The Supreme Court has upheld the right of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore to “manage and administer” the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram with its immense riches. “We hold that the death of (the last Maharajah of Travancore) Sree Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma… would not in any way affect the shebaitship of the temple held by the royal family of Travancore,” Justices U.U. Lalit and Indu Malhotra of the Supreme Court said on July 13 in a much-awaited verdict.
The decision of the two-judge bench marks the end of a nine-year legal battle (“ Treasures of history ”, Frontline , July 29, 2011) over whether the erstwhile royal family or the State of Kerala had the rights to administer and manage the ancient temple after the death of the last Maharajah of the princely state.
The court said that after such death, the “‘shebaitship’ (management) must devolve in accordance with the applicable law and custom upon his successor; that the expression ‘Ruler of Travancore’ (as mentioned in the covenant signed by the Maharajahs of Travancore and Cochin with the Government of India at the time of accession of these states to the Indian Union)… must include his natural successors according to law and custom; and that the shebaitship did not lapse in favour of the State by principle of escheat.” (The principle of escheat postulates that where an individual dies intestate and does not leave behind an heir who is qualified to succeed to the property, the property devolves on the government.)
Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said the State government accepted the verdict and would not go in appeal against it.
Significantly, the court considered the petition filed by the royal family after the reversal of their earlier stand that the temple was “a private temple and its treasures belonged to the family”.
The court said the judgment had been premised on the unequivocal stand taken by the appellants (members of the family) that “the temple is a public temple and no claim can probably be made by the petitioner or anyone to owning the temple or its treasures” and that what was being sought was only the right as a trustee of the temple to manage and administer it.
Proprietary right of shebait
As per the principles laid down by the Supreme Court in various other cases, the judgment said, the “shebaitship” has the elements of office and property, of duties and personal interest blended together and they invest the office of the shebait with the character of proprietary right. It has further been laid down that the shebait is the custodian of the idol, its earthly spokesman and the human ministrant; is entitled to deal with the temporal affairs and to manage the property of the idol; and even where no emoluments are attached to the office of the shebait, he has the right or interest in the endowed property which has the characteristics of a proprietary right.
However, the court has also ordered the constitution of an administrative committee headed by the district judge of Thiruvananthapuram (“which is broad based and would not be loaded in favour or against the trustee”) and an advisory committee for the management of the temple—curiously, both these points were suggested by the royal family members in their petition against the government’s submission seeking a separate devaswom board on the lines of the one at the Guruvayoor Sri Krishna temple.
The court has also said the new committees will now have to decide on another controversial issue in the case: whether the mysterious ‘Vault B’, one among the six vaults that held the riches of the temple (as also articles used for the rituals in the temple), should at all be opened for making an inventory of the articles in it. The apex court had earlier ordered a stay, when the royal family opposed the opening of Vault B based on the belief that it would invite divine wrath on the perpetrators and on the family members.
Vassal of the deity, a historical twist
The antiquity of the temple is not known. But since the 16th century, this temple had been closely associated with the political history of Travancore, particularly after Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the founder of modern Travancore, in a shrewd political and deeply religious act (January 3, 1750), laid his sword before the deity, dedicated his kingdom to Sree Padmanabha and assumed its management as the vassal of the deity.
The kings who succeeded him ruled the kingdom as vassals of the deity and managed the temple's affairs and its riches as the deity’s representative and as per their ancestor’s instructions.
There were indeed hundreds of temples under the control of the rulers of Travancore and Cochin just before the two princely states merged as a Travancore-Cochin State. These temples were subsequently brought under the control of the State-run devaswom boards. But the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple alone remained “vested in trust” in the ruler of Travancore, a condition the last Maharajah Chitra Thirunal (“almost fanatical in his faith”) insisted on during the integration of the princely state with the Indian Union as part of the Agreement of Accession he signed with the Government of India.
This condition in the accession agreement was later incorporated in the State law governing the administration of temples (the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, or the TC Act, 1950) after the reorganisation of the States.
