The Kerala High Court has ruled that no gender-based restrictions can be imposed on those wishing to make treks to Agasthyarkoodam, thereby lifting the unofficial ban on the entry of women to the mountain peak..However, in the interest of preserving biodiversity, and in some relief to members of the Kani tribe who challenged the entry of women, both female and male trekkers are barred from entering the area where the celibate Agasthya Muni idol is situated..As stated in the judgment passed by Justice Anu Sivaraman last month,.“I am of the considered opinion that no grounds exists to interdict the entry of women to the area in question. It will be open to the respondents to permit the trekking of groups of persons, who are physically and mentally fit to undertake a trek to the Agasthiyarkoodam on the specific undertaking that no trekker will be permitted access to the area where the Idol is situated or offer any worship.“.Whereas there was no formal law prohibiting the same, women were unofficially prevented from trekking beyond the base camp at Athirumala to Agasthyarkoodam, which is about six kilometres away. Agasthyarkoodam is part of the reserved forests in Neyyar Wild Life Sanctuary, Thiruvananthapuram, and is also a UNESCO recognised site..The issue of the unofficial ban on entry of women to the area received attention in January last year, when online applications to join the trek did not allow women to apply. The Kani tribe residing in the area also resisted the entry of women, citing tradition. Their customs also barred women of the tribe from entering the Agasthyarkoodam area where the Agasthya Muni idol lies..In January 2017, however, Forests Minister K Raju acknowledged that there was no official ban on the entry of women, following which, a limited number of women were set to take the trek on an experimental basis in February 2017. Special permission was also obtained from the Forests Department for the same..However, the Kerala High Court passed an interim order stalling the move, after the Kani tribe approached the Court citing violation of their customary rights and traditions if women were allowed to enter the area..In turn, a group of women also filed a petition challenging the this High Court order and seeking the implementation of guidelines issued to facilitate the entry of women to Agasthyarkoodam. 51 women had enlisted to join the trek..Between the two opposing parties, the Government Pleader informed the Court that entry to the Agasthyarkoodam is generally restricted to outsiders given its ecological importance. Inter alia, he also submitted that no person, including members of the Kani tribe, have any customary right of worship there, more so given that there is no temple there. The Court was told that no rights have crystallised for any person to worship or claim traditional rights. .It was also highlighted that in February this year, a Division Bench of the High Court had barred the conduct of poojas in the area by outsiders, holding that such activities to commercialise the idol should not be permitted..The guidelines issued in 2017, to facilitate the entry of women to Agasthyakoodam also reflected this ban. Issued on the basis of an interim order passed in May 2017, these guidelines allow the entry of women above the age of 14 years, provided that they are mentally and physcaly sound..However, the guidelines also bar trekkers from performing poojas or worship at Agasthyarkoodam. Plastic and like materials are strictly prohibited and persons trekking have to be escorted by guides, whose wages are to be paid in advance..In this backdrop, the High Court has now concluded that there was no reason to prohibit the entry of women to the area, provided they adhere to the guidelines and refrain from entering the idol area. These restrictions would equally apply to male trekkers. Justice Sivaraman held,.“On a perusal of the guidelines prescribed for the trek in the previous years, I do not find anything offensive [to the Kani tribe-petitioners]…in the said guidelines…..… Further, I am of the opinion that if the trek is being held this year, the trekkers, both male and female should not be permitted in the immediate vicinity of the Idol or offer any religious prayers or to carry any items of worship to the Agasthiyarkoodam, in view of the findings in the judgments dated 9.2.2018…. .… Further restrictions as are necessary shall also [be] imposed by the respondents without restricting the rights of the women to participate in the trek. In case permission is being granted for trekking in the year 2019, it is made clear that restrictions shall not be imposed only on the ground of the gender of the trekker.“ .Read the Judgment:.Feature image taken from here.