The Congress-led government in Kerala has indicated that it will side with the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple authorities to bar women aged between 10 and 50 years from entering the shrine.

The Supreme Court on Monday had questioned the discriminatory practice, saying that the religious customs cited by Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine, violated the constitutional rights of women. The court was hearing a decade-old petition filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association and a group of women lawyers seeking to establish the right for women of all ages to be allowed to enter the temple.

The supreme priest of the hill shrine believes that the presence of menstruating women in the temple is unacceptable because Lord Ayyappa is revered as a celibate.

On Tuesday, state Devaswom Minister VS Sivakumar said that the United Democratic Front government’s policy was to protect temple traditions and customs that had been followed for centuries. “When we file an affidavit in the court, we will take into consideration the beliefs, customs and traditions,” he said.

The affidavit, to be filed when the matter next comes up for hearing on January 18, is expected to in sharp contrast to the document submitted by the Left Democratic Front government in 2008. That government, headed by VS Achuthanandan, had backed the petitioners' plea on the grounds that it was in keeping with the times.

Set in stone

Devaswom Minister Sivakumar's position was echoed by Kerala home minister Ramesh Chennithala. He said that the Sabarimala shrine’s traditions and rituals with regard to the entry of women could not be changed overnight.

“Women of the age group of 10 to 50 were banned in Sabarimala as part of a belief being followed by the faithful for a long time,” Chennithala said. "The government cannot change it." He added that the UDF government will take a position based on these traditions and beliefs.

Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, said the previous LDF government’s affidavit was responsible for the Supreme Court’s sharp observation on Monday.

“The LDF government had failed to appraise the court properly about the practices followed at Sabarimala for centuries,” he said. “The court has made the observation without understanding the basis of the temple’s rituals and the specialty of the ‘perennially celibate’ deity.”

Gopalakrishanan said the priority was to set the record straight. “The divinity of the shrine comes from the [traditional] practices. We will protect it at all cost,” said the temple board chief. Gopalakrishnan had sparked a controversy late last year by suggesting that a machine be installed to check whether women who wanted to enter the shrine were menstruating.

G Sudhakaran, the former Devaswom minister who had spoken out against the ban, expressed satisfaction that the Supreme Court had found merit in the previous state government’s position on the issue. He said he was hopeful that the court would end the discriminatory practice.

However, G Sugathakumari, a noted poet and environmentalist, said that she would oppose any decision allowing women entry into Sabarimala. Sugathakumari, a former chairperson of the State Women’s Commission, said there was no need for women to visit the shrine because there were many other Ayyappa temples at which they could worship.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is trying to gain a foothold in the state, sought to downplay the issue. It said that while the court had only made an observation, it would be better to leave decisions on temple practices to religious scholars.