Sabarimala Temple Controversy Explained In The Light of Constitution of India

Justification of the prohibition, which is essential for social discipline.

Vaibhav Srivastava

Jan 8, 2019|13 min read


We have all been noticing the heat around Sabarimala Controversy since so many days. However, we are totally unknown as to what we are getting into.

What basically is it all about? What are the religious facts? What are the legal ends? None of us has ever tried to explore the issue beneath the visible ends. Let us have a step by step breakdown of the Sabarimala verdict controversy.

What is pilgrimage?

Sabarimala Temple Controversy Explained In The Light of Constitution of India

“A pilgrimage is a journey made by an individual or group of individuals to a sacred place as an act of worship”. The pilgrimage consists of two-fold of the journey: firstly, the physical journey & secondly, the structured journey.

The physical journey includes the labor done by the devotees, while the latter one includes the scenic beauty. However, the pilgrimage cannot be defined easily, because it is the phenomenon which reflects an inner motivation which is deeply rooted in the spiritual psyche of the pilgrims.

Why are some shrines considered pilgrimage centers while others are not?

Some pilgrimage centers become popular than others because of their remote location. These sites are difficult to approach and include Badrinath in the Himalayas, Sabarimala in Kerala, & Kataragama in the forests of Northern Sri Lanka.

It can also be observed that most of the sites are located on the hilltop or in the forests, making it more difficult to reach them. However, people out of their faith and devotion, reach to these by crossing all hurdles. 

How are pilgrimage centers identified in Hindu tradition?

In Hindu tradition, the pilgrimage centers are divided into four sects that are,

  1. Daiva sites; Associated with the three main Hindu pantheon, i.e. Brahma, Vishnu & Mahesh
  2. Asura sites; Associated with the destruction of the demons
  3. Arsa sites; Associated with the saints
  4. Manusa sites; Associated by the patronage of the royal rulers

Sabarimala temple can be kept into the ambit of the three sects, that are, Asura, Arsa & Manusa.

What is the Sabarimala Temple history and location?

Sabarimala is a Hindu temple complex located at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, India. It is considered as one of the holiest places in Hinduism. 

It hosts the largest annual pilgrimage in the world, with an estimated 17–30 million devotees visiting every year. Some estimates put the number of annual visitors as high as 50 million.

Coming to the Sabarimala temple history, the temple is dedicated to the god Ayyappan, who according to belief is “a hyper-masculine God born out of the union of two male Gods Shiva and Mohini, where Mohini is Vishnu in a female form.”

The Sabarimala temple is situated on a hilltop, amidst eighteen hills at an altitude of 480 m (1,574 ft) above sea level. It is surrounded by mountains and dense forests and this dense forest (Periyar Tiger Reserve) around the temple is known as Poongavanam. Sabarimala temples exist in each of the hills surrounding it.

When is the Sabarimala Temple open?

The Sabarimala temple is open only during specifically defined periods. It is open during the Malayalam month viz. 17th November to 26th December; for the first five days of each Malayalam month, which starts approximately in the middle of each English calendar month; and also during the period of Makar Sankranti, viz. approximately from January 1 to mid-January of each year.

What is the Sabarimala temple story as per ancient texts?

The version narrated in the Sanskrit text Bhutanathopakyanam (1800 A. D, attributed to Varma Raja), is considered the primary test of the cultus. According to this, Sage Suta of Naimisaranya, situated on the banks of the river Gomati, narrated the story to his disciples. The story follows as.

The demoness Mahishi, having obtained a boon of invincibility through her tapas, went on a rampage of destruction. Overthrowing Indra, the King of Gods, she usurped his throne. 

In order to end her reign of terror, Shiva & Mahesh decided to combine forces and create a son who would eventually destroy her. 

Vishnu then assumed the form of Mohini- the enchantress and bore a son. The child was left on the banks of river ‘Pampa’, where he was found by the childless King “Rajasekhara of Pantalam”. 

