By Suchitra Mohanty and Malini Menon
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's Supreme Court lifted a ban rooted in a centuries-old tradition that prevented women of menstruating age from entering a prominent Hindu temple in southern Kerala state, upholding rights to equality of worship.
The authorities at the Sabarimala temple, which attracts tens of millions of pilgrims every year, have said the ban on women and girls aged from 10 to 50 was essential to the rites related to the temple's chief deity Ayyappan, considered eternally celibate.
In some Hindu communities, menstruating women are regarded as unclean, leading to restrictions and in a few cases outright bans on women of child-bearing age from entering certain places.
Lifting the ban, the Chief Justice of India said "restrictions put by Sabarimala temple can't be held as essential religious practice".
"No physiological and biological factor can be given legitimacy if it does not pass the test of conditionality," Justice Dipak Misra said in the judgment.
Stating that society needs to undergo a perceptual shift, Misra said "patriarchy in religion cannot be permitted to trump over element of pure devotion borne out of faith and the freedom to practise and profess one's religion."
It is the latest in a series of landmark judgments by the top court this month, involving some of the most sensitive issues in Indian society.
On Thursday, the court struck down a colonial-era law that criminalized adultery, a day after clipping the wings of a national biometric identity card program because of privacy concerns. Earlier this month, it scrapped a law banning gay sex, sparking celebrations across India and elsewhere in South Asia, where activists hope to push for similar reform.
The Supreme Court, one of India's most powerful institutions, has seen a manifold rise in public interest litigation in recent years. That is partly because Indian governments have tended to drag their feet on controversial decisions.
"The law and the society are bestowed with the Herculean task to act as levelers," Justice Misra's judgment said.
The temple's authorities said they will appeal against the verdict ahead of its next opening, which begins on Oct. 16.
The temple remains open for only 127 days in a year and the approach to it entails difficult paths through a forest.
"We will go for a review petition after getting support from other religious heads," said A. Padmakumar, president of Travancore Devaswom Board, which manages the hilltop temple, about 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) above sea level.
Justice Indu Malhotra, the lone dissenting judge and the only woman judge in the five-member bench, said, "notions of rationality cannot be invoked in matters of religion."
"Religious practices cannot solely be tested on the basis of the right to equality. It is up to the worshippers, not the court, to decide what is the religion's essential practice," she added.
Pro-temple ban activists see hope in her dissenting voice.
Activist Rahul Easwar, grandson of a former chief priest of Sabarimala, said a review petition would be filed to the court. This would happen after they sought the support of Christian and Muslim organizations as the verdict could have a bearing on their rights too.
"Our attempt is to create a broad alliance against the Supreme Court verdict," Easwar told Reuters.
Two years ago, a Mumbai court ruled that it was the fundamental right of women to enter any place of worship that allows men access, and that the state should protect this right.
The struggle for equal access to places of worship in India has triggered a wider debate on women's rights in the country.
"Now women can choose if they want to go or not. Earlier it was imposed on them in the name of religion," said Rekha Sharma, the head of the National Commission for Women.
(Additional reporting by Jose Devasia in KOCHI; Writing by Malini Menon; Editing by Martin Howell, William Maclean)