The Battle for Sabarimala

How a Hindu Temple Became a Crucible for Indian Gender Politics

Supporters of the BJP and the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) at a protest in Kochi, India, January 2019  Sivaram V/REUTERS

Over the past six months, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of women have lined up to honor a Hindu deity at a temple in southern India. Only two of them have made it in. The rest, pilgrims to one of the country’s most unusual religious sites, have been blockaded, shouted at, pelted with stones, and beaten back by angry protesters. Of the two women who succeeded in viewing the deity, one was thrown out of her marital home and separated from her children, and both have received death threats.

The Hindu temple at Sabarimala, in the state of Kerala, has been at the center of a raging political and legal controversy for nearly three years. At the core of this dispute is the temple’s policy banning women between the ages of ten and 50 from entering its premises—a ban that some argue is unconstitutional. In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court agreed: it ruled the ban to be a violation of gender equality and ordered temple authorities to grant female pilgrims access.

Ever since, priests, devotees, activists, politicians, and—because this is India—film stars have engaged in heated and sometimes violent debate over the proper scope of religion-state relations. With general elections scheduled to begin next week, the dispute over Sabarimala gives a classic puzzle in Indian law a new and striking visibility in the country’s politics.


Sabarimala and its presiding deity, Ayyappan, are unique even by Hinduism’s capacious standards. Despite being located deep in a hilly wildlife preserve and usually open for only a few days each month, the temple is one of India’s wealthiest religious institutions, largely owing to the valuable offerings brought by devotees. Meanwhile, narratives of Ayyappan usually describe him as a god raised as a human prince who becomes a warrior and finally an ascetic. More striking still, he is the offspring of two male gods, Vishnu and Shiva, conceived when one of them assumed female form.

A priest at Sabarimala temple, January 2019 

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