On 13 July, the Apex Court upheld the administrative rights of the erstwhile royal family over Kerala’s Padmanabhaswamy Temple & its riches. As a matter of fact, the nine-year-old battle came to an end after the top court’s careful examination of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950. In essence, the SC reversed the 2011 Kerala HC judgment which ordered the State to take over the control of the temple from the trust headed by the royal family.
Notably, Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala makes for one of the richest temples in the world. With wealth in five of the six vaults estimated to be worth around Rs 90,000 crore. Since 2011, the process of opening the vaults has led to the discovery of treasures within the Padmanabhaswamy temple. Thus, prompting a debate on who owns temple property and how it should be regulated. Subsequently, the Royal Family filed an appeal in the Apex Court citing their right over the wealth.
Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple Case: TIMELINE
In 1949, the princely states and the Government of India signed the Instrument of Accession. This meant that the administration of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple stood “vested in trust” in the Ruler of Travancore. However, in 1971, the then Governmentabolished privy purses to the former royals through a constitutional amendment. Hence, stripping them of their entitlements and privileges.
The last ruler of Travancore, who managed the affairs of the temple, died during the pendency of this case. Utharadom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the brother of the “ruler” took over the affairs. Consequently, this created furor and dissatisfaction among a section of devotees.
The case came into light and made headlines in 2009. One, TP Sunderrajan filed public interest litigation (PIL), in response to a statement made by the royal family’s heir. Sunderrajan’s PIL was based on the Accession Agreement. In view of the statement, the administration of the temple vested with the “ruler of Travancore”. However, Article VII of the Agreement provided for administration of the Padmanabhaswamy temple subject to the control and supervision of the ruler of Travancore, by an executive officer appointed by the ruler.
In January 2011, the Kerala HC directed the Government to take over control of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, it’s assets and management. It ruled that the rights of the family ceased to exist with the death of the last ruler of the Travancore in 1991. In addition, the division bench also ushered the opening of Kallaras (Vaults), and creation of an inventory of the articles to be exhibited publicly.
Thus, the High Court observed that the brother of erstwhile ‘king’ could not step into his shoes. Thereafter, in May 2011, Marthanda Varma challenged the foregoing observation. The royal family contended that the temple management vests with them in perpetuity, as per custom.
Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple Case – OUTCOME
Kerala High Court had observed the cessation of rights of the ‘family’ with the death of the last ruler of Travancore in 1991. A two-judge bench of Justices UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra reversed the findings of Kerala HC.
Shebaitship & “The Ruler”
According to the Court, the “shebaitship” (management) has the elements of office and property, of duties and personal interest blended together. That they invest the office of the shebait with the character of proprietary right. Furthermore, the ruling said:
To the question whether the expression ‘Ruler of Travancore’ (as appearing in Chapter III of Part I of the TC Act) is capable of being understood to include his successors according to custom, the Supreme Court said :
Delegation of Administrative Authority
Moreover, as suggested by the family itself, the powers of the “ruler of Travancore” under Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institution Act (TC Act) shall stand delegated to an administrative committee. Hence, there shall be two committees for Temple Management:
- Firstly, three-member Advisory Committee under the ‘ruler’. This shall be in accordance with Section 20 of the TC Act, 1950.
- Secondly, a 5 member Administrative Committee which will aid the Advisory Committee.
“As against the administration contemplated by Chapter III of Part I of the TC Act in the hands of the Ruler of Travancore in absolute terms, the course now suggested by the appellants is quite balanced”, the court opined. Furthermore, the court directed the appellant to file an affidavit. Explicitly, the affidavit is of an undertaking of Administrative Committee to the effect of acceptance of its modification. Further, the affidavit of the undertaking shall be binding on the successor of the appellants.
Therefore, the final composition of the Administrative Committee stood as follows:
- District Judge as Chairperson of the Committee.
- One member nominated by the trustee.
- A member nominated by the Government of Kerala.
- One member nominated by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.
- The Chief ‘Tantri’ of the temple.
While, the three-member Advisory Committee shall consist of the following:
- A retired High Court Judge who shall be nominated by the Chief Justice of Kerala HC. He shall be the Chairperson of the Committee.
- One eminent person to be nominated by the trustee.
- A reputed Chartered Accountant to be nominated by the Chairperson in consultation with the Trustee.
Minimal State Interference
The Court, while giving a detailed account of the authority to both committees, puts emphasis on the interest of the worshippers and utilitarian welfare of the temple. Therefore, the Court directed all misappropriated property or funds to be recovered and retrieved by the board. Similarly, the Court added that appellant and his successors can’t draw any remuneration for their services as the Manager or Trustee.
Also, with regard to the state interference in the Temple affairs, the court took cognizance of the appellant’s suggestions. Consequently, it ruled in favor of only one representative from the Union Ministry and the State Government of Kerala, respectively.
In Essence :
The 300-page verdict stated that the “‘shebaitship’ (management) must devolve in accordance with the applicable law and custom upon his successor…and that the shebaitship did not lapse in favor of the State by the principle of escheat.” Therefore, the devotees of Lord Padmanabhaswamy largely rejoiced after the significant judgment. The judgment accentuated the cause of temple freedom and secular independence of the religious affairs of India. Consequently, the Royal family also reiterated its contentment and claimed that “all the riches of the temple belong only to God. We have no rights in the riches”.