The king took the child back to his palace and adopted him as his heir and called him ‘Manikanthan’, because of the bell around his neck. Manikanthan grew up to be quite remarkable and was loved by all. 

Meanwhile, the queen conceived and gave birth to a son. She wished her own son to succeed to the throne and so with the help of the wicked Diwan (Minister) plotted Manikanthan’s Death.

Feigning illness, she persuaded the physician to say that she could be cured only by the tiger’s milk. As a dutiful son, Manikanthan volunteered to get the milk for her and set off into the forest. He was only twelve years old. 

In the forest, he confronted and destroyed the evil demon Mahisi. He then victoriously returned to the city with a flock of tigers and revealed his divine origin. 

Forgiving the Queen and the Diwan, he instructed the King to build a temple on the top of Mount Sabari. He then returned to Devaloka.

The narration then jumps ahead and tells us that, Mahishi ashes were reborn into the Beautiful lady named, Lila. It was the real get up of the lady, which was cursed and has to move with the look of female buffalo. 

She was completely affected by Ayyappan & wished to marry him. However, he had taken the vow of celibacy and therefore could not oblige her. He promised to marry her if and only when pilgrims stopped to visit his shrine at Sabarimala.

What is the Eroticism & Asceticism associated with Sabarimala shrine?

As the story suggests, the male section of the society is considered to be the ascetic in nature while the female is considered as the erotic one.

“Ayyappan is born of the two males. So, he represents the ultra-male child god in whose conception no woman (i.e. eroticism) has taken part.” 

But according to Hindu myth, Ayyappan will marry Lila at the end of the time. Till then, for the well-being and successful completion of the cosmic cycle of evolution, and dissolution the ascetic, Lord Ayyappan must have to wed to the erotic Lila.

As per the philosophical approach, we found that Mahishi represents the “beast” within all of us, while the deity within us represents the “soul”, which is immortal. 

The pilgrimage includes a coconut filled with clarified butter (Ghee), which symbolizes the ghee as the soul (used for the ‘Abhishekam’), and the coconut as the body (disposed off after death).

The ghee becomes purer as long as the butter is simmered on the fire. This ‘fire’ or ‘heat form’ is linked to austerity. More the person feels the ‘heat’, more he gets purer.

Man can create this ‘heat’ in them by devotional fervor and spiritual asceticism. Thus, the ascetic discipline of the pilgrim is the ‘heat’ that purifies the soul.

Ghee is regarded as the essence of all food substances and is also used to feed the sacrificial fires in all Hindu religious rituals. On the other hand, the ‘semen’ represents the essence of body substance. 

There is a form of energy stored in the human mind named, “Ojas”. It is believed to be the source of all intelligence and spiritual power. Hence, if the sexual desire, action & thoughts are controlled, they can accumulate as the power of ’Ojas’.

Are there more shrines of Lord Ayyappan?

There are generally the total sum of five temples, which according to the Hindu mythology was founded by Parsurama. It basically depicts the deity in the different ashrams or stages of life. 

Lord Ayyappan appears as a child, on the banks of the Kalladi River at Kulathupuzha (Temple of Lord Ayyappan). He is depicted as an adolescent, at Aryankava (Temple of Lord Ayyappan) and dressed like a prince. 

Achankoil (Temple of Lord Ayyappan), which is on the hilltop, shows him as a householder. Here, he is seated on a horse, bears a sword in his right hand and is flanked by two consorts, Poorna & Pushkala. 

The fourth temple of Lord Ayyappan is Sabarimala, where Lord Ayyappan is considered to be in the form of a forest dweller. And Lord Ayyappan’s last temple is yet to be discovered. 

It is believed that the last temple will be on the mountaintop to the northeast of Sabarimala. Here, Ayyappan is in the form of the highest yogi.

Therefore, to worship the Ayyappan at first three is not a problem. The ritual only speaks about the last two temples to be restricted for being worshipped by the women. 

