Sabarimala Pilgrimage in Kerala: A Case of Gender Discrimination?

Sabrimala temple

Sabarimala is a pilgrimage centre in mid-east Kerala, India, dedicated to the deity Ayyappan. Situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve and surrounded by eighteen hills, it is among the major pilgrimage centres in South India, and even in the world, sometimes referred to as the ‘Kumbh Mela’ of the South on account of a large number of devotees it attracts, numbering anywhere between seventeen and fifty-million pilgrims annually. Lord Ayyappan has many temples dedicated to him in Kerala; nonetheless, the Sabarimala temple is perhaps the best known among them (Vaidyanathan, 1978).

The Founding Myths: Ayyappan is said to be the product of the union of Vishnu and Shiva, the two major foci of devotional Hinduism. Both gods are typically represented as male, so his birth through them requires a word of explanation. Shiva possessed a demon devotee called Bhasmasura, who, through severe penance, won a boon from Shiva which gave him the power to reduce anything to ashes by pointing his finger at it. Once he has received this boon, Bhasmasura attempted to test it on Shiva himself. Shiva thus found himself running across the cosmos with the demon in hot pursuit. Vishnu decided to intervene and save Shiva. He, therefore, metamorphosed into a beautiful damsel by the name of Mohini (or ‘the Enchantress’) who’s sight distracted Bhasmasura from his pursuit. Bewitched by her beauty, Bhasmasura wanted to please her. Mohini, then, induced Bhasmasura to learn a bit of dancing to win her over. In the course of these movements, she made him point his finger at himself which instantly reduced him to ashes, thereby saving Shiva (Vaidyanathan 1978, 21–22). The legend maintains that Ayyappan was the son which arose from the union of Vishnu – in the form of Mohini – and Shiva. This story can be found in the Bhagavata Purana.

Thereafter the child was abandoned in the forest where he was picked up by the King of Palan, who brought him up as his own. At this point, the depredations of another demon by the name of Mahisi enter the narrative. It just so happens that it was Ayyappan’s destiny to slay this demon and at the age of twelve, Ayyappan confronted Mahisi and defeated it (Vaidyanathan 1978, 27). Out of the vanquished demon arose a beautiful damsel by the name of Panchambika (also known as Malikappurathamma), who had been condemned by a curse to the state of demon-hood (Vaidyanathan 1978, 19–21). This beauty, now released from her curse, asked for Ayyappan's hand in marriage (Vaidyanathan 1978, 28, and 46). He initially resisted her offer but then accepted the proposal on one condition. He would marry her only after there were no more petitioners left for him to take care of. Panchambika accepted the condition and still awaits him in a separate temple north of his.

Lord Ayyapan

According to this narrative, there are two main reasons why women of reproductive age do not visit the shrine of Ayyappan. The first is that women do not wish to dishonour the resolve of the ‘bride-to-be’ who awaits her groom, and the second is that they do not wish to offer any temptation to Ayyappan, who had decided to remain celibate while taking care of his petitioners. These explanations are important as they indicate that the reasons underlying the practice of women of reproductive age refraining from visiting the shrine of Ayyappan have nothing to do with menstrual taboos, as has often been suggested rather rashly (Sridhar 2018). To emerge now from the midst of tradition into the hopefully clear light of history, the adoption of Ayyappan by the King of Palan is assigned by devotees to the period between 1105-1121 (Sridhar 2018, 47).

The Pilgrimage: The people who undertake the Sabarimala pilgrimage can belong to any faith or caste and mingle unreservedly as pilgrims. In fact, they are all supposed to be in a state of Brahman-hood (Sridhar 2018, 50). Before embarking on the pilgrimage, there is a formal function at their residence where they put on a garland of tulsi or rudraksha, which will be worn for the full duration of the pilgrimage of at least forty-one-days. This ceremony is known as maladharam. During this period, the pilgrim leads an ascetic life which includes bathing regularly, eating sattvika food, abstaining from meat, drinks and drugs, and observing the life of a celibate. One also carries with oneself a holy bundle called irumudi which has two compartments: one reserved for the material needs for regular puja or offerings to be made to the deity, the other for holding personal items. As the pilgrimage starts, the pilgrim-to-be undergoes the ceremony called kettunira or ‘pali kettu’ (Sridhar 2018, 66). 

