The apex court said banning the entry of women into the shrine is gender discrimination and the practice violates rights of Hindu women.
In a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court on Friday lifted a ban that prevented women and girls between the age of 10 and 50 from entering the famous Sabarimala temple in Kerala, holding this centuries-old Hindu religious practice illegal and unconstitutional.
Women activists hailed the judgement that paved the way for entry of female devotees of all ages as a victory for gender equality while Union women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi said it would make Hinduism even more inclusive. The temple barred women of a "menstruating age"-- defined as between the ages of 10 and 50 -- from entering.
The Chief Justice Dipak Misra-headed Constitution bench in a 4-1 verdict held that the existing ban is gender discrimination and the practice violates rights of Hindu women.
"Restrictions put by Sabarimala temple can't be held as essential religious practice," said Justice Misra, adding religion is 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.
Justice Malhotra was of the view that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like Sati.
Sabarimala is a prominent Hindu temple which attracts tens of millions of pilgrims every year.
The hill top shrine remains open only for a little over four months in a year and the approach is through a forested area that involves an arduous 5-km trek from the Pampa river base camp..
Describing the verdict as "unfortunate", Rahul Easwar, the president of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, said the organisation would file a review petition against the judgement.
Easwar, grandson of a former Sabarimala priest the late Kandararu Maheswararu, said, "We will defintely go ahead with the fight. Until October 16, the Sabarimala temple is closed. So, we have time."
Kerala Religious Trusts Minister Kadakampally Surendran described the verdict as "historic", while the shrine's head priest Tantri Kandararu Rajeevaru said though the verdict was "disappointing", the management accepted it.
Kerala's Left Front government had favoured the entry of women of all age groups into the temple.
The Travancore Devaswom Board, which administers the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa, said it was bound to implement the judgment.
Mariam Dhawale, General Secretary of the The All India Democratic Women's Association, called the verdict another step that would help in bringing equality.
The court passed four sets of separate judgements on a clutch of pleas challenging ban on the entry of women of menstrual age in Sabrimala saying law and society are tasked with the task to act as levellers.
The CJI said devotion cannot be subjected to discrimination and patriarchal notion cannot be allowed to trump equality in devotion.
He said devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate denomination.
The CJI said practice of exclusion of women of 10-50 age group cannot be regarded as essential religious practice and the temple rule denies rights to women on grounds of physiological reasons.
Justice Nariman said the Sabarimala temple custom barring women of 10-50 age is not backed by Article 25 and 26 of the Constitution.
He said the custom of barring women is violative of Article 25 (Clause 1) and Rule 3(b) of Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (authorisation of entry) Rules, 1965 is liable to be struck down.
Justice Chandrachud said religion cannot be used as cover to deny rights of worship to women and it is also against human dignity.
He said prohibition on women is due to non-religious reasons and it is a grim shadow of discrimination going on for centuries.
Devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not form separate religious denominations, Justice Chandrachud said and added that any custom or religious practice if violates dignity of women by denying them entry due to her physiology is unconstitutional.
He said the popular notion about morality can be offensive to dignity of others and exclusion of women because she menstruates is utterly unconstitutional.
Justice Chandrachud held that exclusion of women is violative of right to liberty, dignity and equality and said banning women of a particular age group is not essential practice of religion.
In her dissenting verdict, Justice Malhotra said issues which have deep religious connotation should not be tinkered with to maintain secular atmosphere in the country.
She said right to equality conflicts with right to worship of devotees of Lord Ayyappa.
She said the issue in this case not limited to Sabarimala only. It will have far reaching implications for other places of worships.
Justice Malhotra said notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion and India has diverse religious practices and constitutional morality would allow anyone to profess a religion they believe.
She said equality doctrine cannot override fundamental right to worship under Article 25.