The ban on women from entering Sabarimala temple is not anti-women and is voluntarily accepted by them, the temple board told the Supreme Court today. But the top court again underlined that the all customary or religious practices such as a ban on entry of women had to conform to constitutional principles.
The constitution bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra is hearing a bunch of petitions that challenge the traditional ban on the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age in the famous Sabarimala temple.
Women of an age to menstruate are restricted from entering the temple as its presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is considered to be a celibate.
The five-judge bench pointed to the temple board's affidavit in the high court that pointed that women were allowed into the temple for the first five days of the period of annual pilgrimage and banned subsequently on the ground that the crowd used to swell.
"The deity cannot suddenly disappear for five days only to reappear later... What happens to the celibate nature of Lord Ayyappa when women are allowed on certain days of the year," Justice Rohinton Fali Nariman observed.
Justice DY Chandrachud, also a member of the five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, also countered the argument that women had voluntarily accepted the restriction on their entry. He said women were socially conditioned right from birth in a patriarchal society on how they should behave, what they should and what they should do.
The temple board also urged the top court to steer clear of sitting in judgment on sensitive religious matters.
"They may say my belief is fickle but who decides?" the Travancore Devaswom Board that administers the temple said during Tuesday's arguments, underlining that a top court verdict on these practices would have far-reaching implications and open a "Pandora's box".
"There are also several mosques that bar entry of women. In some Kali temple rituals, devotees hang with hooks pierced into their skins and Shias lash themselves till they bleed," senior lawyer Abhishek Singhvi, who is representing the board said, wondering if the top court would next ban these religious practices just "because of its progressive thought".
The court said the board would have to establish that the practice of banning women of a certain age group was the essential and integral part of the religious practice.
The top court had last week questioned the rationale behind banning the entry of women in the 10-50 age group into the temple in Kerala, saying menstruation may begin before the age of 10 and menopause may hit women much earlier.
The court also did not appear to agree with the temple board's contention that women of the age group were barred as they cannot observe purity and "penance" for a period of 41 days, a condition for undertaking the pilgrimage.
The top court will continue hearing the case on Wednesday.