New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday upheld the rights of Travancore’s erstwhile royal family in managing the affairs of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, resolving a decade-old dispute over the administration of one of the richest temples in the world.
A bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and Indu Malhotra overruled a 2011 Kerala High Court order to hold that the family will continue to exert its shebait rights. Shebait is a person who serves a Hindu deity and manages the temple.
The judgment came on an appeal filed by Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, younger brother of the last ruler of Travancore, against the HC ruling that had dismissed his plea claiming ownership of the temple.
The top court bench had heard the arguments for nearly three months before reserving the verdict on 10 April 2019.
The Supreme Court ordered the constitution of a supervisory committee headed by district judge of Thiruvananthapuram and an advisory committee headed by former high court judge for the daily management of the temple.
The committee will have only Hindus as its members. It will decide on the question of unlocking Vault B, a large mysterious chamber in the temple which has remained untouched on account of lore that its opening will spell doom for whoever opens it.
The bench did not accept the Kerala government’s plea to nominate a civil servant as the head of the committee but accepted its contention to set-up a five-member committee and not eight, as suggested by the state.
According to the order, this committee will comprise a nominee of the state, representative of the central government, nominee of the trustee and the chief priest.
The advisory committee under the chairmanship of a retired high court judge shall consist of an eminent person to be nominated by the trustee, and a reputed chartered accountant to be nominated by the chairperson in consultation with the trustee, the order states.
The verdict ordered an audit of the temple accounts for the last 25 years, and refrained from alienation of its property. Furthermore, the temple management shall reimburse money spent by the Kerala government between 2012 and 2019, the court said. The state had given an estimate of over Rs 11 crore before the court.
The HC ruling
In its 2011 ruling, the Kerala High Court had allowed the Travancore royal family to have a say in the rituals of the temple, but rejected Varma’s argument that he stepped into the shoes of the “Ruler” after the death of his brother, the last “Ruler”, in 1991.
Among the several directions it issued, the HC gave three months to the Kerala government to constitute a body, corporate or trust or other legal authority, to take over control of the temple, its assets and management, and to run the same in accordance with all the traditions hitherto followed.
Considering the valuables and treasures in the six vaults of the temple, the court ordered preparation of an inventory of all the articles and exhibiting them for devotees and tourists on payment basis. It also made a suggestion to let the state police take over the temple security, or assist the existing security personnel employed there.
The HC had concluded that after the definition of ‘Ruler’ in Article 366 (22) of the Constitution of India was amended by the Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Act, 1971, by which privy purses were abolished, the successor to erstwhile royals could not claim to be in control or management of the temple.
However, Varma immediately appealed against the ruling in the top court, which put the HC order on hold. It issued notice on Varma’s appeal to the state and devotees who strongly opposed his claim for temple’s ownership.
(In the Monday veedict SC said the definition would apply for the purpose of shebait rights and held “Shebait must devolve to the successor as per Customs.)
What the dispute is
The dispute revolved around Varma’s assertion of his shebait rights as the “Ruler” of Travancore, a status acquired through succession. He rushed to the Kerala High Court in 2010 following a spate of litigation that ensued when he publicly declared that the wealth lying in the temple belonged to the royal family of Travancore.
Several devotees had approached civil courts in Thiruvananthapuram for injunction against those who are in control and management of the temple.
The HC then held that Varma cannot step into the shoes of the last “Ruler” to claim management of the temple by relying on the powers stipulated in the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 (TC).
Notified in 1949, when the princely states of Travancore and Cochin signed the accession agreement with the Government of India, the TC Act “vested in trust” the administration of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in the Ruler of Travancore.
Even after the death of the last Travancore ruler in 1991, the state government allowed the management of the temple to be taken over and retained by the Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma.
In its ruling, the HC had included an injunction against the erstwhile royal family’s opening of any vaults or removing any articles from the temple. However, the members were free to use the articles for rituals and ceremonies in the temple until it was taken over by the government authority, the court had clarified.
Varma and the successors had also been permitted to participate in the temple rituals, like the Arattu procession.
The mysterious Vault B
During the proceedings before the Supreme Court, a long time was devoted to the unlocking of Vault B.
In 2011, a team under the Kerala High Court’s instructions had opened the five vaults to ascertain the extent of wealth in them. But Vault B remained out of their purview.
However, the SC subsequently ordered the opening up of five vaults of the temple. The inventory in these vaults unveiled a wealth of Rs 1 lakh crore in the form of jewellery, idols, weapons, utensils and coins.
The court didn’t order the opening up of Vault B. Senior advocate Gopal Subramanium, who assisted the court as amicus curiae, had said that the vault had been opened on a number of occasions in the past.
Centuries-old lore that a hooded King Cobra with forked tongues protects this chamber kept dominating the arguments against the opening of this vault.
This myth was brushed away by former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Rai, who conducted a special audit of the temple’s wealth on the court’s order. In his report to the court in 2014, he said the vault was opened at least seven times to his knowledge since 1990.
He referred to records and receipts maintained by the temple authorities to point out that Vault-B was opened twice in 1990 and five times in 2002.
“Silver ingots were taken out and gold vessels were deposited and subsequently taken out, as evidenced from the entries maintained by the treasurer of the temple and as produced before the audit team,” read his report.
Rai also favoured scrutiny and verification, as was suggested by Subramanium. The senior counsel had asked for completely disassociating the erstwhile royal family from the management of the temple, criticising the way in which the temple was administered by the royal family.
(This report has been updated with new information from the court’s full order.)