When the pilgrim arrives at the shrine, he has to climb the eighteen granite steps known as Patinettampadi. It is said that “at no other temple is so much importance attached to the steps leading to the sanctum” (Sridhar 2018, 106). The devotees must fulfil two conditions to tread up the steps:

  1. Observe the forty-one-day penance prescribed for the pilgrims, and
  2. carry the irumudi on their heads. These granite steps may be used only twice; once when approaching the sanctum with their irumudi, and when leaving the temple once the pilgrimage is over. Separate steps are provided for use on other occasions.

History of Restriction on Women: The preceding sections were meant to prepare us to deal with the main issue this paper addresses, mainly, whether the prohibition of women of reproductive age to participate in the Sabarimala pilgrimage is discriminatory.

The first thing to inquire into is the history of this restriction to discuss the question comprehensively, as there is considerable misunderstanding surrounding the issue. Scholar, Rajeev Bhargava, recently asserted during the course of the Hindu Huddle of 2019 in Bengaluru, that the restriction was first imposed in 1991 by the High Court of Kerala and that the restriction imposed by the judgement of the court could always be removed by the judgment of another (superior) court (The Hindu, 2019).1

This creates the impression that the issue surrounding the restriction is merely a legal and recent matter.

However, the material presented in this paper indicates otherwise. Let us examine the antiquity of this restriction by moving backwards in history.

It was just noted that, according to Professor Rajeev Bhargava, this restriction goes no further than 1991. This was the year in which the High Court gave its decision on the public interest litigation (PIL) filed on November 24, 1990, by S. Mahendran, the secretary of the WMA Library in Buzhavathu, Changanassery and supported by the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Ayyappa Sewa Sangham (S. Mahendran vs The Secretary, Travancore, 1991). It is worth noting that he was prompted to make the application upon seeing a photograph in the Janmabhoomi Daily newspaper on September 19th, 1990 in which the former Devaswom Commissioner Smt. Chandrika was seen conducting the rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter at the Sabarimala Temple in the presence of her daughter, the mother of the child, who was apparently within the reproductive age bracket of 10 to 50 years of age (Nair, 2018). This clearly shows that the evidence of this restriction can be moved from 1991 to 1990 and even beyond it, as the petition was filed based on the perception than an existing restriction has been violated.

The Kerala High Court, in acting on the public interest litigation (PIL) examined the then Sabarimala temple thantri, or high priest, Sri Neelakandaru, on April 5th, 1991. In the course of this examination, the thantri asserted before the Division Bench that “women belonging to the 10 to 50 age group were prohibited from entering the temple even before 1950” (Rajagopal, 2016). This means that the evidence for the existence of the tradition concerning the restriction can be moved backwards not only from 1991 to 1990 but further to 1950.

That the restriction was in place even earlier is suggested by the Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States carried out by Benjamin Swain Ward and Peter Eyre Conner, two lieutenants of the Madras Infantry and published by the then Madras government in two volumes in 1893 and 1901. The survey was, however, completed earlier in 1820, after nearly five years of research and refers to the restriction as follows: “Old women and young girls may approach the temple, but those who have attained the age of puberty and to a certain time of life are forbidden to approach [it]." It is, therefore, clear that the restriction was already in place in the early years of the 19th century (Rajagopal, 2016).

According to the historian M. G. Sasibhooshan, that the ban was an “unwritten law for decades” (Press Trust of India, 2018). This seems to be a reasonable assumption, although we have no solid evidence as to how far back it can be traced. The High Court of Kerala eventually concluded that “the usage was prevalent from time immemorial” (The News Minute, 2018).

