Update: The Padmanabhaswamy Temple Case

Recently, the Supreme Court of India upheld the right of the Travancore royal family to manage the property of deity at Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala). This Temple is in the news since 2011 after the discovery of treasure worth over Rs. 1 lakh crore in its underground vaults.

Update: The Padmanabhaswamy Temple Case

Judgement: The Supreme Court (SC) reversed the 2011 Kerala High Court decision, which had directed the Kerala government to set up a trust to control the management and assets of the temple. The High Court (HC) had ruled that the successor to the erstwhile royals could not claim to be in control of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple after the amendment of the definition of ‘Ruler’ in Article 366 (22) of the Constitution of India.

The definition of Ruler was amended by the Twenty-Sixth (Constitutional) Amendment Act, 1971, which abolished the privy purses. Article 366 (22) reads, “Ruler” means the Prince, Chief or another person who, at any time before the commencement of the Twenty-Sixth (Constitutional) Amendment Act, 1971, was recognised as the Ruler of an Indian State or was recognised as the successor of such Ruler. However, the SC rejected this and said that, as per customary law, the members of the royal family have the shebait rights even after the death of the last ruler.

Shebait rights mean the right to manage the financial affairs of the deity. The SC held that, for the purpose of shebait rights the definition of Ruler would apply and would transfer to the successor.

Administrative Committees: The SC accepted the submission of the royal family that the temple is a public temple, and directed the setting up of an administrative committee with the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge as its chairperson, for its transparent administration in the future.

The other members of the Committee would be a nominee of the trustee (royal family), the chief thanthri of the temple, a nominee of the State and a member nominated by the Union Ministry of Culture. The SC also ordered a second committee to be constituted to advise the administrative committee on policy matters. This would be chaired by a retired High Court judge nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court. The primary duties of the two committees would be to preserve the treasures and properties.

What is the case of PADMANABHA SWAMI TEMPLE about?

The central legal question was whether Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the younger brother of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the last Ruler of Travancore, could claim to be the “Ruler of Travancore” after the death of the ruler in 1991. The court examined this claim within the limited meaning of that term according to the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 to claim ownership, control and management of the ancient Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.

Before 1991

All the temples which were under the control and management of the erstwhile Princely States of Travancore and Cochin were under the control of the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards before 1947. However, as per the Instrument of Accession signed between the princely states and the Government of India, since 1949, the administration of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple was “vested in trust” in the Ruler of Travancore. The state of Kerala was carved out in 1956 but the temple continued to be managed by the erstwhile royals.

In 1971, privy purses to the former royals were abolished through a constitutional amendment stripping their entitlements and privileges. The move was upheld in court in 1993 and the last ruler of Travancore who died during the pendency of this case continued to manage the affairs of the temple till then.

In 1991, when the last ruler’s brother took over the temple management, it created a furore among devotees who moved the courts leading to a long-drawn legal battle. The government joined in; supporting the claims of the petitioner that Marthanda Varma had no legal right to claim the control or management of the temple.

Coming to the present

Is the temple the property of the royal family?

No. The character of the temple was always recognised as a public institution governed by a statute. The argument of the royal family is that the temple management would vest with them for perpetuity, as per custom. Even though the last ruler Balarama Varma executed a detailed will bequeathing his personal properties, he had not included the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple as his personal property or dealt with it in his will.

So, what about the Padmanabhaswamy temple’s property and the riches it is bestowed with?

A consequence of who has administrative rights over the temple is whether the vaults of the temple will be opened. In 2007, Marthanda Varma claimed that the treasures of the temple were the family property of the royals. Several suits were filed objecting to this claim and a lower court in Kerala passed an injunction against the opening of the vaults.

The Kerala High Court in the 2011 ruling passed an order that a board be constituted to manage the affairs of the temple, ruling against the royal family. The appeal against this verdict was filed by the royal family immediately and the SC had stayed the HC verdict.

By appointing two amicus curiae- senior advocate Gopal Subramaniam and former Comptroller and Auditor General of India Vinod Rai to prepare an inventory of items in the vaults. While five vaults were opened of the six, vault B was not opened. The royal family had claimed that a mythical curse is associated with the opening of vault B.

Some of the questions that SC answered

Did the Constitution of India and further the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act of 1950 (TC Act) alter the status and entitlement of the ruler of Travancore to the Shebaitship of the temple?

The court said, “..the relevant provisions of the Constitution of India, as well as that of the TC Act, did not, in any way, upset or abridge the status enjoyed by the Ruler of Travancore as Shebait of the Temple and also did not, in any manner, adversely impact the right of administration vested in the Ruler of Travancore. As a matter of fact, the relevant provisions of the TC Act afforded statutory flavour to the status contemplated by Article VIII of the Covenant.”

Did the 26th constitutional amendment act which abolished privy purses and other privileges of former kings affect the status and entitlement of the ruler of Travancore to the Shebaitship of the temple?

The court said, “..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.”

Whether the death in 1991 of Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma who had signed the Covenant, affect the Shebaitship of the temple held by the royal family of Travancore?

Resolving this, the court categorically stated in the negative and further held that: “After such death, the Shebaitship must devolve in accordance with the applicable law and custom upon his successor; that the expression “Ruler of Travancore” as appearing in Chapter III of Part I of the TC Act 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.”

Shebait is any person who serves and supports the deity and manages properties like the temple or land which is vested with the deity.  The expression “shebait” (Commonly used in Bengal) is derived from “sewa” which means “service”. Shebait, in a literal sense, means one who renders sewa to the idol or the deity.

Some other religious cases- 

In Durgah Committee vs. Syed Hussain Ali (1961), the Khadims of the tomb of Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti of Ajmer challenged the validity of the Durgah Khwaja Saheb Act, 1955, which took away their “right of management of the Durgah”, by arguing that the Act hindered their right to freedom of religion, among other fundamental rights. A Constitution Bench decided that the management of properties of the Durgah was always in the hands of the state and the denomination never had the right to manage the properties endowed in favour of a denominational institution. Consequently, Articles 26(c) and (d) of the Constitution also never came to the rescue of petitioners.

In Tilkayat Shri Govindlalji Maharaj vs. State of Rajasthan (1963), the Tilkayat challenged the validity of the Nathdwara Temple Act, 1959, which took away his right to manage the temple properties on the grounds that it was his private property and its deprivation violated his rights under Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. The Constitution Bench analysed the historical background of the temple and held that though the idols of the deities of the Nathdwara Temple belonged to the Tilkayat and his family, the temple land was granted to him by a firman. Hence his “management rights” could be taken away by the state though his ceremonial rights were upheld. Noted jurist H M Seervai hailed this decision as a secular decision.

As per the Instrument of Accession signed between the princely states and the Government of India, the administration of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple was vested in trust in the Ruler of Travancore, since 1949. In 1971, privy purses to the former royals were abolished through a constitutional amendment stripping their entitlements and privileges. In 1991, when the last ruler of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, passed away, his brother Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma took over the temple management. This created a furore that he had no legal right to claim the control or management of the temple. However, the royal family continued to manage the affairs of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple till the Kerala High Court in 2011 ruled that the family cannot continue to exert its shebait rights.