Why menstruating women are barred from Sabarimala temple?

The Sabarimala verdict did upset many in the society who claimed that the judiciary was interfering in the issues of personal and community faith.


The Supreme Court on Friday lifted the ban on entry of women aged between 10-50 in Kerala’s much revered Sabarimala Temple. With this judgment, the SC broke away from the 1951 Narasu Appa Mali judgment of the Bombay HC. The 67 years old judgment had ruled that personal law, religious customs, usages, and beliefs are outside the ambit of fundamental rights of equality, life, and dignity. However, the unchallenged rule of the judgment came to an end on Friday.

The five-judge constitutional bench headed by Chief Justice Deepak Misra in a 4:1 verdict allowed the entry of women of all age in the Sabarimala Temple. Delivering the Judgment, the bench said, “Right to worship is given to all devotees and there can be no discrimination on the basis of gender.” The bench further added, “The practice of barring women in age group of 10-50 to go inside the temple violates constitutional principles.”

Dipak Misra
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Reading the majority decision, CJI Deepak Misra said, “The dualistic approach against women degrades the status of women. Women are not lesser or inferior to man Patriarchy of religion cannot be permitted to trump over faith.” He further added that biological or physiological reasons cannot be accepted in freedom for faith. Abolishing the ban of women’s entry in the temple, CJI said, “Religion is basically a way of life however certain practices create incongruities.”

Though the judgment was hailed as a major pro-women and anti-discrimination development, it did upset many in the society who claimed that the judiciary was interfering in the issues of personal and community faith. According to the legend, the Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity in Sabarimala which is situated among the 18 hills in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, is a celibate. And thus, women of menstruating age are not allowed to enter the temple. On the face of it, the logic for barring menstruating women from Sabarimala temple would seem silly. However, when it comes to faith or beliefs, there has to be an understanding beyond merely the logic at the hands. Thus the story of why menstruating women are barred from Sabarimala Temple should be recounted.

The Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity at Sabarimala was adopted by King Rajashekara, the foster-father of Lord Ayyappan belonging to the Pandya dynasty. King Rajashekara was a just and precocious ruler held in high esteem by the people of his kingdom. It is said that under him, the region was witnessing a golden age. The King and his Queen, however, had only one sorrow- they did not have a child. So, the couple prayed continuously to Lord Shiva to bless them with a child.

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Around the same time, a demon by the name of Mahishasura was killed by Goddess Durga, in a bloody battle. The death of Mahishasur incited his sister Mahishi to take revenge. She secured a boon from Lord Brahma that no other than the child of Vishnu (Hari) & Shiva (Haran) could kill her. Harrassed by Mahishi, the gods in Devaloka turned to Lord Vishnu and asked him to save them. As the boon was that nobody except the son of Lord Shiva & Vishnu could kill Mahishi, Lord Vishnu assumed the female persona of Mohini. Lord Vishnu as Mohini not only killed Bhasmasur and saved Amrit for gods but also led to the fulfillment of the boon sought by Mahishi. It was decided that the male child born out of the union of Mohini and Lord Shiva would be placed under the care of Lord Shiva’s devotee, King Rajashekhara.

On the direction of a sage, the King named the child as ‘Manikandan’. Manikandan’s entry in King Rajasekhara’s life brought the king many fortunes. As he was growing up, the Queen had given birth to a male child who was named Raja Rajan. The Queen who had now given birth to a child felt insecure that Manikandan would inherit the throne. Thus, the Queen with the help of the Diwan pretended that she was suffering from a terrible headache and only the milk of lactating tigress would cure it. The king Rajasekara sent a team of soldiers for getting the milk, however, they returned empty-handed.

Thus, Manikandan stepped forward and decided to go in a search of milk himself. Though, reluctantly Rajasekara bid farewell to his favorite son and made him take food stocks and three-eyed coconuts, in honor of Lord Shiva. This tradition is still followed at the Sabarimala Temple.

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Manikandan, on his way to find lactating tigress, entered a forest. During his journey, he came to know about the atrocities of the demoness Mahishi in Devaloka. His sense of justice outraged, Manikandan killed Mahishi to free the Gods from her atrocities. However, upon her death, it was revealed that Mahishi was, in fact, princess Leela, daughter of Kavalan who was under the spell of a curse. After Mahishi’s death, Leela was freed from the curse and she took her original avatar. As the legend goes, the princess then indebted by Manikandan’s act offered to marry him. However, Manikandan gave priority to his devotees. He refused to marry her till the time new devotees stop visiting him at Sabarimala. The princess agreed to wait for him at a neighboring temple and is still worshipped today as Malikapurathamma. It is said that in honor of Malikapurathamma, Lord Ayyappa does not receive any menstruating woman. Also, the women chose not to visit Lord Ayyappa for it would be an insult to Malikapurathamma’s love and sacrifice.

As India Today columnist Angirasa Shreshta highlights in her argument in favor of the tradition, “A full participation in the religion entails not only performing duties, whether obligatory or out of your own volition but also not doing what is prohibited. Negative acts such as abstaining from meat and alcohol on vrata/upavasa days or removing footwear before entering a temple are also instances of religious participation.” On these grounds, not entering Sabarimala is also a part of performing the duties faithfully by those who believe in the religion. Those who argue in favor of the tradition also say that the case is not of discrimination as women devotees of any age group are not barred from visiting other Ayyappa temples across the country.

However, whether yesterday’s Supreme Court judgment would actually end discrimination against women devotee or not is still a looming question.


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