Sabarimala Temple Entry
Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v State of Kerala
The Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the Sabarimala Temple's custom of prohibiting women in their 'menstruating years' from entering.
Petitioner: Indian Young Lawyers Association; Dr Laxmi Shastiri; Prerna Kumari; Alka Sharma; Sudha Pal
Lawyers: R. P. Gupta; Raju Ramachandran (Amicus Curiae); K. Ramamoorthy (Amicus Curiae);
Respondent: State of Kerala; Travancore Devaswom Board; Chief Tanthri of Sabarimala Temple; District Magistrate of Pathanamthitta; Nair Service Society; Akhil Bhartiya Ayyappa Seva Sangham; Ayyappa Seva Samithi; Ayyappa Pooja Samithi; Dharma Sanstha Seva Samajam; Akhil Bharatiya Malayalee Sangh; Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam; Kerala Kshetra Samarak Shana Samithi; Pandalam Kottaram Nirvahaka Sangham; Sabrimala Custom Protection Forum
Lawyers: Jaideep Gupta; Liz Mathew; Venugopal; V. Giri; Rakesh Dwivedi; K. Radhakrishnan
Intervenor: Nikita Azad (Arora); D. V. Ramana Reddy; K. K. Sabu; Kantaru Rajeevaru; Rekha Ratheethnam; Athma Divine Trust; Rahul Easwar; Chetna Conscience of Women
Lawyers: Indira Jaising; V.K. Biju
Does the prohibition on menstruating women’s entry in the Sabarimala Temple violate the Right to Equality and the Right against discrimination and the abolition of untouchability?
Are Lord Ayyappa’s devotees a separate religious denomination, hence bearing the right to manage the administration of their own affairs in matters of religion?
Is women’s exclusion an ‘essential religious practice’ under Article 25?
Does Rule 3 of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permit a ‘religious denomination’ to ban the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 years.
Do the Public Worship Rules allowing the custom go against the parent legislation, which disallowed discriminatory practices?
The Sabarimala Temple, considered the abode of Lord Ayyappa, is located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghat mountain ranges of Pathanamthitta District, Kerala. The temple is known for its unique religious practices—devotees undertake a 41 day penance, renouncing worldly pleasures, before they visit the temple. Devotees consider Lord Ayyappa to be a celibate deity. Women in their ‘menstruating years’ (between the ages of 10 to 50) were customarily prohibited from entering the temple to protect celibacy.
The exclusion of women was first challenged at the Kerala High Court. In 1991, the Kerala High Court in S. Mahendran v The Secretary, Travancore held that the exclusion was constitutional and justified, as it was a long-standing custom. The practice did not violate women devotees’ Rights to Equality and Freedom of worship.
In 2006, Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a public interest litigation petition before the Supreme Court challenging the Sabarimala Temple’s prohibition of women from the temple premises. The Association argued that the custom violates the Right to Equality under Article 14, as the practice is ‘derogatory to the dignity of women’. Freedom of religion under Article 25 states that ‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion’. The exclusion of women devotees violates that right.
The Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous body formed by the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 manages the Sabarimala Temple’s administration. They argued that the exclusion of women was an essential practice in their religion. Further, they argued that the exclusion was not against all women, but only women between 10-50 years of age. Considering the celibate nature of the deity, this exclusion was reasonable. They emphasised that the Sabarimala is a religious denomination, and was protected under Article 26 of the Constitution. Article 26 of the Constitution guarantees a religious denomination the right to manage its own internal religious affairs.
Further, the Sabarimala custom was protected by Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965 (Public Worship Rules). It listed the class of persons not entitled to worship in a public place, and included ‘Women at such time during which they are not by custom and usage allowed to enter a place of public worship’. The rule allowed the exclusion of women from public places of worship, if the exclusion was based on ‘custom’. In contrast, section 4 of the parent Act, namely the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965, stated that regulations that ‘discriminate in any manner whatsoever, against any Hindu on the ground that he belongs to a particular section or class’ cannot be made.
The State of Kerala initially supported the exclusion but changed their stance mid-way. They submitted that women should be allowed entry into the temple, as age based restriction (between ages 10-50) on women can turn out to be a lifelong restriction—there is no guarantee that women would live as long as 50-55 years. They argued that customary practices can be struck down by the court for fundamental rights violation.
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.
Over seven days of hearings, the Constitution Bench heard arguments on five key issues. First the parties discussed whether the prohibition of women violated the Right to Equality, the Right against discrimination and the abolition of untouchability. The second set of arguments were on whether the prohibition of women at Sabarimala was an ‘essential religious practice’, and who decides what is essential to a religion. Third, the SC heard arguments about whether the Sabarimala Temple is a ‘religious denomination’ or a sub-group within a larger religious organisation. Article 26(b) of the Constitution gives religious denominations the right ‘to manage its own affairs in matters of religion’. Fourth, they examined if the Public Worship Rules allowed a ban on women. The fifth issue was whether the Public Worship Rules allowing the custom went against the parent legislation, which disallowed discriminatory practices.
On September 28th 2018, a 4:1 majority held that the prohibition of women at the Sabarimala Temple is unconstitutional. Justice Indu Malhotra dissented. Here are the four opinions:
- Chief Justice Misra (on behalf of himself and Khanwilkar J.)
- Justice Nariman (concurring opinion)
- Justice Chandrachud (concurring opinion)
- Justice Malhotra (dissenting opinion)
The majority ruled that Sabarimala’s exclusion of women violated the fundamental rights of women between the ages of 10 to 50 years. They further held that the devotees of Lord Ayyappa were not a separate religious denomination. Justices Misra, Khanwilkar and Chandrachud held that the custom was not an essential religious practice. While the Judges in the majority did not explicitly comment on whether the custom was against the right to equality under article 14, they stated that the practice was discriminatory as per Article 15. Justice Chandrachud stated that the right against untouchability is vast, and includes any kind of social exclusion based on notions of ‘purity’. Further, Rule 3(b) of the Public Worship Rules which allowed the custom of prohibition of women as unconstitutional. SCO breaks down each judge’s decision on key questions in the case in the Judgment matrix.
In her dissent, Justice Indu Malhotra observed that in a secular polity, ‘It is not for the courts to determine which of these practises of a faith are to be struck down, except if they are pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil, like Sati.’
More than 50 petitions, seeking a review of the 2018 Judgment were filed by various organisations including the National Ayyappa Devotees (Women’s) Association, the Nair Service Society and the All Kerala Brahmin’s Association. On November 13th 2018, the Court began hearing the review petitions in open court. As Chief Justice Dipak Misra had retired, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi replaced him on the Bench.
One year later, on November 14th 2019, by a narrow 3:2 majority, the Bench delivered a Judgment keeping the review petitions pending. Speculating that other freedom of religion cases may object to the reasoning in the 2018 Sabarimala Judgment, they referred certain overarching constitutional questions to a larger 9-Judge Bench. These overarching issues pertain to women’s access to public religious institutions. Justices Nariman and Chandrachud dissented, holding that this speculation went beyond the narrow scope of a review petition. More on the Sabarimala Review Petition here. Most notably, the Bench stated that the 2018 Judgment would be enforced until the review petitions were decided.