Sabarimala verdict and unique traditions of Southern temples

The Sabarimala judgment passed by the Supreme Court held the notifications dated 21 October 1955 and 27 November 1956 issued by the Travancore Devaswom Board, prohibiting the entry of women between the ages of ten and fifty, are ultra vires Section 3 of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act 1965 and are even otherwise unconstitutional. The court had arrived in the said conclusion thereby rejecting the contentions of respondents wherein they strongly contended that the Sabarimala Temple, dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, is a prominent temple in Kerala which is visited by over twenty million pilgrims and devotees every year. As per a centuries-old tradition of this temple, and the ‘acharas’, beliefs and customs followed by this temple, women in the age group of 10 to 50 years are not permitted to enter this temple.

This is attributable to the manifestation of the deity at the Sabarimala temple which is in the form of a ‘Naishtik Bramhachari’, who practices strict penance, and the severest form of celibacy.

According to the legend, it is believed that Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of Sabarimala had his human sojourn at Pandalam as the son of the erstwhile king, known by the name of Manikandan, who found him as a radiant faced infant on the banks of the river Pampa, wearing a bead (‘mani’) around his neck.

Manikandan’s feats and achievements convinced the king and others of his divine origin. The Lord told the king that he could construct a temple at Sabarimala, north of the holy river Pampa, and install the deity there. The king duly constructed the temple at Sabarimala and dedicated it to Lord Ayyappa. The deity of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala temple was installed in the form of a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari’ i.e. an eternal celibate.

Lord Ayyappa is believed to have explained the manner in which the pilgrimage to the Sabarimala Temple is to be undertaken, after observing a 41-day vratham (penance).

It is believed that Lord Ayyappa himself undertook the 41-day vratham before he went to Sabarimala temple to merge with the deity. The whole process of the pilgrimage undertaken by a pilgrim is to replicate the journey of Lord Ayyappa. The mode and manner of worship at this temple as revealed by the Lord himself is chronicled in the Sthal Purana i.e. the Bhuthanatha Geetha.

The 41 day vratham is a centuries-old custom and practice undertaken by the pilgrims referred to as ‘Ayyappans’. The object of this vratham is to discipline and train the devotees for the evolution of spiritual consciousness leading to self-realization. Before embarking on the pilgrimage to this shrine, a key essential of the vratham is observance of a satvic lifestyle and

brahmacharya so as to keep the body and mind pure. A basic requirement of the vratham is to withdraw from the materialistic world and step onto the spiritual path.

When a pilgrim undertakes the vratham, the pilgrim separates himself from the women-folk in the house, including his wife, daughter, or other female members in the family.

The vratham consists of:

  • Forsaking all physical relations with one’s spouse;
  • Giving up anything that is intoxicating, including alcohol,

cigarettes and tamasic food;

  • Living separately from the rest of the family in an isolated

room or a separate building;

Refraining from interacting with young women in daily life,

including one’s daughter, sister, or other young women

relatives;

  • Cooking one’s own food;
  • Observing cleanliness, including bathing twice a day before

prayers;

  • Wearing a black mundu and upper garments;
  • Having only one meal a day;
  • Walking barefoot.

On the 41st day, after puja, the pilgrim takes the irumudi (consisting of rice and other provisions for one’s own travel, along with a coconut filled with ghee and puja articles) and starts the pilgrimage to climb the 18 steps to reach the sannidhanam, for darshan of the deity. This involves walking from River Pampa, climbing 3000 feet to the sannidhanam, which is a climb of around 13 kilometres through dense forests.

As a part of this system of spiritual discipline, it is expressly stipulated that women between the ages of 10 to 50 years should not undertake this pilgrimage. This custom or usage is understood to have been prevalent since the inception of this temple, which is since the past several centuries.

They further contended that the custom and usage of restricting the entry of women in the age group of 10 to 50 years followed in the Sabarimala Temple is pre-Constitutional. As per Article 13(3)(a) of the Constitution, “law” includes custom or usage, and would have the force of law.

The characteristics and elements of a valid custom are that it must be of immemorial existence, it must be reasonable, certain and continuous. The customs and usages, religious beliefs and practices as mentioned above are peculiar to the Sabarimala temple, and have admittedly been followed since centuries.

The exclusion of women in this Temple is not absolute or universal. It is limited to a particular age group in one particular temple, with the view to preserve the character of the deity. Women outside the age group of 10 to 50 years are entitled to worship at the Sabarimala Temple. The usage and practise is primary to preserve the sacred form and character of the deity. It was further submitted that the objection to this custom is not being raised by the worshipers of Lord Ayyappa, but by social activists.

It was further submitted that there are about 1000 temples dedicated to the worship of Lord Ayyappa, where the deity is not in the form of a ‘Naishtik Brahmachari. In those temples, the mode and manner of worship differs from Sabarimala Temple, since the deity has manifested himself in a different form. There is no similar restriction on the entry of women in the other Temples of Lord Ayyappa, where women of all ages can worship the deity.