Until the death of Chitra Thirunal (on July 20, 1991) and for several years thereafter when his brother, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the next eldest member of his family, retained the management of the temple, there had been no challenge to the legal position that the temple “vested in trust in the ruler of Travancore”, who controlled and managed it through an executive officer.
Writ petition by Marthanda Varma
But as the Division Bench of the Kerala High Court explained in a January 31, 2011, order (on the basis of a writ petition filed by Marthanda Varma challenging lower court orders that went against him), “public resentment started when the last ruler’s brother..., who took over the control and management of the temple, arranged to take photographs of the treasures of the temple and made a claim in the Malayalam daily Kerala Kaumudi on 15.9.2007 stating that the treasures of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple are the family properties of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore”.
When a lower court passed an injunction against the opening of the treasure vaults of the temple, Marthanda Varma approached the High Court. T.P. Sundara Rajan, a former Indian Police Service officer and a devotee, also filed a petition in the High Court seeking the issue of a writ of quo warranto against the (then) executive officer of the temple who he claimed the last ruler’s brother had appointed without any authority whatsoever. (Sundara Rajan was described in the verdict as “the licensee of premises belonging to the temple, against whom the management had taken steps for eviction”.)
‘Ruler of Travancore’
The High Court said that the only issue to be considered was “whether the description ‘Ruler of Travancore’ would include the brother of the last ruler (Chitra Thirunal) who had died on 20.7.1991”. The TC Act, which incorporates the provisions of the Covenant, says that the administration of the temple and its properties vested in trust in the ‘ruler of Travancore’ and the Rs.6 lakh that the State government is to provide annually towards the expenditure in the temple shall be conducted, subject to the control and supervision of the ‘Ruler of Travancore’, by an executive officer appointed by him. However, the TC Act does not define the term ‘Ruler’.
The High Court ruled that the status of the ruler was not heritable, that ‘ruler’ is not a status that could be acquired through succession, and that Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma or his successors of the royal family will not come within the description of ‘ruler’ as defined under Article 366(22) of the Constitution. Pointing out that the TC Act provided for “vesting of the temple in trust” in the hands of the last ruler of Travancore, the High Court said that since there was no provision in the TC Act to vest the temple “in the next senior member of the royal family after the death of the ruler of Travancore”, the temple and its properties and assets would revert to and vest in the State government.
The Supreme Court has now set aside the High Court judgment. It has accepted the contention of the appellant royal family that the definition of “ruler” in Article 366(22) would not be the governing definition to decide the claim of the successors to the management of the temple, but that the “matter has to be assessed going by the context in which the expression had been used in the Covenant (signed by the last maharajahs of Travancore and Cochin with the Union of India) and the TC Act”.
Therefore, the Supreme Court said that “as on the day when the Covenant became effective, the Ruler of the Covenanting State of Travancore was holding the office of Shebait (manager) of the temple, which was not in his official capacity as the ruler; and that the effect of (relevant articles in the Covenant) was not to invest any new authority and power in him for the first time because of his official status, but an acknowledgement of the existing authority and power already vested in him”.
The court further said: “If according to the settled principles, the Shebaitship is like any other heritable property which would devolve in accordance with custom or usage, and that the rule of custom must prevail in all cases, even after the death of the erstwhile Ruler of Travancore in 1991—the Shebaitship of the Temple being unconnected with the official status of the person who signed the Covenant, must devolve by the applicable laws of succession and custom.”
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: “Going by the normal incidents of Shebaitship including the heritability, the context in which the expression was used in Article VIII of the Covenant, and carried in the provisions of the TC Act, it must be held that such expression must include the successors to the person who had signed the Covenant.”
The judges said that despite the Constitution (26th Amendment) Act, 1971, (which put an end to privy purses) even though concepts such as Ruler or Rulership had ceased to operate, “the private properties of the Ruler would continue to be available for normal succession and devolution in accordance with the law and custom”.
“We must conclude that the Constitution (26th Amendment) Act, 1971, did not in any way impact or affect the administration of the Temple, Sri Pandaravaga properties and the properties of the Temple, which continued to be under the control and supervision of the Ruler of Travancore,” the court said.
