The five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, in its 4:1 verdict, said banning the entry of women into Kerala's Sabarimala temple was gender discrimination and the practice violated rights of Hindu women.
It said religion was a way of life, basically to link life with divinity.
While Justices R F Nariman and D Y Chandrachud concurred with the CJI and Justice A M Khanwilkar, Justice Indu Malhotra gave a dissenting verdict.
Pronouncing its verdict on a clutch of pleas challenging a ban on the entry of women of menstrual age (10 to 50 years) in Kerala's Sabarimala temple, the court said law and society were tasked with acting as levellers.
The Bench passed four sets of separate judgments.
The CJI said devotion could not be subjected to discrimination, and patriarchal notion could not be allowed to trump equality in devotion. He said the devotees of Lord Ayyappa did not constitute a separate denomination.
Earlier this year, Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra had questioned the temple authorities about the ban. "On what basis you (temple authorities) deny the entry. It is against the Constitutional mandate. Once you open it for the public, anybody can go," he had said.
The Travancore Devasom Board (TDB), the management of the Sabarimala temple, had argued in the apex court that the ban on the entry of women aged between 10 and 50 years was because they could not maintain "purity" on account of menstruation.
Earlier this year, during the pilgrimage season at the temple, the TDB had made it mandatory for women to carry an authentic age proof document to enter the temple, even as the issue was being heard in the apex court.
The board was of the opinion that Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of the temple, was a 'Naishtika Brahmachari' (perennial celibate), so the ban was in accordance with an age-old tradition.
The Kerala government’s position regarding the case has changed multiple times in support and against the ban on allowing women to enter the Sabarimala temple.
In a 1991 judgment, the Kerala High Court had held that the ban was in accordance with traditions, saying it was not discriminatory under the Constitution.
In 2008, Kerala’s LDF government had filed an affidavit supporting a PIL filed by women lawyers questioning the ban on the entry of women in Sabarimala
The Supreme Court took up the issue in January 2016 after a public interest litigation (PIL) by Indian Young Lawyers Association. Some women lawyers also challenged the validity of the ban and the Kerala High Court's judgment.
The PIL argued that the ban was not in line with any Hindu ritual, thus making it anti-Hindu altogether. It said that the temple authorities could only restrict the entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum, and could not ban their entry into the temple by discriminating against them on the basis of sex.
November 2016: Kerala's Left Front government favours the entry of women of all age groups filing an affidavit to the effect.
In October 2017, the SC referred the matter to a Constitution Bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, and also includes Justices RF Nariman, AM Khanwilkar, and Indu Malhotra, to check its validity and whether it was violative of Articles 14, 15 and 17 of the Indian Constitution.
The court had framed five questions for the bench to address, out of which the main question is whether the ban amounts to discrimination against women and violates their Constitutional rights
July 2018: Supreme Court Chief Justice Dipak Misra, hearing the PIL, questions the temple's authority to deny entry to a particular section of women.
The LDF government, which had been in support of doing away with the ban since 2007, instituted a probe to verify the reports which claimed that a few women used to worship at the temple. In January 2018, the Devasom Minister of Kerala claimed that there was no ban on women praying in the Sabarimala temple. He said that women have historically visited the temple, especially the erstwhile those of the erstwhile royal families.
The temple at Sabarimala is one of the largest pilgrimages in the world. Around 50 million devotees visit the pilgrimage every year. Sabarimala is generally believed to be the place where Ayappa meditated after killing the powerful demon, Mahishi. The temple is situated on a hilltop at an altitude of 1260 m (4,133 ft) above mean sea level, and is surrounded by mountains and dense forests.
Earlier this year, during the pilgrimage season at the temple, the TDB made it mandatory for women to carry an authentic age proof document to enter the temple even as the issue was being heard in the apex court.