This should not be termed as a point for religious discrimination. The Sabarimala Shrine, only restrict the woman for the respect of Lord Ayyappan, as he exists here as the ‘yogi’ or ‘Deity’.

It is seen similar as in the case the entry of women at “Haji Ali Shah Bukhari Dargah”. It is said to be ‘un-Islamic’ under the Shariat Law, for women to visit graves. Now, said this to raise the question of discrimination is ‘unjust’.

How is Lord Ayyappa related to Buddhism?

Buddha had the title ‘Arya’. The word ‘Arya’ sounds in Plai language as Ayyo. When the Buddhists were spreading their religion, several Pali words became part of the language of Kerala. 

When masculine “an” was added to it, and when the word “appan” was also added to it, it became “Ayyappan”.

The Buddhism center problem was the strength of the indigenous folk religion, which had to temporize with Yaksa & Naga cults. Properly, these cults were assimilated in Buddhism. 

The Yaksa in literature is represented as blood-thirsty demonic creatures. The meaning of Yaksa was “uncouth being”, “unseen spiritual enemy” & “supernatural being of exalted character”. 

Jataka tales (the sect of Buddhism) depicted the Yaksa cults as cruel & malevolent. They haunted the deserts, forests, trees & water. They respected and protected the celibates and sages. 

This supports the theory that Yaksa cults indeed exist. Traces of Yaksa cult can still be seen in Ayyappa cultus. Not only is his temple on a hilltop, but he is also believed to live in the waters of the river “Pampa” &, akin to ‘Ghantika Yaksa’.

In Buddhist literature, Ayyapa also wears a bell around his neck and hence, called Manikanthan. Therefore, the cultus member maintains the strictest celibacy before the journey through the forests to the Sabarimala shrine. To protect the women from the danger of evil spirit. 

What is the Sabarimala temple pilgrim process?

The Ayyappa pilgrimage takes place in four stages:

  1. Formal initiation ceremony, by 41 days Vratam.
  2. Irumuti Kattal (which in Tamil means tying of the bundle)
  3. Physical travel to pilgrimage site, bathing in the holy river Pampa at the foot of Mount Sabari and climb to the top of Mount Sabari & the “eighteen steps” to the shrine.
  4. The return journey and final reincorporation of the pilgrims back into secular life.

According to the belief of ancient Hindu Sages & Hermit, the fast (or Vrathams) play a vital role in human life. Not only the Vratham pure the soul but also keep the mind away from the evil or psychic energy. 

The man transcends his earthly limitations and changes for the better, so says the Bhagavad Gita. For a devotee seeking darshan of Lord Ayyappa has to be pure both physically as well as mentally and for this, he is expected to observe the mandatory fast of 41 days. 

It usually begins on the first day of the Malayalam month of Varischikam in mid-November. Kanni Ayyapan is the name for the maiden on the pilgrim. 

The 41 days of the fast also demand the price to stick with the rules and regulations, to abide it by any case, to attain the proper form of worship.

The observance of 41 days Vrutham is not applicable to women alone and even men who cannot observe the 41 days Vrutham due to births and deaths in the family, which results in breaking of Vrutham, are also not allowed to take the pilgrimage that year.

The fact that religious customs, as well as the traditional science of Ayurveda, consider menstrual period as an occasion for rest for women and a period of uncleanliness of the body and during this period, women are affected by several discomforts and, hence, observance of intense spiritual discipline for 41 days is not possible.

The pilgrims coming to the temple must strictly follow the rituals which include taking 41 days Vrutham and one of the rituals pertains to not touching the ladies including daughters and wives as well.

There are two ways of getting to Sabarimala: the longer route that passes through the hilly terrains and forests of the Western Ghats, or the shorter route in which one drives right up to the River Pampa at the foot of Mount Sabari.

