Busting myths about how Sabarimala came to ban 'impure' women

Geeta Ramaseshan
Geeta RamaseshanFeb 02, 2016 | 17:13

Busting myths about how Sabarimala came to ban 'impure' women

The competing rights of gender equality and religion including arguments on custom, usage and culture would be in prominence as the Supreme Court hears the PIL relating to Sabarimala this month.

The temple of Ayappa in the hills of Sabarimala prohibits entry of women of menstrual age, roughly determined between 12 and 50. A visit to the shrine situated in the forests of the Periyar tiger reserve involves the pilgrims walking barefoot and observing a penance of 41 days that includes abstinence from tobacco, alcohol and sex. The argument in support of the denial of entry to women to the shrine is that women who menstruate, besides being a distraction to men, would not be able to complete the penance of 41 days since they could be "impure" during the period.


The mythology of Hariharaputhra, also known as Ayyappa or Manikandan or Sashta, born through the union of Shiva and Vishnu, is often considered as a compromise between Saivism and Vaishnavism. It is also one of the few mythologies that address the fluid nature of gender. The pilgrimage is not considered complete without a prayer at the Dargah of Vavar, situated near the temple.

The prohibition of women did not always exist. Women were allowed to visit the temple and conduct pujas except during Mandalam, Makaravaliku and Vishu seasons. But some of the changes were brought about in the early part of the last century in a proclamation in 1936 made by the Maharaja of Travancore, who ordered that temples be opened to all irrespective of caste. Under the rules of this proclamation, "women at such times during which they are not allowed to enter temples due to custom and usage shall not enter into the temple compound wall. No one shall do any act that would tend to derogate the purity and cleanliness of the temple and its premises."

These rules continue to apply to all temples of Kerala even after the passage of the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act of 1950, clearly indicating that the customary practice of considering menstruation as "impure" continues to be sanctioned by statute. While no one can verify this in any visit by a woman to a temple, the question that stands to be posed is can the State consider women as "pure" and "impure"?


In the case of Sabarimala, the prohibition is total.

The issue of women's entry into this temple came before the Kerala High Court in 1991 in a petition sent to the court that was converted into a PIL (S Mahendran Vs Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board and others). The petitioner alleged that a woman had trekked to the temple contrary to custom and usage, and that women from VIP families were visiting the temple and conducting pujas.

In an unusual practice in writ proceedings, the court examined Thantris of Sabarimala and other Thantrimukhyas of Kerala to ascertain the custom of prohibiting women from entering the temple. The Women Lawyers' Association Federation impleaded in the case and argued that the practice was discriminatory. The Thantris informed the court that Ayyapa was a Brahmachari and Devaprasnams - the astrological practice of posing questions posed to a deity - indicated that women should not be permitted to enter. And to quote the translation that was produced in the court by the Thantris, "it seems that the deity does not like young ladies entering the temple precincts." These arguments were considered as a matter of faith and not of superstition. It should be noted that there is no such ban in other temples in South India that house the same deity.


The Kerala High Court upheld the ban holding that the prohibition was in usage from time immemorial and that it does not discriminate against women as a class, but only those of a particular age group, and that in matters of religion the right of management given to a religious body is a guaranteed fundamental right and cannot be taken away. The court directed the board to implement the ban.

Ironically, a temple where everyone was allowed irrespective of caste when caste discrimination prohibited entry, where the idol is put to sleep on a lullaby sung by KJ Yesudas, a Christian, and where the pilgrimage is not complete without offering prayers at a dargah, there is discrimination when it comes to women.

Last updated: February 02, 2016 | 17:13
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