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Sabarimala defends women entry bar

The Sabarimala temple in Kerala. File picture

New Delhi: The Travancore Devaswom Board, which controls the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, on Thursday defended in the Supreme Court the practice of barring the entry of women in the menstruating age group of 10-50 years, saying it was prevalent in temples across the country.

"The nature of the deity and the history of the temple is such that women in the menstruating age are not allowed inside. Temples across the country do not allow women who are in their menstruating days," senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi told a five-judge constitution bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices R.F. Nariman, A.M. Khanwilkar, D.Y. Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra.

Justice Malhotra said that even in other religions the practice of barring women from entering shrines was prevalent and cited the case of a temple in Kerala where men are not allowed. "Is this not discriminatory?" Justice Malhotra asked.

CJI Misra inferred that the Sabarimala temple was discriminating against women in an indirect manner by imposing rigorous conditions like 41 days' penance at a stretch before entering the temple, which unlike for men is not possible for menstruating women because of physiological factors.

"The board is actually doing something indirectly what it cannot do directly. Imposition of something which is impossible to be done is an indirect way of debarring women in the age group of 10 to 50 as they cannot observe penance continuously for 41 days in view of the menstrual cycle," Justice Misra remarked.

The bench is hearing petitions filed by the Indian Young Lawyers' Association and certain individuals challenging the practice of not allowing women inside the Sabarimala temple on the ground that the presiding deity is a celibate.

Singhvi, however, maintained that there was no discrimination and that the practice was part of a custom being followed for over 1,000 years.

The senior counsel said the Travancore Devaswom Board was justified in restricting the entry of women in the age group of 10 to 50 years on the ground that the deity, Lord Ayyappa, was a celibate. He said the 1,000-year-old custom and religious practice couldn't be interfered with.

Singhvi pleaded that the entire religious practices of the temple had been distorted out of context to give the impression that they were barbaric and medieval.

He said the temple customs were based on a well-founded belief, which enjoys protection and is an essential part of the temple under Article 26 of the Constitution. The article relates to the management of religious institutions.

Singhvi said barring women inside the shrine was not discriminatory and that women were allowed inside thousands of other Ayyappa temples in Kerala and other temples in the rest of the country.

"When the Lord himself says don't allow access to women in the age of 10 and 50, how can the court go into that question? Why do the petitioners insist on visiting this particular temple?" the lawyer asked.

CJI Misra quipped: "Because they believe in the deity. It's the devotion which drives people to visit the temple and it is their choice and it is for you to justify why women be not allowed to enter."

Singhvi countered: "If they indeed believe in the deity then they must respect the traditions of the temple and observe its practices."

He said menstruating women were not allowed inside the temple to maintain the purity of the shrine.

Singhvi said there were different concepts of purity and impurity across cultures and religions.

"Hindus leave footwear outside temples whereas Christians enter churches with their footwear on," he said, prompting the CJI to say: "Leaving footwear outside the temple is a regulation, but imposing a condition to debar women in a particular age group is something different."

Justice Malhotra pointed out that restrictions based on menstruation were followed in other religions as well. She drew attention to the Old Testament where certain restrictions are imposed.

Justice Nariman, however, felt that the notification issued by the Sabarimala temple board imposing the age restriction could have been worded better to refer to women who are of reproductive age instead of specifying an age bracket of 10 to 50 years.

"What happens to a woman who stops menstruating at the age of 45?" he asked.

Singhvi replied that age was not the issue but agreed that the decades-old notification could have been worded better.

Senior counsel K. Parasaran, also appearing for the board, submitted that devotees don't have the right to change the character of the deity according to their convenience.

The arguments will continue on July 24.

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