Women entered the sanctum sanctorum Shani Shingnapur temple and offer prayers breaking the tradition followed for several decades, in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra on Friday. (PTI Photo)
Maharashtra's Shani Shingnapur temple today threw open its doors to women, ending a centuries-old ban that had been challenged in courts by various activists and inspired a high-voltage campaign.
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Women will "neither be encouraged nor stopped" from entering, a trustee of the temple, Shalini Lande, said after a meeting.
Earlier today, over 100 men had forced their way into the inner sanctum of the temple dedicated to Shani, or Saturn, to mark "Gudi Padwa" - the New Year by the Hindu calendar.
The step was welcomed by Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who had backed the court order and said: ""If we have to progress in this 21st century then it is important that we remove this concept of discrimination of
caste and gender from the minds of the people completely."
Last week, the temple said neither men nor women would be allowed into the area that has an idol placed on an outdoor platform.
The new restrictions were introduced to circumvent a court ruling that women and men must have equal access to Hindu places of worship. To keep women out, the temple barred entry for male devotees as well, and said only male priests would be allowed into the inner sanctum.
For months, women activists, in particular Trupti Desai, have tried unsuccessfully to enter the temple. "Better late than never," Ms Desai commented on today's decision.
Temple officials - and thousands of locals who live near the Shani Shingnapur temple in the Ahmednagar district - have fought to maintain the tradition that discriminates against women.
In her attempts to enter the temple, Ms Desai has been detained by the police; once, she said she would lower herself into the temple with ropes from a helicopter, but was denied flying rights by local officials.
The government has pledged to the Bombay High Court that it will enforce a law that comes with six months in jail for preventing someone from offering prayers at a temple.
Last year, after a woman devotee managed to offer prayers to the Shani idol, a priest conducted an emergency cleansing ceremony.