We take up next the questions of exceptions to this rule which have been cited to challenge the authenticity of the tradition. Four such exceptions have been discussed in the literature of the subject and the pertain to cases involving 1) Devaswom Commissioner Smt. (Shrimati) Chandrika, 2) Tamil actress Jayashree, 3) Kanada actress Jayamala, 4) Mr T.K.A. Nair and 5) the Queen of Travancore. The first example relates to the former Devaswom Commissioner, Smt. Chandrika, which initially prompted the litigation in 1990. She conducted the rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter at Sabarimala in the presence of her daughter. Although she and her granddaughter fell outside the reproductive age bracket, the same could not be said of her daughter. The next case to consider is the claim that a Tamil film-song called Nambinal Keduvathillai, which was shot at the temple in 1986, featured women of reproductive age on the famous ‘eighteen steps’ leading to the deity. Jayashree was one of the featured actresses at the temple (The News Minute, 2018). Then comes the case of the Kannada actress, Jayamala, has claimed to have touched the idol of Lord Ayyappan in the temple when she was 27 (Press Trust of India, 2018). The fourth case pertains to the putative restriction being broken in 1939, when, according to T. K. A. Nair, former advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his choroonu (the first meal-eating ceremony for children) was performed at the Sabarimala temple when he was sitting on his mother’s lap facing the deity. He repeated this claim several times on public television (The News Minute, 2018). Also, in 1939, the Maharaja (King) of Travancore visited the temple accompanied by his Maharani (Queen) in connection with the choroonu ceremonies. It is clear, however, that this could have been a case of royal privilege being exercised (Nair, 2018).

All of these five instances seem to represent special cases or exemptions. In the first case, the person involved was the very commissioner of the board which ran the Sabarimala Temple. In the next two cases, film actresses are involved, who could perhaps claim special access on account of the exigencies of filming. One should keep in mind the Indian obsession with films and film heroes and heroines, and especially with their glamour. Similarly, the obviously high status enjoyed by Mr Nair’s family perhaps explains the privilege enjoyed by him; and of course, the Queen represented royalty. Moreover, about the last case, historian M.G. Shashibooshan, claims to have photos of the Queen of Travancore’s visit to the temple taken by her son, indicating that she did in fact stop before the eighteen steps (The News Minute, 2018).

These cases suggest that the ban was not strictly observed in the latter half of the 20th century rather than that it did not exist. One would require more evidence to conclude that the cases of the presence of women at Sabarimala, noted above, do not represent exceptions to the rule, but instead constitute proof of the very non-existence of the tradition restricting women.

Legislative History of the Case & Agitations Against the Decision: The current situation has its genesis in the application made by S. Mahendran against the apparent violation of the traditional ban upon seeing the picture of Commissioner Smt. Chandrika conducting a rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter in the presence of her daughter at the Sabarimala Temple in 1990. He filled the public interest litigation (PIL) before the Kerala High Court which upheld the ban in 1991. This formalization was challenged in 2018 by the Indian Young Lawyers Association before the Supreme Court of India which delivered its judgment in favour of the petitioners declaring the restriction on women as invalid on September 28, 2018 (Supreme Court of India, 2018).

The judgment of the Supreme Court led to a movement which vigorously opposed the judgment. It must be kept in mind that the Supreme Court treated the case as one of gender discrimination and thus saw itself as striking a blow for emancipatory modernity against discriminatory tradition. The elite discourse in India is overwhelmingly in favour of modernity. This agitation must be considered extraordinary because the state of Kerala, by several indices, such as literacy (94%), life-expectancy (74.9 years -and the highest), rate of infant mortality (5.59 per 1,000 live births) and so on, is considered one of the most progressive states in India. It is also, perhaps, India’s most religiously diverse state with the following religious demographic: Hinduism 55%, Islam 26% and Christianity 18% (Census 2011).  Furthermore, the ratio of unmarried women to the population is also the highest in India while the per capita income is sixty per cent higher than the national average. In other words, Kerala is among the most literate, prosperous, progressive, and modern states of India. Its daily paper, Malayali Manoroma, published in the language of the region, Malayalam, almost matches the nation-wide circulation of the Times of India, India’s most widely read English daily (Trak. in, 2014). One would therefore expect that the decision of the Supreme Court would be welcomed by such a state.

