NEW DELHI — An Indian government board that had opposed allowing women to enter a Hindu temple changed its position on Wednesday, saying that women had the right to pray in the shrine.
For months, the centuries-old Sabarimala Temple, which sits on a hill in the southern state of Kerala, has been the site of violent protests and riots over whether women of childbearing age could set foot inside.
The drama has captivated India, encapsulating bigger issues of religious extremism, women’s rights and the rule of law.
Even with the religious board’s reversal, the controversy is far from over. The Supreme Court on Wednesday was hearing arguments — once again — about the status of the temple. Last year, the court ruled that women ages 10 to 50 had the right to visit the shrine, but religious groups had pleaded with judges to reconsider their decision.
The change by the Travancore Devaswom Board in Kerala could help the women’s cause. So far, only two have made it inside the shrine, and Rakesh Dwivedi, a lawyer who appeared for the board in court on Wednesday, signaled that it was time to change that.
“Women cannot be excluded from any walk of life on biological attributes,” Mr. Dwivedi said.
Every year, millions of people wait for hours to climb 18 gold-plated steps leading to the Sabarimala Temple. For centuries, pilgrims said they had observed a ban against women ages 10 to 50 entering. Supporters of the ban say that allowing the women inside would disturb the temple’s celibate deity, Lord Ayyappa.
In 1991, Kerala’s high court enshrined that tradition into law. But last September, in a 4-to-1 ruling, the country’s Supreme Court scrapped the ban, saying it was unconstitutional.
Kerala’s state entities embraced the verdict, with the Communist Party of India, which governs Kerala, offering support to the few dozen women who tried to reach the temple. Armed with batons and helmets, police officers formed protective rings around them as they climbed a steep, three-mile trail leading to the temple.
But none made inside. Mobs hurled rocks, set vehicles on fire, pummeled the police and physically blocked the women from getting too close. Far-right Hindu nationalist groups fanned the flames.
The temple board was caught between a government that supported the women trying to enter the shrine and priests and Hindu groups that did not. The board then said the temple could not become a site for activism.
Last month, Bindu Ammini, 40, and Kanakadurga, 39, who goes by one name, became the first women to enter the temple. At 3:45 a.m. on Jan. 2, they strode through a gilded door used by top officials.
Inside, none of the pilgrims seemed to care, the women later said in interviews. But after news broke that morning, a priest shut the Sabarimala Temple for “purification rituals,” protesters hurled bombs at the police, dozens of people were injured and a few thousand were arrested.
The women were shuttled among safe houses. When they finally returned to their homes, Ms. Kanakadurga said, she was beaten so badly with a piece of wood by her mother-in-law, who had opposed her entering the temple, that she had to be hospitalized.
Lawyers say they do not believe that the Supreme Court, which heard several dozen review petitions on Wednesday, will overturn its verdict. The five-member bench said it would decide whether to reconsider the court’s original decision at a later date. The government of Kerala urged the judges to dismiss the review petitions.
When Justice Indu Malhotra pressed Mr. Dwivedi, the board’s lawyer, about the change in position, he replied, “Equality is the dominant theme of the Constitution.”
Bhakti Pasrija Sethi, a lawyer who attended part of Wednesday’s hearings, said that she was not sure which factors had swayed the temple board to change its mind, but that the message seemed clear.
Still, Ms. Ammini was unsure of her own path forward. After she inched back into public life, the death threats continued to pile up, she said.
For now, it did not seem as if the temple board’s position would make much of a difference.
“They will still try to demoralize us,” she said of the protesters, “and continue cyberattacks and harassment.”
Orignially published in NYT.