The Big Story: The temple and the court

With its comments on Wednesday, the Supreme Court marked a progressive turn in the Sabarimala shrine debate. Banning women aged between 10 and 50 from the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine violated their Constitutional rights to freedom of religion and amounted to a discriminatory practice, it said. A woman’s right to pray was equal to that of a man’s, the court observed, and once a temple was open to the public, anybody could go. The court placed rights and dignity at the centre of the Sabarimala issue, dismissing the false binary between freedom of religion and gender equality, when other institutions have failed to do so.

Defendants of the ban argue that allowing women of menstrual age to enter the sanctum sanctorum would go against the vow of celibacy associated with the reigning deity, Ayyappa. They also insist that it is a tradition which dates back centuries and must be respected as diverse religious practices should. But the proscription seems to be tied up with regressive ideas about impurity and women’s sexuality as threatening to sacred spaces. Those opposing the ban point out that these ideas are not consistent with the original beliefs of Hinduism, which grew around nature-related rhythms and celebrated female energy. Women were once equal partners in worship, it is said, and it was the later collusion of caste and patriarchal structures that kept them out of certain spaces and rituals. But perhaps the question to ask is not whether the ban violates the true, ancient traditions of Hinduism but whether it contradicts the idea of a gender equal society today.

Such questions should ideally be asked by religious, political and social institutions if meaningful change is to be wrought. In the Sabarimala case, the Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the shrine, has consistently opposed attempts to lift the ban. Last year, the board president also told reporters that “decent, devout” women would not enter the the inner sanctum, even if the court allowed it. The Kerala government has been inconsistent, changing its stance for the fourth time to say that women should be allowed to enter. The ban, incidentally, is recognised under the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1956.

In recent years, it has been the court which pushes the envelope towards social change, throwing open the doors of the Haji Ali Dargah to women in 2016, for instance, or recognising sexual minorities. Hearing the plea to strike down Section 377 earlier this week, it also observed that gay relationships should be accepted and suppression was wrong. These interventions are welcome and, in the absence of other progressive action, very necessary. But other institutions must catch up.

The Big Scroll

Anu Kumar finds that, till a few centuries ago, women were equal partners in temples.


  1. In the Indian Express, Harsh Mander writes that an anti-lynching law will not be enough when such crimes occur in a climate of impunity and political encouragement.
  2. In the Telegraph, Annabel Lloyd is thankful for small mercies, such as a joke blimp of United States President Donald Trump over London.
  3. In the Hindu, GN Devy writes that recent Census data do not adequately reflect India’s linguistic diversity and are inconsistent with global ideas.


Don’t miss...

Georgina Maddox raises the question, is it time Indian artists were paid royalty?

When I met him, he was wearing a khadi kurta, with large spectacles perched on his nose. An acute heart condition had left him with only 30% heart function. He moved slowly around his studio and worked in complete silence. Finally, Mehta realised that I expected him to say something about his great triumph at the auction. “It is wonderful to be appreciated by the art market, in my lifetime,” he said. “My work has sold at [the] auction and this is a great honour.”

Ironically though, Mehta did not benefit monetarily from it. Two years later he died of a heart attack, aged 82... 

The art community – especially his gallery in Mumbai, Chemould – supported him with exhibitions and primary sales, but in retrospect, if Mehta had received a royalty from the sales of his work at auctions, it could have certainly helped him afford better healthcare.