The age-old tradition of women being barred from Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala has been questioned by the apex court and once again brought focus on beliefs that defy logic and reason
By Ramesh Menon
The Supreme Court has questioned the ancient tradition of banning entry of women of menstrual-age group into the iconic Sabarimala Ayyappa temple in Kerala, saying it violates constitutional rights. Presently, temple authorities do not allow girls who have attained puberty into the premises. Only those who have attained menopause are allowed to enter. “The temple cannot prohibit entry except on the basis of religion. Unless you have a constitutional right, you cannot prohibit entry,” a three-member bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra said.
However, political parties in this highly literate state are treading carefully over this controversy as assembly elections are slated in March-April this year. Lakhs of devotees throng this famous temple every year around Makar Sankranti.
This temple has not been without its share of controversy. When Kannada actress Jayamala declared that she had entered the sanctum sanctorum and touched the idol in 1987, it sent shockwaves among purists and believers. Priests at the temple even conducted a special ritual to purify the idol.
The Congress-led Oommen Chandy government in Kerala has made it amply clear that it will side with the temple authorities to bar women aged between 10 and 50 years from entering the shrine. The government’s stand is that it will not interfere in the customs and traditions of the Lord Ayyappa temple. This is also the stand it proposes to take in the Supreme Court which is hearing a decade-old petition seeking its intervention to allow entry of women into this temple.
The PIL was filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association. The apex court questioned the discriminatory practice of the temple, saying that the religious customs cited by the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine, violated the constitutional rights of women.
Kerala’s Minister for Health, Family Wel-fare and Devaswom VS Sivakumar said that the government’s policy was to protect temple traditions and customs that had been followed for centuries and it would consider this when it files an affidavit in the Court. Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala has also taken the position that the Temple’s rituals and traditions cannot be changed over-night. But the fact is that this controversy has been simmering for years now.
LDF AND UDF STAND
In 2008, the LDF government headed by VS Achuthanandan had taken the position that the petitioners were right as it was in keeping with the times. Eight years later, the Cong-ress-led UDF government is getting ready to quash the petitioner’s plea and let the temple authorities have their way. The supreme priest of the hill shrine believes that the presence of menstruating women in the Temple is unacceptable because Lord Ayyappa is revered as a celibate. The BJP, which hopes to end its draught in Kerala in the coming assembly elections, on the other hand, has taken the safe stand that religious scholars must finally settle the issue.
“The temple cannot prohibit entry except on the basis of religion. Unless you have a constitutional right, you
cannot prohibit entry.” —Supreme Court bench on the Sabarimala row
Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the Travancore Devasom Board, said that the Supreme Court’s observations had come be-cause the previous Left-led government had failed to properly inform the Court about the traditional practices that had been followed at the temple for centuries.
Gopalakrishnan had set off a storm all over India when he had suggested a few months ago that a machine be installed to check whether women visiting the shrine were menstruating. When this happened, outraged gender activists launched a “Happy to Bleed” campaign on Facebook to protest against menstrual taboos and what they called, sexism of the temple authorities.
In the meantime, Naushad Ahmed Khan, president of Indian Young Lawyers’ Associa-tion, told the apex court that he wanted to withdraw the case because he had received over 500 threat calls. But the Court said that once a PIL is filed and entertained, the litigant cannot withdraw it. It ordered the Delhi Police to ensure the safety of the petitioner. The matter is scheduled to come up for hearing in early February.
Meanwhile, the Bombay High Court said it would wait for the Supreme Court’s ruling on entry of women in Sabarimala Temple before deciding a similar plea in the case of the Haji Ali Dargah. A bench of Justices VM Kanade and Reveti Mohite-Dere was hearing a PIL challenging the decision of the Haji Ali Trust to ban the entry of women in the sanctum sanctorum of the historic Dargah.
The petition had sought interim relief by way of allowing women to enter the sanctum sanctorum there until the matter was decided by the Court. Earlier, the trustees of this dargah had told the Court that entry of women in close proximity to the grave of a male Muslim saint was considered a grievous sin in Islam.
The Court asked Advocate-General Sreehari Aney to submit arguments at the next hearing due in early February. The case is being watched with great interest as it is not only about women being allowed into a place of worship, but would also underline the kind of taboos that modern India still clings to. In numerous places in the hinterland, a culture of shame about menstruation continues, leading to women being sidelined and ridiculed despite it being a part of a natural process. They are not allowed to take part in normal activities or religious rituals due to numerous beliefs that defy logic and common sense.Will women get their due place in the land where women epitomize “Shakti”?