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Sabarimala is a Hindu temple complex located at the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala. It is one of the largest annual pilgrimages in the world with an estimated 17-20 million devotees visiting every year. The temple is administered by the Travancore Devaswom Board, an autonomous authority under the state government. The dense forest (Periyar Tiger Reserve) around the temple is known as Poongavanam.
Lord Ayyappan is the presiding deity at Sabarimala. Ayyappan is believed to have been found as a baby by the river, and raised by the King and Queen of Pandalam. According to legend, the Prince later renounced the kingdom and the King built a shrine for him atop a hill, 3,000 ft above sea level, at Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala.
Ayyappan is worshipped as celibate, and pilgrims assume his identity once they take the initiation vows; they are expected to practice celibacy and abstinence during the 41-day vratam. This belief is linked to a legend around Ayyappan’s relations with Malikapurathamma, a minor deity, who resides close to his abode. Malikapurathamma wanted him to marry him but he had vowed to remain a brahmachari; he promised that he would marry her the year no kanni ayyappan (first-time pilgrim) would visit him.
According to the beliefs, beginning with the Makaravilakku festival, Malikapurathamma leaves her shrine on three successive nights to inspect if the time has come for Ayyappan to fulfil his promise. A procession from the Malikapurathamma temple goes to a banyan tree not far from the Ayyappan shrine, where the first-time pilgrims leave an arrow to announce their presence. Every year, a crestfallen Malikapurathamma returns to continue her eternal wait. This too contributed to establishing a tradition to restrict the presence of women.
While it has traditionally restricted the entry of women, the pilgrimage accommodates all devotees irrespective of religion and caste. It opens to devotees for the first five days of every month in the Malayalam calendar, as well as during the Mandalam and Makaravilakku festivals in winter.
Until the SC judgment, the temple denied entry of women aged between 10 and 50. SC noted that this is a stigma built up around traditional beliefs in the impurity of menstruating women. The menstrual status of a woman cannot be a valid constitutional basis to deny her the dignity of being and the autonomy of personhood, and that no body or group can use it as a barrier in a woman’s quest for fulfilment.