SABARIMALA TEMPLE - Hindu hardliners who want to keep female worshippers out of a historic Indian temple forced two women to abandon their attempt to enter the sacred site on Friday despite a 100-strong riot police escort.

The Sabarimala Temple in Kerala has become the focus of a battle over gender equality, pitting religious traditionalists against progressive voices pushing for a more liberal Hinduism.

A Supreme Court decision to end a ban on women of "menstruating age" - those between 10 and 50 years - from visiting has sparked violent demonstrations on the roads leading to the complex.

On Friday, journalist Kavitha Jakkal and activist Rehana Fatima were just 500 metres (yards) from the final 18 golden steps leading to the Lord Ayyappa shrine at Sabarimala when they had to beat a retreat.

"We have told the female devotees about the situation, they will now be going back," S. Sreejith, a senior police official in Kerala state, told local media at the hilltop site.

Around 100 Indian riot police had escorted the women towards the temple, facing off against Hindu hardliners who have been protesting the entry of women.

The journalist was wearing a helmet as police with shields and body armour accompanied her up the steep hill to Sabarimala, television pictures showed.

The activist was carrying the customary "irrumudi" offering made of coconut and clarified butter in a cloth bag on top of her head.

But bare-chested, clapping and shouting devotees blocked their path, with priests chanting mantras and slogans beside the final steps.

The temple was meant to allow women of all ages - not just older ones and young girls as before - from Wednesday, following an order by India's highest court.

The Supreme Court stepped in to overturn a nearly three-decade-old ruling formalising a ban on women of menstruating age.

The ban reflected an old but still prevalent view in some areas that connects menstruation with impurity.

The Supreme Court ruling enraged traditionalists, including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"It's absolutely wrong what they tried. One lady is not even a Hindu and other is an activist from a left party union," Anil Kumar, a local BJP leader manning a roadblock on Friday, told AFP.

"Why is the police even escorting such women to the temple? They are not even from families who are devotees of our Ayyappa."

Hundreds of hardliners, throwing stones at baton-wielding police, have defied the order - surrounding and shouting at any woman attempting to make it to the temple despite a heavy police presence.

Groups of young men also surrounded and smashed the car windows of female television reporters and threatened others. Another female correspondent was kicked.

They also stopped and checked cars at intersections in the area and local Hindu groups imposed a strike on Thursday, warning taxi drivers not to take anyone to the shrine.

On Thursday the mood at the temple, reached by a steep path through a lush tiger sanctuary, was festive, with the only females present small girls or older women.

"Everyone is angry and I don't have to hide it. What the Supreme Court has done isn't right. We don't want any change. Our Ayyappa's traditions don't need to be tampered with," shirtless devotee Sundaravadana told AFP, clutching a "Save Sabarimala" placard.

"We've come here since our childhood and understand the rich tradition behind it. Women are allowed everywhere, at all other temples. It doesn't happen here for a reason. We will do whatever to save our Sabrimala," he added

Women are permitted to enter most Hindu temples but are still barred by some.

Two years ago, activists successfully campaigned to end a ban on women entering the Shani Shingnapur temple in Maharashtra state.

Women were also permitted to enter Mumbai's Haji Ali Dargah mausoleum, a Muslim place of worship, after the Supreme Court scrapped a ban in 2016.