Reversing the 2011 Kerala High Court decision, the Supreme Court Monday upheld the right of the Travancore royal family to manage the property of deity at Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. The court said that, as per customary law, the shebait rights (right to manage the financial affairs of the deity) survive with the members of the family even after the death of the last ruler. The ruling ends the legal battle the temple and members of the royal family have fought with the government for decades over control of one of the richest temples in the world.
What is the case 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.
Who had the ownership, control and management of the Padmanabhaswamy 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.
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.
What about the Padmanabhaswamy temple’s property, including the riches in the vaults?
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.
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What impact would this ruling have?
Since 2011, the process of opening the vaults has led to the discovery of treasures within the Padmanabhaswamy temple, prompting a debate on who owns temple property and how it should be regulated. Despite being a secular country that separates religion from the affairs of the state, Hindu temples, its assets are governed through statutory laws and boards heavily controlled by state governments. This system came into being mainly through the development of a legal framework to outlaw untouchability by treating temples as public land; it has resulted in many legal battles.
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