Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v. State of Kerala, WP (C) 373/2006

Breaking Barriers: Women’s Rights and the Battle for Equality at Sabarimala Temple

Case study: – Indian Young Lawyers’ Association v. State of Kerala, WP (C) 373/2006

This article has been written by Parshant, a 4th year student of VMS College of Law, Batala  

Case Brief 

The current legal matter arises from the submission of a writ petition under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution to the Supreme Court. The petition is directed against the Government of Kerala, the Devaswom Board of Travancore, the Chief Thantri of Sabarimala Temple, and the District Magistrate of Pathanamthitta. The central issue raised in the petition concerns the entry rights of women aged 10 to 50 into the Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala, Kerala.

Lord Ayyappa, believed to be born from the union of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu in the form of Mohini, is widely worshiped by Hindus. While numerous temples are dedicated to him, the Sabarimala Temple holds special significance. Legend has it that Lord Ayyappa instructed King Rajasekara to build the temple at Sabarimala by shooting an arrow that landed at the temple’s current location. The Lord also provided guidance on the pilgrimage methodology and worship practices, including the observance of ‘Vratham’ or penance.

Vratham involves a 41-day period of penance, during which devotees of Lord Ayyappa abstain from various activities, such as physical relations with their spouse, cooking their own food, walking barefoot, and living in isolation. The essence of Vratham lies in maintaining a Sathvic lifestyle and practicing brahmacharya, believed to purify both the body and mind.

The practice of Vratham is cited as the reason for restricting women from entering the Sabarimala Temple, as it is believed that they cannot maintain purity and observe the 41-day penance due to the menstrual cycle. Additionally, the belief that Lord Ayyappa is a Bramchari deity, present in the temple as a Nasthik Bramchari, contributes to the prohibition on women’s entry to preserve the celibacy of the deity.

This prohibition forms the core issue of the writ petition filed under Article 32, questioning whether these restrictions violate constitutional rights under Articles 14, 15, and 17, and whether the use of the term ‘morality’ in Articles 25 and 26 protects these prohibitions.

It’s essential to note that the writ petition was filed against the Kerala High Court’s decision, which upheld the constitutionality of the prohibition on women’s entry into the temple. The High Court deemed such restrictions non-violative of Articles 15, 25, and 26 of the Indian Constitution, and upheld the validity of Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act, 1965.

The petitioner challenged the High Court’s ruling in the case of S. Mahendran vs. The Secretary, Travancore (1991), leading to the writ petition in 2006 before the Supreme Court of India.

Composition of the Bench and Parties Involved

Bench: The Constitutional Bench in this case was composed of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, along with Justices A M Khanwilkar, R F Nariman, D Y Chandrachud, and Indu Malhotra.

Petitioners: The list of petitioners included the Indian Young Lawyers Association, along with Dr. Laxmi Shastri, Prerna Kumari, Alka Sharma, and Sudha Pal.

Respondents: The alleged rights were claimed against multiple parties, including The State of Kerala, Travancore Devaswom Board, Chief Thantri of Sabarimala Temple, District Magistrate of Pathanamthitta, Nair Service Society, Akhil Bhartiya Ayyappa Seva Sangham, Ayyappa Seva Samithi, Ayyappa Pooja Samithi, Dharma Sanstha Seva Samajam, Akhil Bhartiya Malayalee Sangh, Sabarimala Ayyappa Seva Samajam, Kerala Kshetra Samarak Shana Samithi, Pandalam Kottaram Nirvahaka Sangham, and Sabarimala Custom Protection Forum.

Petitioner’s lawyers: The legal representation for the petitioners included R.P. Gupta, Raja Ramachandran acting as Amicus Curiae, and K. Ramamoorthy also acting as Amicus Curiae.

Respondent’s Lawyer: The respondents were represented by Jaideep Gupta, Liz Mathew, and Venugopal representing Travancore Devaswom, V. Giri representing the State of Kerala, Rakesh Dwivedi, and K. Radhakrishanan.

Key Issues of the case

The primary issues under this writ petition are as follows:

  1. Does the restriction preventing menstruating women from entering the Sabarimala Temple infringe upon the Right to Equality, the Right against discrimination, and the prohibition of untouchability?
  1. Do the devotees of Lord Ayyappa constitute a distinct religious group, thereby possessing the authority to autonomously govern their religious affairs?
  2. Is the exclusion of women considered an indispensable religious ritual under Article 25?
  1. Does Rule 3 of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules permit a ‘religious denomination’ to ban the entry of women between the ages of 10 and 50 years?
  1. Do the Public Worship Rules allowing the custom go against the parent legislation, which disallowed discriminatory practices?

Arguments by the Petitioners

The petitioner contended that the exclusion of women from the temple violates their constitutional rights as outlined in Articles 14, 15, and 17 of the Indian Constitution.

They argued that the restriction on women’s entry is discriminatory under Article 14, lacking any reasonable basis related to the temple’s purity. Citing the Shayara Bano vs. Union of India and Ors (2017) case, they emphasized the arbitrary nature of the exclusion based on physiological factors, which fails the criteria of reasonable classification.

Furthermore, the petitioner asserted that the exclusion based on sex violates Article 15(1)’s prohibition of discrimination, as well as Article 17’s ban on untouchability, as it discriminates against women based on their menstrual cycle.

Regarding the claim that the exclusion is an “essential religious practice” under Article 25, the petitioner argued that it does not meet the criteria set in The Commissioner of Police vs. Acharya Jagdishwarananda (2004) case, lacking continuity and integral status within the religion.