The response from Kerala, however, was counter-intuitive and took the form of state-wide protests against the decision of the Supreme Court. Women particularly were active participants in this agitation and many of them joined it in large numbers with the placard ‘Ready to Wait,’ the obvious implication being that they were ready to wait till they were past the reproductive age to embark on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala (Ranipeta, 2018).

Right after the Supreme Court decision of September 28, 2018, a voice of protest was raised by a Hindu outfit on October 15, 2018, when the Shiv Sena threatened to stage a mass suicide, a threat which was not followed up (IANS, 2018). Protests intensified with the formal opening of the temple when some women within the reproductive age bracket tried to enter the shrine in conformity with the decision of the Supreme Court but were forced to return from the halfway point. A New York Times female journalist was also forced to return as well despite heavy police protection. A women’s rights activist, Rehana Fathima, managed to go up to the Valiya Nadappandhal but was forced to return owing to violent protests. Emotions ran so high that even a woman past her reproductive age was forced to return (Deepika, 2019). The next noteworthy incident took place on December 17, 2018, when four transgender women were allowed to enter the temple after being initially blocked. No biologically-born woman had been able so far to uphold the verdict of the Supreme Court. That happened on January 2, 2019, when two women, Bindu and Kanaka Durga ‘made history’ by setting foot inside the sanctum sanatorium of the Sabarimala Temple. They were escorted under heavy police protection, which included a posse of one hundred policemen under the direct supervision of Malappuram Deputy Superintendent of Police, Jaleel Thottathil (Deepika, 2019). This outcome, however, was secured through a ruse, after these two women had been passed off as transgenders to get them past the agitators (BBC News, 2019b).

The state government of Kerala then tried to counter this agitation by organizing a Women’s Wall to express solidarity with the Supreme Court judgement. It consisted of forming a ‘620km human chain’ stretching from the Kasaragod to Thiruvanthapuram in favour of the removal of the ban (BBC News, 2019a). The agitators, against the Supreme Court judgement, responded by organizing their own version of the wall as a counter-protest. In anticipation of the left-wing coalition government’s Wall scheduled for January 1, 2019, the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, backed by the BJP, organized the Ayyappa Jyothi – their own human chain with lamps from Kasaragod to Kanyakumari on December 26, 2018 – in protest against the decision of the Supreme Court (TNM Staff, 2018). 

As protests mounted, several petitions were made to the Supreme Court to review its decision on Sabarimala which it had thrown open to women of all ages. On February 6, 2019, it relented to review its judgment in the matter at a future time, but without suspending the operation of its existing decision. These petitions urging reconsideration of the judgment were opposed by Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government. Another interesting development around this time is represented by the decision of the Travancore Devaswom Board to inform the Supreme Court that they no longer opposed the original decision. It should be noted that the Devaswom Board is not an autonomous body and includes appointees on it by the government (Mathur, 2019).

The Sabarimala temple then opened from February 12-17, 2019 for the five-day monthly poojas for the Malayalam month of Kumbhom under heavy security. Thereafter, the Sabarimala issue gradually receded into the background as campaigning for the national elections, scheduled for April 11 to May 23, 2019, intensified. The attitude of the BJP, which went on to prevail electorally, is worth noting in the context. According to some observers, the BJP was a bit ambivalent on the issue. On the one hand, the Hindu configuration of the case had obvious appeal for the BJP at the regional level. However, the BJP seemed to have held back for fear of being portrayed as opposed to women’s rights at the national level if it backed the agitation too enthusiastically. Now that the elections are over, and that the new parliament is in place, the issue shows signs of surfacing again. One of the earliest items for consideration before the parliament is a private members bill tabled by Premachandran on June 14, 2019, urging the government to undo the decision of the Supreme Court through legislation (Chatterjee, 2019). The election results in Kerala did not see a breakthrough of the kind the BJP expected and which it did achieve in West Bengal where it is perceived to have made remarkable gains. Interestingly, the electoral beneficiary of the agitation turned out to be the Congress. The incumbent government, however, suffered badly in the elections and the new Kerala government has toned down its stance on the Sabarimala issues following the election.

