The Supreme Court gave the verdict of a nine-year-long case, Sri Marthanda Varma (D) through Legal representatives v. the State of Kerala regarding the claim of the Royal family’s heir for the shebaitship rights over Padmanabhaswamy temple. The Padmanabhaswamy temple located in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala is one of the most important Vaishnava temples. The main issue was about the administration and maintenance of the temple. The temple got the glare of media and public attention when the secret vaults were opened on the order of the apex court. The opening of the vaults led to the discovery of treasures estimated to an amount of Rs.1 lakh crore prompting a debate of who owns the temple. The vaults turnedKerala’s largest temple into the richest temple in the world. SC on 13th July 2020accepted the Royal family’s claim by upholding the rights of the royal family to manage the temple and the belongings of the deity. The court also observed that the death of the last ruler Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, who signed the covenant will not affect the shebaitship of the Travancore royal family and it will devolve only by the prevailing customs.
THE CENTRAL LEGAL QUESTION
- The main legal issue which led to a long drawn case was whether the status of Ruler can be claimed by birth ie, whether Uthrada Thirunal Marthanda Varma the brother of the last ruler can claim the status of ‘Ruler of Travancore’ after the death of the last ruler on 1991.
- Whether the Royal family can claim the ownership of the Temple? The court clarified that the character of the temple was always recognized as a public institution. The court also observed that the last ruler Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma while compiling a statement about his personal properties never once mentioned the temple as his private property. And even the claim of the royal family is only for the right of management of the temple according to the customs and not the owner said the court.
THE HISTORY OF TEMPLE MANAGEMENT
After the merging of the two princely states, all the temples which were once controlled by the erstwhile princely states went under the control of Travancore-Cochin devaswom boards. But even then the administrative right of Padmanabhaswamy temple vested in the Trust of the Ruler of Travancore according to the Agreement of Accession 1949.
In 1971, The 26th amendment of the constitution abolished Privy Purses but the administration of Padmanabhaswamy temple remained in the hands of the Ruler.
The last ruler who signed the Covenant passed away in 1991. The Ruler’s younger brother took over the authority to manage the temple and claimed the treasures of the temple as their family property. This created controversies among the devotees resulting in a nine-year-long legal battle.
THE LEGAL FIGHT
T.P.Sunderrajan an Ex IPS Officer turned lawyer filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in response to the statement of the Royal family’s heir. The HC in January 2011 upheld the petition of the Ex IPS officer stating that the shebaitship of the Royal family is ceased with the death of the last ruler in 1991. Uthrada Thirunal Marthanda Varma filed an appeal challenging the verdict of the High Court.
VERDICT OF SUPREME COURT
The Judges UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra overruled the 2011 verdict of the High court by accepting the appeal of the Royal family. The SC upheld the rights of the royal family saying that the demise of the last ruler Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma will not in any way affect she bait right of the royal family. The court also explained who a she bait is, A shebait is the custodian of the idol and a person who does services to the deity.
The Supreme Court directed the setting up of two committees. It also insisted that the main duty of the two committees is to ensure that the property and the belongings of the temple are managed properly according to the guidelines.
The Administrative Committee will consist of 5 members :
- Chairperson – Thiruvananthapuram district judge
- A member nominated by the Trustee (Royal family)
- The chief priest of the temple.
- A Member nominated by the state
- A member nominated by the Union Ministry of Culture.
All five members must be Hindus.
The Advisory Committee will be headed by the Chief justice of Kerala High court.
- A Chartered Accountant.
- A nominee of the royal family.
The supreme court ruled that the income acquired by the temple must be expended only for improving the facilities of the devotees. The expenses must be made only for improving the facilities of the worshippers or others which is considered to be appropriate by the Advisory committed.
The supreme court also observed that the 26th amendment of the constitution abolished Privy Purses and titles, but it has nothing to do with the administrative rights of a royal family. The shebaitship once vested in the founder cannot be ceased by any authority. Until the founder himself disposes of the right in a particular manner, it will be vested in the hands of the founder.
Based on Article 8 of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institution Actwhich exclusively deals with the Padmanabhaswamy temple the SC upheld the rights of the Royal family. It also said that the Royal family’s claim is only for the right to manage the temple and not the ownership hence the SC recognized the Royal family as the custodian of the deity.
SC also directed the interim committee to discharge some duties including the performance of worship of the deity, maintenance of the temple and belongings of the deity, and most particularly,
- To preserve and maintain the treasures and the property of the temple.
- To protect and to take proper measures to return all tenanted properties.
- To ensure that all rituals and customs are performed according to the guidelines of the Chief Thanthri of the temple. And must ensure that all the religious practices are performed according to the customs.
- To recover all the properties of the temple which has been put to misuse.
- To audit the expenses and income of the temple.
Author(s) Name: V. Chithra (School of Excellence in Law, Tamilnadu Dr.Ambedkar Law University, Chennai)