The practice was rooted in the “naishtika brahmachari” character of deity, as per which the deity cannot be in the presence of women. The practice is therefore not derogatory to the dignity of women.

What is the constitutionality validity of Sabarimala’s prohibition on women entry?

The Article 14 (Right to Equality), Article 15 (Right against discrimination) & Article 25 (Right to freedom of Religion) Article 15 (Right against discrimination) & Article 25 (Right to freedom of Religion) of “The constitution of India, 1949”, falls under the ambit of this issue. 

But before this, what in general does the term ’rights’ mean? Rights can be categorized as absolute as well as non-absolute. The fundamental rights which are talked by the Constitution of India are not absolute in nature. 

Keshavanand Bharti vs. the state of Kerala, struck down to the amendment of the fundamental right should be down without changing the ‘Doctrine of Basic structure’.

Article 14: “The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India “.

Article 15: “Article 15 (1) and (2) prohibit the state from discriminating any citizen on the ground of any religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them.” 

These articles provide that there shall be no restriction on any person on any of the above bases to access and use the public places such as shops, restaurants, hotels, places of public entertainment etc. or use of wells, tanks, bathing ghats, roads and places of public resort maintained wholly or partly out of State funds or dedicated to the use of the general public.

Article 25: “Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice, and propagation of religion”.

The right to equality conflicted with the right to worship of devotees of Lord Ayyappan - the deity of the Sabarimala temple -- and that the equality doctrine can't override the fundamental right to worship under Article 25 of the Constitution. The notions of rationality can't be brought into matters of religion.

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In the Islamic view, women can come to mosques for any other purpose but offering prayers along with men in the mosque are not allowed. There are separate mosques for women. 

Following the Supreme Court’s ruling on Sabarimala temple, a group of activists from Nisa sought to remove the ban against women entering mosques. However, this has not been received well. 

It is seen that this judgment caste adverse effect not to the custom & practice of the Hindu religion, but arousing the other religion too.

There is another question for why women are not allowed to enter at ‘Haji Ali Dargha’, does this not question the Equality or being discriminate towards them. There is no answer to such questions available yet.

Article 26 of the Constitution of India guarantees to every religious denomination the right (a) to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes; (b) to manage its own affairs in matters of religion; (c) to own and acquire movable and immovable property, and (d) to administer such property in accordance with law. However, these rights are subject to public order, morality, and health.

For instance, if we weigh ‘Religion’ on one hand & ‘Law’ on other, we will find that the religion will dominate the over law. One cannot just play with the religious curriculum of mankind. 

There are many other practices which have been carried for a long time, but that doesn’t mean, it gives the right to interfere in religion by the passage of time & inducement of modernization.

What is the present situation of the Sabarimala case verdict?

The review petition is being filed up in the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. This is not merely the petition but the aggression of the people at large. 

Every community in India is possessive about their customs & practice. No interference of anybody is tolerated. The final verdict of the Supreme Court was not followed by the peeps of Sabarimala. 

The incident of stopping the car to check girl for the menstruation, to revolt against the judicial & administrative authority is seen.

Issues with a deep religious connotation shouldn't be tinkered with to maintain a secular atmosphere in the country. It's not for courts to determine which religious practices should be struck down -- except in issues of social evil like Sati.

The issue in the case wasn't just limited to Sabarimala and would have far-reaching implications for other places of worship. Constitutional parameters of rationality cannot be blindly applied to matters of faith. 

I hope that this clarifies all the issues related to Sabarimala temple, its historic significance, and involvement of the religious sentiments of people. This article highlights the legal ends in the light of the constitution of India. 

So, before forming an opinion or being a part of useless debates, try to understand the issue.


Vaibhav Srivastava

I am Vaibhav Srivastava, law and policy researcher, and a senior-year student of the integrated Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws (BA. LL.B.) program. I have a deep vested interest in expressing my opinion on legal standpoints and love to pitch forth my analysis on public fora.



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