Police in the Indian state of Kerala defied a Supreme Court order on Saturday by stopping ten women from entering the ancient Lord Ayyappa (Sabarimala) Temple because they were in the "barred" age group (10 to 50 years); these are considered a woman's menstruating years.
The women had come to attend the annual Mandala Pooja (prayer) Festival, which marks the end of the 41-day-long period of austerity known as Mandala Kalam that is observed by devotees of the temple’s presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa.
The hill temple reopened late on Saturday evening, just days after the nation's Supreme Court referred the matter of allowing women to enter to a larger bench.
The women, residents of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, were stopped at a distance of about five kilometres from the temple and were asked to turn back because their identification documents showed them to be under age 50.
The government of the southwestern state of Kerala, which proactively sought to implement the previous Supreme Court order of September 2018 to allow menstruating women to enter the temple and its sanctum sanctorum, also appeared to be backtracking on this commitment on Friday and Saturday, saying it wasn’t in favour of young women going to Sabarimala even if there was nothing wrong with them praying before the presiding deity of the shrine.
As of now, around 1,400 security personnel have been deployed to Sannidhanam, the area near the shrine’s sanctum sanctorum, to prevent any untoward incidents. They include over 700 male police personnel, 250 female police officers, as well as personnel from the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), the Rapid Action Force (RAF), the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), and police commandos.
Metal detectors and X-ray scanners have also been installed in the town of Pamba, which is about five kilometres from the shrine. Female police personnel have been tasked with the responsibility of verifying the identity cards of women who make the pilgrimmage.
Meanwhile, thousands of devotees from southern India are offering prayers at the temple.
The legal battle to allow or not to allow menstruating women into the Sabarimala Temple began in 1991, when a petition was filed before the Kerala High Court asking it to stop the Sabarimala Temple Board from violating temple rules by allowing women of menstruating age into the sanctum sanctorum.
A division bench of the high court had then ruled that women between the ages of 10-50 would not be allowed to enter the shrine as per existing traditions.
The high court’s ruling was continuously challenged in the ensuing years. In 2006, the Indian Young Lawyers Association filed a case in the Supreme Court saying that the 1991 Kerala High Court order violated the right to equality under Article 14 and freedom of religion under Article 25 of the Indian Constitution. The matter was then referred to a three-judge bench in 2008 and came up for hearing again in January 2016.
In 2017, the country's Supreme Court asked a Constitution Bench of the same court to pass judgement on the case. On 28 September 2018, a judgement allowing the entry of women was passed by a five-judge bench of the nation's highest court. When the matter came up for hearing again on 14 November 2019, the Supreme Court bench referred the matter to a larger bench comprised of seven judges.