Breach of faith

Print edition : May 30, 2014

An aerial aeriel view of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. It is one of the oldest and richest Vishnu shrines in India. Photo: S. Mahinsha

Gopal Subramanium, the amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court to study the temple’s state of affairs, with the temple tantri Tharanalloor Parameswaran Namboodiripad in Thiruvananthapuram in September 2012. Photo: S. Gopakumar

Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, the new head of the erstwhile Travancore royal family, leading the Aarat procession of the temple, in Thiruvananthapuram on April 13. Photo: C. Ratheesh Kumar

The Supreme Court orders a special audit of the properties of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram after divesting the Travancore royal family of its role in administering it.

A TEAM of auditors appointed by the Supreme Court of India and led by the former Comptroller and Auditor General of India Vinod Rai is set to launch a special audit of the properties of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram whose secret vaults contain one of the largest collections of temple treasures in the world.

Already, on April 25, as an interim measure, the court put a stop to the nearly 300-year role of the erstwhile Travancore royal family in the administration of the temple by replacing the family trustee (now, the new head of the royal family, Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma) and his team of administrators with a committee headed by the District Judge of Thiruvananthapuram.

The court’s committee also includes two main priests of the temple (the tantri and the chief nambi) in addition to two members co-opted by the District Judge (one of them being the District Collector, chosen in consultation with the State government).

The court has ordered that the keys to the treasure vaults of the temple, except those that hold articles used for temple rituals, should be handed over to the chairman of the committee. They were so far being handled by the trustee or his representatives. A ban has also been imposed on alienation, transfer or disposal of any property of the temple until further orders of the court.

The Supreme Court also appointed another Indian Administrative Service (IAS) official with experience in managing temple administration as the executive officer of the temple. If necessary, the court said, the trustee might be consulted “in respect of important matters”—but that was all. In a sense, through this interim order, the Supreme Court seems to have finally acted on the allegations raised in a series of petitions by several devotees and others in the lower courts questioning the right of Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, brother of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, who was the last ruler of the princely state of Travancore, to own, manage and control the temple.

The apex court’s interim order is the latest stage in the case filed by Marthanda Varma nearly two and a half years before his death in December 2013. In a special leave petition filed in May 2011, Marthanda Varma challenged a Kerala High Court directive to the State government to take over the assets, control and management of the temple from him. (For details of the case and history of the temple and its immense wealth, see “Treasures of history” and related stories in Frontline, July 29, 2011.)

The Supreme Court had then granted an interim stay on the operation on the High Court’s directive but, like the latter, ordered a detailed inventory of the articles inside the vaults of the temple. This was also in response to counter-petitions filed by (the late) T.P. Sundararajan (a devotee and former Indian Police Service officer known to have been close to the last maharaja) and others, including representatives of the temple employees’ union.

From early 2012, thus, another Supreme Court-appointed committee has been involved in taking stock of the immense treasures in five of the reported six secret vaults (called kallaras in Malayalam) surrounding the sanctum sanctorum of the temple and the highly complex job of assigning value to them.

The doors of one of the vaults (known as Kallara B), which is believed to contain perhaps the largest collection of treasures, is yet to be opened for reasons of security and technical reasons and also because of a campaign and fear generated that it will bring bad luck to those who open it.

Damaging report

The Supreme Court’s interim order of April 25, appointing a committee for special audit and another for administration of the temple under its supervision, comes in the immediate wake of a damaging report by the amicus curiae appointed by it (former Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium) to study the state of affairs in one of the oldest and richest Vishnu shrines in India.

In his 575-page report submitted to the court on April 15 after an inspection of the temple and its premises over 34 days, the amicus curiae said that there had been “large scale breach of moral and fiduciary duties” towards the deity and the temple, and that the trustee and his family members had been treating the public temple as a private fiefdom for all intents and purposes.

The report said that for the past 30 years there had been no inventory of “contributions made by the general public by way of gold, silver and even currency”, and that the trustee and his officers had refused to produce the photographs and original inventories of the treasures in the vaults of the temple all this while, despite orders from the courts and requests by an expert committee.

In one of the most damaging condemnations of the state of affairs, the amicus curiae said: “The jewellery in the kallaras consists of the contributions from the erstwhile rulers and also the members of the public. Although the palace has resisted the opening of Kallara B, there are eyewitness accounts that a member of the palace and the executive officer (who is no longer alive) opened Kallara B some years ago. In fact, Kallara B appears to have been opened more than once and there were attempts to photograph the jewellery, not for the purpose of safekeeping but, possibly, for making available such information to buyers as the royal family did believe that these are personal treasures.”

The amicus curiae further said that “the stiff resistance on the part of the temple administration to make available these photographs and inventories raises suspicions as to the true motive behind fresh exercises of inventorying carried out at the behest of the erstwhile trustee. Such behaviour is a clear indicator of the breach of fiduciary duties of trustees, who are otherwise meant to (and are statutorily bound to) discharge an important public function.”

“The expert committee has now clearly stated before the amicus curiae that they are in no position to affirm whether all the items in any kallara were ever disclosed to them. They only inventoried what was presented by the officials of the temple,” the report said.

Referring to the “complete failure of financial transparency in the temple”, it said that the daily collections from devotees had not been subjected to a systematic or transparent audit and that the temple authorities had not maintained proper books of accounts for all previous years. “It appears that the receipts and public offerings have not been accounted for” and according to the internal auditor, the coins, once segregated and counted, are “handed over to a businessman from Tiruchy [a town in Tamil Nadu]”.

“No justification was provided to the amicus curiae as to why lakhs of rupees in coinage is simply handed over to a person other than the temple’s banker. Currency notes are being kept in a steel box with no lock attached to it,” the report said.