The Way Forward: Monothetic Egalitarianism to Polythetic Egalitarianism: The ongoing controversy surrounding Sabarimala is of great potential significance for Hinduism. It involves several historical, legal, social, political and other dimensions.2

The rest of this paper will examine only one issue, namely, does the restriction placed on women of reproductive age from participating in the Sabarimala pilgrimage violate the principle of gender equality? To answer this question, we will need to have a clearer understanding of the equality principle or egalitarianism. It is important to distinguish among three forms of egalitarianism: monothetic egalitarianism, polythetic egalitarianism, and synthetic egalitarianism.

As these descriptions are perhaps being introduced for the first time in this discourse, it might be useful to say a few words by way of explanation.

Let us take the hypothetical case of a father who has a son and a daughter of approximately the same ages and decides to make a settlement of his property. If he divides his one house equally between his son and his daughter, then it would be a case of monothetic egalitarianism. Let us now suppose that he has two houses, more or less similarly equipped and in the same locality. He now divides these houses between his son and his daughter assigning one to each of them. This is a case of polythetic equality. The point to note here is that if he had decided to divide both his houses down the middle to his son and his daughter, then this would have been a case of monothetic egalitarianism. If he now gives one house to his son and another to the daughter while also allowing free access to both houses to each of them on special occasions, then it would be a case of synthetic egalitarianism.

It might be helpful to clarify the distinction between the three forms of egalitarianism further, as they are crucial to the argument of the paper, this time with the cruder example of bathrooms. If men and women have equal access to a unisex bathroom, then it would be a case of monothetic egalitarianism. If, however, men and women both have separate bathrooms assigned to them, equipped with similar facilities, then it would be a case of polythetic egalitarianism. Finally, if men and women have separate bathrooms with the understanding that each could use the bathroom of the other in a crisis, then that would be a case of synthetic egalitarianism.

How do these distinctions help us understand the Sabarimala impasse on the issue of gender equality?

Those who insist that both men and women should have equal access to the Sabarimala shrine are advocating monothetic egalitarianism. Those who insist that there is no need to do so are arguing that just as the Sabarimala shrine of Ayyappan is open only to men, there are also other shrines of Ayyappan which are open only to women.3 They are arguing for polythetic egalitarianism. The main point to keep in mind here is that both these forms of egalitarianism are non-discriminating. It is, therefore, possible to argue that the real issue of Sabarimala is not equality versus inequality, it is really a case of monothetic equality versus polythetic equality.

It does not take one long to see how the complexion of the case under discussion is altered by the introduction of these distinctions. Here are some of the issues which arise if the concept of polythetic egalitarianism is taken on board along with that of monothetic egalitarianism. Consider for example the question of tradition and modernity. Sometimes the Sabarimala issue is considered as one of the clashes between tradition and modernity. But, by now, modernity itself has become a tradition with its own agenda of monothetic equality, while tradition seems to finetune the concept of equality in a way which might help modernity deal with the issue with greater sophistication. It is also ironical that perhaps the most modern state of India, in terms of education, infant mortality rates and female empowerment, namely Kerala, witnessed such a vigorous defence of the Hindu tradition and that too, by women, against a law which was supposedly intended to liberate them. The West seems to intellectually acknowledge, only a notion of monothetic equality, while Indian ethics contains conceptions of both monothetic and polythetic equality. Does gender equality, in other words, mean that only unisex bathrooms are non-discriminatory? Feminism also becomes involved in this issue. Is feminism too white and Western for India? Would ‘womanism’ answer India’s needs better? Or does India need a feminism (nārīvāda) of its own? 4


BBC News. (2019a, January 1). Sabarimala temple: Indian women form “620km human chain” for equality – BBC News. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from

BBC News. (2019b, January 2). Women take historic step into India shrine. Retrieved from

Census 2011. (n.d.). Kerala Population 2011-2018 Census. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from

Chatterjee, M. (2019). Private member bill for denying entry to menstruating women in Sabarimala to be tabled on Friday. The Times of India. Retrieved from

Deepika, S. (2019, January 2). Two women make history, enter Sabarimala: A timeline of events. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from website:

IANS. (2018, October 15). Shiv Sena threatens mass suicides if women enter Sabarimala. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from The News Minute website:

Mathur, A. (2019, February 6). Sabarimala: Supreme Court reserves judgment on review pleas. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from India Today website:

Nair, J. (2018, September 28). Sabarimala verdict: It was Mahendran who began legal battle seeking ban on women entry. The Times of India. Retrieved from

Press Trust of India. (2018, November 22). Sabarimala Ban On Women Existed Even 200 Years Ago: British-Era Report. NDTV.Com. Retrieved from

Rajagopal, K. (2016, January 19). Call for 1991 Sabarimala case records: Kerala. The Hindu. Retrieved from

Ranipeta, S. S. (2018, September 28). ‘SC ignored Ayappan’s rights’: Ready to Wait campaign on Sabarimala judgement. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from The News Minute website:

S. Mahendran vs The Secretary, Travancore. , (1991).

Supreme Court of India. Verdict: The Supreme Court Allows entry of Women of All Age Groups into the Ayyappa Temple. , (2018).

The Hindu. (2019, March 21). The Hindu Huddle 2019 – Should the State leave religion alone? Retrieved June 26, 2019, from

The News Minute. (2018, October 1). How long has the ban on women entering Sabarimala existed? Debate ensues. Retrieved from

TNM Staff. (2018, December 26). To counter Women’s Wall, Ayyappa Jyothi volunteers line up with lamps across Kerala. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from The News Minute website:

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Vaidyanathan, K. R. (1978). Pilgrimage to Sabari (1st ed.). Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.


1For discussions about Sabarimala, go to minute 39.30.

2Some of these aspects may be identified as follows in the form of questions: (1) The question of tradition and modernity: Sometimes the issue is considered as one of clash between tradition and modernity. But, by now, modernity itself has become a tradition with its own agenda on the one hand, and, on the other, people speak of the modernity of tradition. The fact that the most modern state of India is witnessing such a vigorous defence of the Hindu tradition is food for thought here. (2) The question of emic and etic perspectives: The issue is highlighted by the fact that outsiders identify menstruation as the reason behind the restriction on women in the reproductive age and this is completely denied by the insiders. (3) The question of equality: The West seems to possess only a ‘monothetic’ notion of equality, but Indian ethics also contain conceptions of ‘polythetic’ equality. Does gender equality, in other words, mean that only unisex bathrooms are non-discriminatory? (4) The question of secularism and state management of Hindu institutions: Does the state management of many Hindu institutions problematize its rhetorical commitment of the Indian state to secularism?  (5) The question whether Communism is a religion: The visceral opposition of Communism to Hinduism in Kerala shares the diagnostic features of religion to such an extent as to raise the question: should Communism be identified as a religion in the Indian census?  (6) The question of the paradox of reform: How legitimate is reform if the affected party does not wish to be saved? Should outsiders to a religion try to reform it? Who needs reform -the target of reform or the reformers themselves?  (7) The question of the porous boundaries between Hinduism and universalism: The Ayyappan pilgrimage is open to all religions but the burnt of the struggle is being borne by the Hindus. (8) The question of Feminism versus Womanism: Is feminism too white and Western for India and would Womanism answer India’s needs better? Or does India need a feminism (narivada) of its own? (9) The question of the academic study of Hinduism: Has the Western academic identification of Hinduism with its ‘smarta’ form part of the problem in this controversy? Does it account for the one-sided portrayal of the issue in the Western media and academia? Does the linguistic divide in India between the English-speaking and non-English-speaking Indians affect the coverage? (10) The question of priority between the right to equality (Article 14) and the right to freedom of religion (Article 25), both of which are considered fundamental rights in the Indian Constitution.

3Consider the Attukal Bhagavathy Temple (during Pongal festival), the Chakkulathukavu Temple, the Bhagati Maa temple, or Kottankulan Gara, all situated in Kerala.

4It is also worth noting that, in constitutional terms, the struggle in Sabarimala has sometimes been perceived as a kind of conflict between Article 14 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees the right to equality and Article 25 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees the right to freedom of religion. If the concept of polythetic equality is accepted, then the conflict in this particular case disappears.

The views expressed in articles we publish are those of the respective authors; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Manushi.

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