The Hon’ble Court was pleased to formulate following question:

Does the Constitution permit this as basis to exclude women from worship?

 Does the fact that a woman has a physiological feature – of being in a menstruating age – entitle anybody or a group to subject her to exclusion from religious worship?

 AND ANSWERED:

The physiological features of a woman have no significance to her equal entitlements under the Constitution. All women in the age group of ten and fifty may not in any case fall in the ‘procreative age group’. But that to my mind is again not a matter of substance. The heart of the matter lies in the ability of the Constitution to assert that the exclusion of women from worship is incompatible with dignity, destructive of liberty and a denial of the equality of all human beings. These constitutional values stand above everything else as a principle which brooks no exceptions, even when confronted with a claim of religious belief. To exclude women is derogatory to an equal citizenship.

 The Respondents submitted that the deity at Sabarimala is in the form of a Naishtika Brahmacharya: Lord Ayyappa is celibate. It was submitted that since celibacy is the foremost requirement for all the followers, women between the ages of ten and fifty must not be allowed in Sabarimala. There is an assumption here, which cannot stand constitutional scrutiny. The assumption in such a claim is that a deviation from the celibacy and austerity observed by the followers would be caused by the presence of women. Such a claim cannot be sustained as a constitutionally sustainable argument. Its effect is to impose the burden of a man’s celibacy on a woman and construct her as a cause for deviation from celibacy. This is then employed to deny access to spaces to which women are equally entitled. To suggest that women cannot keep the vratham is to stigmatize them and stereotype them as being weak and lesser human beings.

The court’s verdict allowing young women entry into Sabarimala evoked quick reactions from the women fraternity in Kerala, lakhs of women took to the streets thereby demanding the State Government to press for a review of the judgment. It was quite surprising for other’s who look this issue from far but quite expected as Sabarimala has an umbilical cord attached to the psyche of Southern India, the devotees roughly comes around 30 crore and they have never viewed the limited restrictions on “young women” as a discrimination but an essential practice, an essential unsegreable component of preserving the manifest form Naishtika Brahmacharya of the worshipped deity. It’s worthwhile to peruse certain other customary practice prevalent in some other prominent temples across Kerala which would make it clear that this is not stemmed in any social apartheid but is rooted solely in the bhava of presiding deity.

The unique customs practiced in these temples are not discrimination but rooted in the immemorial rituals customs and tradition if changed would change the worship structure centered around the presiding deity of these temples. This is not permissible without the advice of Acharya and the ritualistic course prescribed.

The women occupy a pivotal in the social Arena as well as in the spiritual arena.  There is no discrimination in following unique temple rituals. The famous Nagaraja Temple in Mannarassla in Haripad, Alapuzha district Kerala permit only women chief priest and men cannot occupy this post. The custom of appointing only women as chief priest cannot be seen as discrimination against men.  Because this is a unique customary tradition followed from immemorial times.

The Chengannur Mahadeva Temple in Alappuzha District celebrate the menstrual cycle of Devi Parvati.  There is no discrimination on the basis of sex or biological features of women. If, there was any inherent patriarchal order which perpetuates discrimination such a celebration would not have taken place from immemorial past.

The Attuakal Devi Temple has a unique custom of allowing only women devotees in Pongala festival after mandatory vrat (religious penance) in which more than 50 lacs women devotees participate that to on a single day.  It is pertinent to mention that men are not allowed in this Pongala festival. That the above ritual is not seen as a discrimination against men but if considered as a unique customs attached to the unique temple i.e. Attukal Devi Temple.

The temple deity, Lord Shiva, in Chengannur Mahadeva Temple, Alappuzha District, Kerala considered as Dakshin Kailas follows strict rituals and the Bhog offered here to the deity i.e. Lord Shiva is boiled rice whereas the Parasinikkadavu Muthappan, Kannur District, Kerala is offered toddy though the form of both Gods are same.

An ascetic or sanyasi is highly revered in Hindu religion but in one of the temples in Kannur district, exactly to say in Payyanur Subramanya temple, no ascetic is permitted to enter and another temple Thrichambaram no elephant is permitted entry as the presiding deity is consecrated as Krishna who killed Kuvalaya peedam, the King Kamsa’s elephant which had the strength of 1000 elephants.

These instances are a handful among the highly diverse customs and rituals prevalent all across the state in different temples if Public Interest Litigations are filed by attention seekers to reverse these practices which are not at all causing any disturbances to the social health it would lead to demise of a unique ancient culture eventually paving way for chaos and nothing else.

The Government of Kerala, instead of changing its stance before the Supreme Court by filing one affidavit or the other thereby swinging their stance in the matter of allowing young women entry into Sabarimala, if had put a concrete view on the extremely diverse traditions prevalent across the State, it would have helped in proper administration of justice to all. The political interests of Left parties should never have been allowed to affect the flow of justice.

 

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