The report also records that there were several “valuables/jewels/ornaments which are in the temple and which belong to the deity” (but outside the vaults), “which were never accounted for and never disclosed” to the Supreme Court or the High Court and which “might have been pilfered at regular intervals”.

It said that in some rooms “where there was not even a suggestion that it contained anything valuable”, it was found that “all the gold, silver and valuable offerings by devotees have been kept”, purportedly under the custody of a temple official.

In two of the locked kaanikkai (offertory) boxes kept in one such room, for example, he found “a silver piece of bimbam (idol) of immense antique value” reportedly belonging to “Kulasekhara raja”, and “a cut bar of gold” and “from the colour of the shaving, it was apparent that this gold bar had been cut very recently”, even though the person in whose custody the boxes were being kept had said he did not have the keys to them. Similarly, in another room, he reported discovering such items, including “a gem-studded antique Naaga pendant and chain”, five big silver bars weighing an average of 35 kg, gold strips that were part of the decoration of ottakalmandapam (the platform before the sanctum sanctorum made from a single rock) and several books containing gold foils”.

The amicus curiae also reported finding foreign currencies, jewellery, gold biscuits and assorted coins of Travancore, China, and British India lying around unaccounted for and also, significantly, a plastic bag containing 95 pieces of kadusharkara yogam (pieces of the mixture used for the making of the idol of the main deity).

The report said that the amicus curiae “was informed” that such pieces were “sold in the black market and considering that the weight of the kadusharkara yogam found would be more than 1.5 kg, it can certainly be used for a monetary windfall”.

The report claimed that there was also no satisfactory explanation for gold work carried out inside the temple; that there were allegations of jewellers carrying gold mixed with sand in lorries and some receiving a huge quantity of gold from the late Marthanda Varma; and that the discovery of gold with sand in some rooms also suggested possible embezzlement, with the involvement of jewellers.

No accurate valuation

There has also never been any independent and accurate valuation of the fixed assets of the temple. The temple authorities are not in a position to define and illustrate what the fixed assets available with them are. They have failed the minimal standards of financial transparency, and the amicus curiae said he “does fear that the land and buildings of the temple have been illegally sold and leased”. The inquiry found numerous trusts and a multiplicity of accounts set up by the temple authorities, which “discloses a prima facie case of breach of trust”. Clearly, there has been a failure to place fair and true accounts before the auditor as there has been a complete failure to account for kaanikkai as well as donations made by the public by way of gold and silver. “Since there are multiple accounts, the runaways of monies are clearly not traceable.”

The report draws attention to the “horrific methods” adopted by the former authorities to quell any resistance or dissent from the staff against the activities in the temple. “In one case, acid was thrown at an employee. In a second case, it is unclear how an autorickshaw driver was found dead in the Padmateertham tank” (right in front of the temple).

The amicus curiae has also told the court about the “resistance on the part of the entire state apparatus in effectively addressing such issues”. He said: “The lack of adequate investigation by the police is a telling sign that although Trivandrum is a city in the State of Kerala, parallelism based on monarchic rule appears to predominate the social psyche.”

“Hence it is submitted that the principles of transparency and accountability, which are fundamental to the administration of a public temple, appear to have been breached insofar as the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is concerned. A culture of repression, fear and malfeasance has come to stay as a result of which the bhaktas need to be liberated from the said atmosphere,” the report said, recommending a detailed audit of the temple for the last 20 years.

The amicus curiae also recommended that Kallara B be opened and an inventory of the items contained inside be started at the earliest. “In the light of the surprising discovery of gold and other valuables by the amicus curiae, it has become necessary to open Kallara B and assess its contents. However, the same may be considered after a devaprashnam keeping in mind the sentiments of the devotees,” he said.

Referring to the accepted legal position that “an idol is a juristic person capable of holding property and the property dedicated to the temple vests in the deity”, the report said that “the main worshippers of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple are the members of the public who worship as a matter of right. It is clearly a public endowment and the endowment is not of a private nature.”

“The inability of many members of the erstwhile royal family in failing to see this as a public temple and therefore standards of public accountability which are consistent with functioning in public life has led to the present state of affairs,” it said.

Bid to ‘mislead’ the court

The amicus curiae cites two important reasons for recommending a special audit under the supervision of the former Comptroller and Auditor General of India. “(a) There is a cosy relationship between the State establishment and the petitioners or those who belong to the royal family. As a consequence of this, there has been a very carefully orchestrated attempt to mislead the Supreme Court; and (b) It is also clear that the attempt to obstruct any kind of work which was being undertaken was obviously with the blessings of the erstwhile rulers of the royal family.”

The report said “any attempt to set right the temple was meant to be delayed because such delay would give numerous opportunities for the jewellery and the objects of the temple to disappear. Thus the strategy being adopted by the temple authorities is delay, defeat, and not implement the orders of the court with any seriousness. This gives ample time and opportunity for hoodlums to invade the temple and loot temple wealth.”

The amicus curiae therefore argues that “the petitioner trustee (whoever it is) or the petitioner family (whoever it consists of) have failed to discharge their obligations to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple” and that they should “forfeit their right to continue in any form in the management of the temple”.

The report, however, cautions against arriving at premature conclusions about the affairs in the temple, especially because “a special audit is afoot and full facts have to be discovered”. “The situation requires to be dealt with firmly but also with a measure of compassion having regard to the past traditions and glory as well as reputation which the royal family has enjoyed over the years. In fact, the shraddha of people in the royal family has been telling,” the amicus curiae’s report said.

The Supreme Court is set to hold further hearings on the case in the first week of August.