Devotees inside the Sabarimala templeImage copyright
Kaviyoor Santhosh

Image caption

Sabarimala is one of the most prominent Hindu temples in the country

India’s Supreme Court has agreed to review its landmark judgement allowing women of menstruating age to enter a controversial Hindu shrine.

A five-judge bench last year ruled that keeping women out of the Sabarimala shrine in the southern state of Kerala was discriminatory.

The verdict led to massive protests in the state.

Women who tried to enter the shrine were either sent back or, in some cases, even assaulted.

The move is likely to anger women who fought hard to win the right to enter the temple.

Hinduism regards menstruating women as unclean and bars them from participating in religious rituals.

Many temples bar women during their periods and many devout women voluntarily stay away, but Sabarimala had a blanket ban on all women between the ages of 10 and 50.

What did the court say?

On Thursday the five-judge bench, responding to dozens of review petitions challenging the court’s landmark judgement last year, said that the matter would now be hard by a larger bench.

In doing so, however, it did not stay its earlier order. This means means women can still legally enter the temple.

But it’s not going to be easy for them.

A temple official welcomed the ruling and appealed to women to stay away.

Women trying to enter the temple after the verdict last year were attacked by mobs blocking the way.

Many checked vehicles heading towards the temple to see if any women of a “menstruating age” – deemed to be those aged between 10 and 50 years – were trying to enter.

Why is the temple so controversial?

Part of the violent opposition to the Supreme Court order to reverse the temple’s historical ban on women was because protesters felt the ruling goes against the wishes of the deity, Lord Ayappa, himself.

Hinduism regards menstruating women as unclean and bars them from participating in religious rituals.

But while most Hindu temples allow women to enter as long as they are not menstruating, the Sabarimala temple is unusual in that it was one of the few that did not allow women in a broad age group to enter at all.

Hindu devotees say that the ban on women entering Sabarimala is not about menstruation alone – it is also in keeping with the wish of the deity who is believed to have laid down clear rules about the pilgrimage to seek his blessings.

Every year, millions of male devotees trek up a steep hill, often barefoot, to visit the shrine. They also undertake a rigorous 41-day fast, abstaining from smoking, alcohol, meat, sex and contact with menstruating women before they begin the journey.

Women’s rights campaigners who appealed to the Supreme Court to lift the ban said that this custom violated equality guaranteed under India’s constitution. They added that it was prejudiced against women and their right to worship.

Supporters of the ban argued that the practice had been in effect for centuries, and there was no need to change it now.