Sabarimala age restriction case: Kerala High Court awaits Supreme Court decision

Girl challenged age-based restriction on women entering Sabarimala temple
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The Kerala High Court, on June 11, 2024, dismissed the writ petition of a 10-year-old girl seeking permission to participate in the Mandala Pooja, emphasizing the pending nature of the issue before a larger bench of the Supreme Court. This order was passed by a division bench comprising Justice Anil K. Narendran and Justice Harisankar V. Menon

The case of Snigdha Sreenath (Minor) v. Travancore Devaswom Board highlights the ongoing legal and societal debates surrounding the entry of women into the Sabarimala Sree Dharmasastha Temple. This case is significant as it touches upon the complex interplay between religious practices, gender equality, and constitutional rights in India.

Background of the Case

Situated in the heart of Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, the Sabarimala Sree Dharmasastha Temple, is a renowned pilgrim center where millions of devotees trek the Western Ghats to seek the blessings of Lord Ayyappa. The temple, along with the Malikappuram and Pamba Ganapathy Temples, falls under the administration of the Travancore Devaswom Board. The temple has imposed age-based restrictions on women, specifically barring those aged 10 to 50, ostensibly to maintain religious customs related to the celibate nature of Lord Ayyappa.

In this particular case, Snigdha Sreenath, a minor represented by her father, challenged the restriction on grounds that she had not attained puberty and thus should be allowed entry. Her father’s online application for the pilgrimage was rejected based on her age, prompting the writ petition.

Petitioner’s arguments

The petitioner argued that the age limit of 10 years was arbitrary and only for convenience. They cited the precedent set in S. Mahendran v. Secretary, Travancore Devaswom Board and others (1993), where it was established that girls who had not attained puberty could undertake the pilgrimage. They contended that there was no valid religious or legal reason to deny the petitioner entry since she had not reached puberty, thus falling outside the scope of the traditional prohibition.

Respondents’ arguments

The Travancore Devaswom Board and other respondents argued that the matter of women’s entry into Sabarimala was pending before a larger bench of the Supreme Court. They referred to the ongoing review in Kantararu Rajeevaru (Right to Religion, In re-9 J.) v. Indian Young Lawyers Association (2020), which reframed issues surrounding the interplay of Articles 25 (freedom of religion) and 26 (management of religious affairs) with other constitutional provisions like Article 14 (equality before law).

The respondents highlighted that the Travancore Devaswom Board, as trustees of the temple, was obligated to follow prevailing legal and customary norms. They also argued that the petitioner’s claim lacked substantial evidence that her pilgrimage application was rejected solely based on age.

Court’s observations and decision

The court held that the provisions under the Section 15A and 24 of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act make it explicitly clear that the role assigned to the Travancore Devaswom Board is that of a trustee in the management of the properties vested in the deity. The Board and its officials are duty-bound to function within the framework of the statute by scrupulously following the stipulations contained therein and acting strictly in accordance with the settled legal principles relating to the administration of Hindu religious trust. The Board, being a trustee in the management of Devaswom properties, is legally bound to perform its duties with utmost care and caution. (Para 15)

The Kerala High Court delved into the legal context of the age-based restrictions at Sabarimala. It noted that the Division Bench in S. Mahendran had directed the Travancore Devaswom Board to prohibit women aged 10 to 50 from entering the temple, a directive upheld by subsequent legal interpretations. The Court emphasized that this restriction was not discriminatory under Articles 15, 25, and 26 of the Constitution, nor did it violate the Hindu Place of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965. (Para 17) 

The Court observed that the restriction was not a blanket ban on women but rather an age-specific prohibition linked to traditional beliefs about menstrual impurity and the celibate nature of Lord Ayyappa.(Para 17) 

“Such restriction is also not violative of the provisions of the Hindu Place of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965, since there is no restriction between one section and another section or between one class and another class among the Hindus in the matter of entry to a temple, whereas the prohibition is only in respect of women of a particular age group and not women as a class.”

Given the pending Supreme Court review, the High Court deemed it inappropriate to adjudicate on the petitioner’s plea, stating:

“Since the question regarding the interplay between freedom of religion under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution of India and the provisions in Part III, particularly Article 14, and connected issues are pending before a Larger Bench of the Apex Court in Kantaru Rajeevaru (Sabarimala Temple Review-5 J.) v. Indian Young Lawyers Association [(2020) 2 SCC 1], in the review petitions arising out of the judgment of the Constitution Bench in Indian Young Lawyers Association v. 16 W.P.(C)No.39847 of 2023 State of Kerala [(2019) 11 SCC 1] the petitioner cannot invoke the writ jurisdiction of this Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, seeking the aforesaid reliefs. In such circumstances, this writ petition fails on the above ground and the same is accordingly dismissed, leaving open the legal and factual contentions raised by the petitioner.”

Implications of the verdict

This case highlights the broader societal and legal debates about the role of tradition and modernity in religious practices. The Sabarimala issue, in particular, has become a touchstone for discussions about gender equality, religious freedom, and the scope of judicial intervention in religious affairs.  It raises important questions about how a society rooted in deep religious traditions can adapt to the basic values of equality and human rights. The outcome of the larger bench’s deliberations will not only affect Sabarimala but could set precedents for other religious practices across the country.

In many ways, the Sabarimala issue serves as a microcosm of the broader challenges faced by Indian society as it navigates the complexities of modernity. The case highlights the difficulties in reforming religious practices that are seen as discriminatory while respecting the cultural and religious sentiments of millions.

As the Supreme Court continues to deliberate on the Sabarimala issue, several critical questions remain unanswered. These include the extent to which religious practices can be regulated by the state, the balance between religious freedom and gender equality, and the role of judicial interpretation in evolving societal norms.

The eventual Supreme Court ruling on the Sabarimala review petitions will likely have far-reaching implications for religious practices across India. It will address the contentious interplay between Articles 25 and 26 and other constitutional provisions, setting precedents that could influence future cases involving religious freedoms and gender rights.

The order can be read here:


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