The phenomenal treasures found in the vaults of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram three years ago are back in the spotlight, but not for good reasons. The amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court, after a 35-day inspection, made sharp remarks about “pilferage” of precious objects and financial irregularities in the temple. The temple authorities and the State have been asked to file their responses. However, finding the state of affairs disturbing, the Supreme Court has appointed a new committee to manage the temple in an interim arrangement. The disquieting conclusion, it appears, is that the temple and its treasures face more threats from its own inept administrators than from any scheming thieves. Questions about the management of the Padmanabhaswamy temple have been around for some time. Mounting public concern led to a long legal battle, and in 2011 the Supreme Court appointed an expert committee to oversee the inventory of treasures. When the committee inspected five of the six vaults in the temple, the vast amounts of jewels and antiquities came to public notice for the first time. The documentation of these objects is on. In 2012, the Court appointed Gopal Subramaniam, a former Solicitor-General, as amicus curiae in the case. In his second report he has recommended that the present administration, which includes a member of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore, be replaced as a part of corrective measures.
How to protect temple properties and endowments and give primacy to the public interest are challenges facing not only the Padmanabhaswamy temple but also many others. A few years ago, the Andhra Pradesh High Court had to intervene to ensure that a proper inventory is made of the precious jewels of the Sree Venkateswara temple in Tirumala. Instances of poor accounting of offerings and income, and lax recovery of dues from temple properties, abound. Unfortunately, most temple administrators have not done much to attend to such concerns or reassure the worshipping public. Some of the temple managements, instead of embracing change, have tried to resist reforms in administration, viewing them as interference in religious affairs. The settled position in law is that the secular functions of a temple are open to public regulation. One reason behind the practice of recognising idols as juristic persons who can own properties is to prevent administrators from holding endowments in their own names and prevent misappropriation. Temples are not private fiefdoms, but places of public worship. While proper religious observances are not to be interfered with, there must be a system of public accountability in the management of the secular affairs of temples.