They also contested the classification of the Sabarimala Temple as a religious denomination, citing the S.P. Mittal Etc vs. Union of India and Ors (1982), case, and highlighted that the temple’s practices are akin to those of any other Hindu temple, thus not warranting special status under Article 26.

Regarding the Kerala Hindu Place of Public Worship Act, 1965, the petitioner argued that the provision restricting women’s entry could be deemed unconstitutional under Articles 14 and 15 if interpreted as a complete ban, as it would violate their rights.

Arguments by respondent

The respondent refuted the petitioner’s claims, stating that their actions do not amount to discrimination against women and thus do not contravene Articles 14, 15, or 17 of the Constitution.

According to the respondent, the restriction on women’s entry serves the purpose of upholding celibacy and preserving the deity’s purity. They argued that adherence to the Vruthum practice, necessary for temple entry, is incompatible with menstruation, justifying the ban on women’s entry based on religious scriptures. The respondent asserted that this prohibition is not arbitrary but grounded in religious principles, establishing a reasonable connection between the restriction and its purpose.

Moreover, the respondent contended that the Sabarimala temple qualifies as a religious denomination, as worshippers of Lord Ayyappa adhere to distinct sacred practices separate from mainstream Hinduism.

Regarding Section 3(b) of The Kerala Hindu Places of Worship Rules, 1965, the respondent maintained its constitutionality, arguing that it only imposes a temporary ban for 60 days, rather than a complete prohibition, thus not infringing upon the constitutional provisions cited by the petitioner.

Judgement of the Court

In a majority decision of 5:1, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioner, allowing women entry into the Sabarimala temple. Chief Justice Deepak Mishra, along with Justices R. F. Nariman, A M Khanwilkar, and D. Y. Chandrachud, concluded that the restriction on women’s entry violated Articles 14, 15, 17, 19(1), and 25 of the Constitution.

The court determined that the Sabarimala temple does not qualify as a religious denomination capable of justifying the restriction on women’s entry based on religious tenets. Chief Justice Mishra further stated that the prohibition on women aged 10 to 50 does not constitute an essential religious practice protected by Article 25, making it unconstitutional.

The restriction based on women’s menstrual cycles to maintain deity purity was deemed unethical, arbitrary, and a violation of Article 17, thus ruled unconstitutional.

Additionally, Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act, imposing a complete ban on women aged 10 to 50, was invalidated for violating Article 25, which safeguards women’s right to practice their religion.

However, Justice Indu Malhotra dissented, arguing that the determination of essential religious practices should be left to the faith of the adherents, rather than decided by the court’s rational perspective. She upheld the ban on women aged 10 to 50, considering it integral to the religion in question.

Ratio decidendi and Obiter dictum 

The term “Ratio decidendi” denotes the legal principle or reasoning behind a court decision, rendering it binding in subsequent cases, except for instances involving a larger bench of the Supreme Court. In the Smt. Bimla Devi vs. Chaturvedi and Ors case, the Supreme Court clarified that, according to Article 141 of the Constitution, only the portion constituting the ratio decidendi is legally binding.

Applying this principle to the Sabarimala case, the decisive legal reasoning established that the discriminatory practice of barring women’s entry violated Articles 14, 15, 17, 19(1), and 25(1) of the Constitution. The unconstitutional Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship Act, which prohibited women based on arbitrary menstrual cycle grounds, was invalidated.

Consequently, the verdict permitted women’s entry into the temple, deeming gender-based discrimination derogatory to women’s dignity. The Supreme Court asserted that “devotion cannot be subjected to gender discrimination,” emphasizing the constitutional values of equality.

In contrast, “Obiter dicta,” or statements made in passing, do not constitute binding legal elements. The Chief Justice, in delivering the judgment, emphasized that the devotion to divinity should not be confined by gender stereotypes. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, while not directly addressing the case’s essence, underscored the significance of the Constitution’s preamble, stating that its fundamental principles are reflected therein.

The bench, in concluding the judgment, emphasized that “devotion cannot be subjected to gender discrimination”and highlighted that Article 25 of the Constitution ultimately promotes spiritual well-being

Current status of the case

The review petition filed against the initial judgment in this case was accepted by the Supreme Court, leading to the formation of a nine-judge bench under the leadership of former Chief Justice S.A. Bobde in 2019. Following Justice Bobde’s retirement in 2021, the bench is now headed by the current Chief Justice, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud.

The review bench is currently deliberating on the matters at hand, and as such, the review petition is still awaiting resolution.


The freedom to practice one’s religion is a fundamental entitlement safeguarded by the Constitution, immune to encroachment by either governmental or non-governmental entities. While Article 25 permits the state to impose limitations on religious practices in the interest of health, morality, or public order, it falls upon the judiciary to determine the validity of such restrictions.

As the ultimate arbiter of the Constitution, the Supreme Court is tasked with defining the essence of religion and assessing whether specific institutions, like the temple under consideration in this case, qualify as religious denominations.

Women constitute an integral segment of society, and any discrimination based solely on gender is not only unconstitutional but inherently unjust and arbitrary. Actions taken under the guise of religious management, as stipulated in Article 26, must not infringe upon the fundamental right to equality guaranteed by Article 14. Articles 25 and 26 are not conflicting provisions but rather should be construed in conjunction to foster constructive harmony between the freedom of religious conscience and the management of religious affairs.

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