforms into Ayyappan. The place where the arrow landed is now an Ayyappa shrine, the actual site of Sabarimala

Why are women not allowed?

Hinduism has four stages under the Ashrama system— Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciate).The tradition in Sabarimala is purely based on the fact that Lord Ayyappa of Sabarimala is in the form of a Kumara (young virgin boy) observing Brahmacharya. An interesting fact is that the same deity is prayed by people in other three temples – in Kulathupuzha (in child form), Aryankavu (in Sannyasa form), and Achankovil (with wife as Grihasthashram).

PTI file photo. 

What people are not seeing is that there is no restriction on entry of women in the other three temples or in any other Ayyappa temple, except for Sabarimala.

Pilgrims to Sabarimala are expected to observe a strict penance (Vrata) of 41 days. It is called Mandala Vrata. For a woman, this is not possible as her menstrual cycle repeats every month and interferes with Vrata. Since Ayyappa at Sabarimala is a Naishtika Brahmachari, it is believed that the energy in the temple may create an imbalance in the natural creative energy present in women of reproductive age, if they are repeatedly exposed to those energies over the long period. This may, in turn, prevent Grihasta women from effectively doing their duties. Hence, only those who are yet to attain puberty or those who have already reached menopause undertake the pilgrimage.

How did it start?

In 1990, AP Joy, a freelance photographer, shot a picture of The Travancore Devaswom Board's (TDB) executive officer Chandrika, along with her 22-year-old daughter, for her grandchild's Annaprashanam (rice feeding ceremony). This photograph was sent to about 15 newspapers that ignited the readers.

A scene of crowd management in Sabarimala. Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Legal tussle

The ban was enforced under Rule 3 (b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 (women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship). The Kerala High Court had upheld the ban in 1991 and directed TDB to implement it.


S Mahendran,  who is now 54-year-old, approached High Court seeking a ban on women entering Ayyappa temple, after seeing the photograph of AP Joy in a newspaper. The Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Ayyappa Sewa Sangham had supported him in his fight.


The Kerala High Court restricted entry of woman above the age of 10 and below the age of 50 from offering worship at Sabarimala shrine as they were of menstruating age.


A famed astrologer Parappanangadi Unnikrishna Panicker predicted that a woman has entered the temple when he was performing a 'Devaprashnam' ritual (a periodical astrological inquiry to read the deity's mind to correct any shortcomings through corrective measures by worship). He also claimed that a woman has entered the sanctum sanctorum. It set a wildfire of emotions as in Kerala it is not customary to touch idols of deities. The very next day actress Jayamala sends a fax message that she touched the idol of sanctum sanctorum in 1987 and wanted to do penance for that. This lead to a probe by the then Kerala government but later the case was quashed.


In 2006, Bhakti Pasrija, the general secretary of the Indian Young Lawyers Association and a Supreme Court lawyer, discussed the need to initiate a debate on the constitutionality of the Sabarimala diktat with other women in the organisation. Together, they moved court and filed a public interest litigation (PIL) on the grounds that the rule violates the freedom to follow and propagate religion, listed in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. The then LDF government filed an affidavit supporting PIL questioning ban on women’s entry. The case did not gain much prominence until 2016.


On January 11, the SC questions the age-old tradition and asks the Government of Kerala and TDB to submit their response with regards to temple entry issue.

On November 7, LDF government files a fresh affidavit in SC stating that it favours the entry of women of all age groups.


The case was referred to a Constitutional bench.


The bench, led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, along with Justices R F Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra, had reserved its judgment in the case on August 2018, after hearing the case for eight days.

On September 28, 2018, a five-judge Constitution bench in its 4-1 verdict held "the devotees of Lord Ayyappa are just Hindus and do not constitute a separate religious denomination" and the rule that stipulates exclusion of entry of women of the age group of 10 to 50 years, is a clear violation of the right of such women to practice their religious belief.

The top court in its 411-page verdict said the practice of exclusion of women of a particular age group being followed at the shrine cannot be regarded as an essential religious practice as claimed by the TDB, which administers the temple.

"Any rule based on discrimination or segregation of women pertaining to biological characteristics is not only unfounded, indefensible and implausible but can also never pass the muster of constitutionality," a verdict pronounced by Justice Misra for himself and Justice A M Khanwilkar said.

The views of Justice Misra, who penned his last verdict of a five-judge constitution bench before he demits office on October 2, were shared by Justices R F Nariman and D Y Chandrachud. The verdict is expected to add force to the clamour for equality for women of other religions.

The path-breaking three concurring verdicts, giving religious rights to female devotees of Lord Ayyappa, was not accepted by the lone woman judge, Justice Indu Malhotra, who dissented and said "right to equality conflicts with the right to worship of devotees of Lord Ayyappa".

The CJI said that Article 25(1) would become a "dead letter" if women are excluded from practising their right to worship and set aside the Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965.

November 19, 2018

The TDB moves SC seeking time to implement Sabarimala verdict as the region faces a series of protests. The Board referred to law and order problems including "acts of hooliganism and assault" and the need to arrange for additional infrastructure such as washrooms for women pilgrims among the reasons for seeking more time.

Meanwhile, a bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and justices S K Kaul and K M Joesph refused to hear the fresh plea of National Ayyappa Devotees (Women's) Association alleging lack of civic amenities for devotees at the temple and the roads leading to the shrine.

"You come prepared on January 22. This has to be heard by a five-judge bench and it would not be just for a three-judge bench to hear you," the bench said when lawyer Mathews J Nedumapara sought an urgent hearing of the interim plea on lack of civic facilities for devotees.

The top court had earlier refused to stay its September 28 verdict and is slated to hear in open court the petitions seeking a review on January 22, 2019.