The controversy surrounding the alleged mismanagement of Kerala’s famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple on Wednesday evoked sharp reaction from the Supreme Court, which said there are certain “disturbing features” and “extremely serious” issues which require immediate redressal.
“There are certain disturbing features. Few things are really disturbing which need to be taken care without loss of time,” a bench comprising Justices R M Lodha and A K Patnaik said.
The observation by the bench came at the outset of the hearing when senior advocate Gopal Subramaniam, who is appearing as an amicus curiae in the matter, was about to apprise the court about his April 15 report in which he highlighted several serious irregularities in the management of the temple and its wealth.
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Subramaniam, who sought a direction from the court for restraining the present trustee and his family members from interfering either directly or indirectly with the day-to-day management of the temple, said keys of ‘kallaras’ (lock up) should be handed over to the judicial officer nominated by the District Judge.
He submitted there was need for independent management of the temple so that officials can carry out their function freely and fearlessly.
The senior advocate said proper sealing and locking of trunks has to be carried out as it was found that seals were broken.
After an hour-long hearing during which senior advocate K K Venugopal, appearing for scion of Travancore Royal family, raised objections to Subramaniam’s report, the bench said parties including Kerala Government will be given chance to respond to the findings in the report.
“The matter requires immediate hearing. To us it is an extremely serious matter. We would like to hear all of you,” the bench said, posting further hearing for Thursday. Venugopal said everything in the report was not acceptable as astonishing things have been stated and in many cases wrong inferences have been drawn.
Venugopal said it was also not correct on the part of the committee of experts to make inspection of the residential area of the royal family which is separated from the temple complex.
When Venugopal made mention of Subramaniam’s religious inclination, the bench said, “It would be highly unfair”. “We would like to respect the amicus curiae. We would like you to say not a word towards him. It would not be proper. He may be having perception. It is highly unfair as a matter of fact. It is at our request he agreed to assist us,” the bench said.
Additional Solicitor General K V Vishwanathan, appearing for Kerala Government, also disputed some facts raised by Subramaniam on the cleaning of tanks in the temple, the contract of which has been given to a private party and will cost around Rs 90 lakh.
Subramaniam read out the portion of the report prepared by him after 35 days’ inspection of the temple and said Conservation Committee set up by the apex court was not holding regular meetings and those associated with the management of the temple were working in fear.
He said huge amounts of gold and silver donated by devotees have never been reported by trustees and those were also never accounted or audited and there has been no valuation of those metals for 30 years. For 10 years the temple did not file income tax return despite getting
Besides, a gold plating machine hidden in the temple was found, making it mandatory that somebody independent must monitor the auditing of gold and silver, he said.
The senior advocate also said during one month between February and March, Rs 1.29 crore money was offered by devotees.
He said there were discrepancies in the number of bank accounts. While trustees claim only 14 accounts in five banks, there are 34 bank accounts in 17 banks.
Subramaniam said physical condition of the temple was pathetic and broken idols measuring two kg were found in plastic bags and cleaning of temple was necessary.
“How can anybody keep temple in dirt,” he wondered and described the overall bad condition of the temple. Even the ‘prasads’ are outsourced, he said.
In his 577-page report, Subramaniam has sought an order for audit of the wealth of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple by former Comptroller and Auditor General of India Vinod Rai.
He said the apex court’s intervention was essential “to protect the temple in the interest of the deity as well as Bhaktas” and “to ensure that Sree Padmanabha Swamy receives the pooja, upachara and allied observances which had been maintained in the past.”
He also sought an affidavit from Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma, the present trustee of the temple, containing the details of various fixed deposits lying in the bank accounts of the temple and set out the details of the Sree Pandaravaka land belonging to Sree Padmanabha Swamy and details of the alienation of such properties and all documents pertaining to such alienation, if any.
“Although the palace had resisted the opening of Kallara ‘B’, there are eyewitnesses’ accounts that a member of the palace and the executive officer opened Kallara ‘B’ some years ago (the said executive officer is no longer alive).
“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 to make available such information to buyers as the royal family did believe that these are personal treasures,” the amicus curiae observed.
Subramanium said there appeared to be resistance on the part of the entire state apparatus in effectively addressing the said issues.
The temple has six vaults, most of which are underground and are filled with priceless articles. During preparation of its inventory by the apex court-appointed panel, five of these vaults were opened, leaving out one chamber, called ‘vault (Kallara) B’.
The apex court had appointed an expert committee for scientifically documenting the temple’s treasure. The panel comprises experts from ISRO, the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), the Centre for Earth Sciences Studies and top officials of the Kerala Police.
The sprawling temple, an architectural splendour in granite, was rebuilt in its present form in the 18th century by the Travancore Royal House which had ruled southern Kerala and some adjoining parts of Tamil Nadu before integration of the princely state with Indian Union in 1947.
Even after India’s independence, the temple continued to be governed by a trust controlled by the erstwhile royal family for whom Lord Padmanabha (Vishnu) is their family deity.