30/03/2016 5:21 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

If Men Can Enter Temples So Can Women, Says Bombay High Court

Hindu women pray outside the Alopidevi temple in Allahabad, India, Saturday, April 1, 2006. Hindus are observing the nine-day long Navratri festival, or festival of nine nights, dedicated to the three main Hindu Goddesses Parvati, Lakshmi and Saraswati, that began March 30. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

NEW DELHI -- The Bombay High Court has said that no law in India bars the entry of women in any temple, and asked the Maharashtra government to explain why women are not allowed to enter the Shani Shinganapur temple in Ahmednagar district.

"There is no law that prevents entry of women in any place. If you allow men then you should allow women also. If a male can go and pray before the deity then why not women? It is the state government's duty to protect the rights of women," said Chief Justice D.H. Waghela.

Over the past several months, women have tried to enter the inner shrine of the Shani temple, which has always excluded them. On Republic Day, Pune-based Bhumata Ranragini Brigade called on women across the state to converge at the temple, but their attempt was thwarted by the local police, temple officials and local villagers which included women.

Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has advocated change. "A change in tradition in accordance with the times is our culture. Discrimination in worshipping is not our culture," he tweeted in January.

The Bombay High Court today said that any temple or person imposing such restriction can face a six month jail term under the Maharashtra Hindu Place of Worship (Entry Authorization) Act, 1956, and asked the state government to publicize this law.

Chief Justice D.H. Waghela and Justice M.S. Sonak have also given two days for the Maharashtra government to explain why women should not be allowed to enter Shani Shinganapur temple.

Temple authorities have not been able to provide a specific reason for keeping women out of the sanctum sanctorum. Some trustees have said that men and women are both banned from the platform because they want to keep the area around the idol clean, and they don't want devotees to hurt themselves trying to reach the platform which can get sticky.

Observers have pointed out that no ban on male devotees exists in principle, but the exclusion of women is absolute. Men, however, can pray near the idol after paying a certain sum of money.

In a move to counter criticism about gender bias, the Shani Shingnapur Temple Trust appointed its first woman president in January. Instead of breaking with tradition, the new president, Anita Shete, has said that she intends to maintain the ban on women from entering the area where the idol of Lord Shani is kept.

In November, it was widely reported that a purification ritual was carried after one woman managed reach the platform where the idol is kept, but trustees of the temple denied taking such a step.

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