Women wishing to offer prayers at the popular hill shrine of Sabarimala in Kerala will be required to carry proof of age to gain entry into the sanctum sanctorum.

Women in the menstruating age of 10 to 50 are barred from entering the temple.

The Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the temple, said the decision was taken to “preserve the sanctity of Sabarimala”.

The board’s president, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, said that security personnel at the gate would let women devotees in only after verifying their age. “We request all women devotees to carry age proof while visiting Sabarimala. We want to ensure that only women above 50 years of age gain entry into the temple,” he added.

“It is difficult to judge women’s age by their appearance. That is why we decided to ask for age certificates.”

The controversy

The question of women’s entry into the temple became a topic of discussion recently after a photograph of a group of women offering prayers there began to circulate on social media.

The photo, believed to have been taken on April 11, triggered a controversy with many people raising doubts that at least a couple of the women were below 50 years.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader TG Mohandas was the first to tweet the photo with the cryptic comment that he hoped those girls were above 50.

The controversy died down, however, after the State Vigilance Department conducted an inquiry, ordered by the state government, and found that the women hadn’t violated the temple rules. The vigilance officers tracked down the women, recorded their statements and verified their age.

“It is difficult to judge women’s age by their appearance. That is why we decided to ask for age certificates.”  

Sabarimala, located in the Periyar Tiger Reserve in the Western Ghats of Pathanamthitta district, is a popular pilgrimage destination. Lord Ayyappa is the presiding deity of the temple.

Pilgrims have to take vows of strict religious observance for 48 days before embarking on a trek to Neelimala to reach the shrine, which has 18 sacred steps, and catch a glimpse of the deity.

Women’s entry into Sabarimala has long been a topic of controversy, but what surprised many this time was the hurry with which the Left Democratic Front government ordered an inquiry into the incident. It must be remembered that the same government had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in November 2016, supporting the entry of women of all ages into the sanctum sanctorum. The affidavit was challenged by Gopalakrishnan.

He said the women at the centre of the recent controversy looked quite young. “But my inquiry revealed that they were above 50 years,” he added.

The rules

The ban notwithstanding, quite a few women have offered prayers at the temple, or claimed to have done so. Prominent Kannada actor Jayamala claimed that she had entered the temple and touched the idol of the presiding deity in 1987, at the age of 27 years. The revelation raised a hue and cry, and the police had to register a case against the actor and two others. She was reprieved when the Kerala High Court quashed the charge sheet in 2012.

In 2011, a 35-year-old woman from Andhra Pradesh had managed to enter the sanctum sanctorum. She was spotted by members of the Rapid Action Force and evicted. The chief priest then conducted a purification ceremony.

Those opposed to women’s entry into the temple had received a shot in the arm when the Kerala High Court, in a judgement in 1991, observed that restrictions on the entry of women were not discriminatory under the Constitution.

In 2016, the Supreme Court questioned the Kerala High Court verdict after the Indian Young Lawyers Association asked it to allow women entry into the temple without age restrictions. A group of students, representing Happy to Bleed campaign, too sought the court’s direction on whether the society should continue to bear with menstrual discrimination.

Successive governments in Kerala have espoused different views on the issue. The Left Democratic Front government submitted an affidavit in the Supreme Court last November supporting the entry of women into the temple. It was consistent with the stand the LDF had taken during its previous term in 2007.

But the Congress-led United Democratic Front government had told the apex court in February 2016 that the restriction had been in place since “time immemorial”. It had even argued that the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, was a celibate and the presence of women would affect the sanctity of the temple.