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The treasure of Trivandrum

The adventure-like history of the legal wrangles of the Padmanabhaswamy temple

Written by MADHAV KHOSLA |
July 7, 2011 3:51:51 am

Even if one tries,it cannot be made to sound more like an adventure. The brother of a dead king alleges that he is now the ruler,and argues that an old law gives him the power to control a powerful temple. The local court is unimpressed. It is concerned for the devotees,and asks the state to step in,create a trust,and manage the temple. The brother trots to the country’s capital,and its highest court. The court blocks the lower court’s decision,and decides that,first of all,the temple’s treasures need to be assessed. An inventory is,needless to say,the need of the hour. A Supreme Court Special Investigation Team,or SIT,is constituted. They travel to the temple,and open a few vaults. They can’t open them all. One vault has a very special lock; it will take a few more days. But they open the rest,and find wealth worth over Rs 1 lakh crore ($22 billion). The temple is now,almost certainly,the richest place of worship in the world.

Adventures aside,the legal issues here are rather complex. The dead king is the erstwhile ruler of Travancore,and the temple is the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum. The Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act 1950 (called the TC Act),enacted pursuant to the agreement of accession between the two princely states of Travancore and Cochin and the Government of India,vests the administration of the temple in the ruler of Travancore. In January this year,the Kerala high court responded to a claim by the last ruler’s younger brother,that upon the demise of the last ruler,he should be recognised as the “ruler of Travancore” under the TC Act.

The court disagreed,citing the 26th Amendment to the Constitution,which abolished the privileges of the erstwhile rulers of Indian states. It held that the title of “ruler” can no longer pass through succession,and that the state is now the ruler for the purposes of the TC Act. It further rejected the contention that the Sree Padmanabhaswamy was a family temple of the royal family of Travancore. The temple was,the argument ran,always recognised to be public in nature,and the ruler was simply a trustee who “retained the control of the temple for the benefit of the devotees,the state and the public at large.” Since the ruler had now died,it was time for the state to get into the act and take care of the deity.

This represents a classic battle over the regulation of religious institutions. It doesn’t involve,lest you get excited,the Treasure Trove Act 1878. That mysterious statute is sadly limited to “anything of value hidden in the soil,or in anything affixed thereto.” And,of course,it will get tax officials animated. Idols are independent juridical personalities in India,and the deity Sree Padmanabhaswamy is about to become a very important taxpayer.

All this aside,though,the core issue is the state’s regulatory role in religion. The Indian state is secular,but since independence,the state has taken an active interest in the management and administration of Hindu temples. A range of laws,like the Madras Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Act 1951,have taken away power from local pandits and placed it in the hands of bureaucrats,— who regulate religious institutions,determine the norms for temple entry,and so forth.

The Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act 1950 is shaped in somewhat the same spirit as these laws. But its drafting is tricky,and the younger brother of the last ruler of Travancore has a genuinely interesting legal argument to offer. For it is not clear what the ruler is doing in the TC Act if he has no ownership claims over the temple. The Supreme Court stayed the Kerala high court’s judgment to establish a state trust to manage the temple,and passed an interim order asking an SIT to document the temple’s treasures. With the treasures that have surfaced,fresh energy has surely been fused into this battle and a litany of litigation is likely to follow. The ruler’s younger brother now has something well worth fighting for,and he will be greatly compensated should be win.

But Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy isn’t too worried. Despite public outcry,he is confident of the treasure’s future and confirmed that it would rest in the temple. In God he trusts.

The author is at the Centre for Policy Research,New Delhi

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