It was the High Court that had in 2011 ordered the State government to constitute an authority to open all temple vaults and make an inventory of the entire articles (by a team of “responsible and honest officers”) and create a museum on the temple premises itself to exhibit all the treasures of the temple for the public, devotees and tourists.
Inventorisation and audit
Subsequently, the Supreme Court also passed various orders. Several committees were formed and inspections undertaken inside the temple. In August 23, 2012, the court appointed Advocate Gopal Subramaniam as amicus curiae and he submitted his report in April 2014. It also later appointed the former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai for the audit of all records, including expenditure incurred for the temple’s upkeep. The court also appointed an (interim) administrative committee, and a committee to oversee renovation and maintenance of the temple, including the sanctum sanctorum.
In the nine years since, the Supreme Court also ordered “inventorisation” of most of the vaults, digitisation of the antiques and artifacts of the temple, and several other steps, with the State government being asked to meet all the expenses, including for the security of the temple and its wealth.
The court has now directed the members of the royal family to file an affidavit within four weeks agreeing to the verdict while pointing out that it will be binding on the family members and their successors. It has also said that both the administrative and advisory committees should be constituted within four weeks of filing the affidavit of undertaking.
The court has said the new administrative and advisory committees will be in charge of ensuring proper worship of the deity, maintenance of temple properties, providing facilities to the worshippers, and so on.
But in view of the findings of the amicus curiae and audit reports, which suggest several instances of irregularities and mismanagement in the affairs of the temple, the court has said the committees will also look after a slew of other tasks, including: preserving all treasures and properties endowed to the deity and belonging to the temple; protecting all tenanted properties and take appropriate measures to ensure reasonable returns from such tenanted properties; ensuring that all rituals and religious practices are performed in accordance with the instructions and guidance of the Chief Thantri of the temple and according to custom and traditions; taking appropriate steps to return to the State the expenditure incurred by the government in connection with the temple (a sum of Rs.11,70,11,000 in 2012-2019).
It has also said that all the income accruing to the temple, as well as the offerings made by the worshippers, shall be expended only to improve the facilities for the worshippers; for such religious and charitable purposes as the advisory committee may deem appropriate; in investments that will fetch reasonable returns and ensure that the properties of the temple are completely safe and secure.
The committees have also been asked to “recover and retrieve any property or funds of the temple which have been put to misuse or have been in unauthorised occupation or misappropriated”. They have also been asked to order “audit for the last 25 years” as suggested by the amicus curiae ; take appropriate steps for conservation of the temple and its precincts in addition to taking a decision on whether kallara (vault) B is to be opened for inventorisation or not.
The court said that in light of the specific submission made by the appellant family members, the current head of the royal family (successor to Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma who passed away on December 16, 2013) and his successors shall not be entitled to draw any remuneration for his or their services as the manager or trustee.
Responses to the verdict
The members of the appellant royal family, Aswathy Tirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, Pooyam Tirunal Gouri Parvathy Bayi and Aditya Varma, said in a joint statement: “We regard today’s Supreme Court verdict as a blessing from Padmanabha Swamy, not just for the family, but for all his devotees. We pray for his continued benevolence on all humanity to keep us all safe and well.”
Opposition leaders in Kerala have also welcomed the verdict. Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who was in office at the time the case was filed and treasures of the temple (valued at over Rs.1 lakh crore, according to him) came into the spotlight, said the verdict “respected the wishes of the believers and the royal family”. He also described the verdict as a “setback” to the State government, which he said “was forced to welcome the verdict in the context of the controversy over Sabarimala temple”.
Bharatiya Janata Party leaders too adopted a similar stand, but Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran refused to be drawn into any controversy, saying that the government must now study the verdict in detail before deciding on the implementation of the court’s directions.
See related stories:
1. An interview with historian Prof. K. N. Panikkar on the treasures of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple
2. The Mathilakam records, a key to the nature of treasures of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple