SC upholds right of erstwhile Travancore royal family in administration of Kerala’s Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Top court says death of ruler does not result in escheatment of property to Kerala government.
The Supreme Court on Monday held that the erstwhile Travancore royal family is the “human ministrant” or the shebait (manager) of the properties belonging to Sri Padmanabha, chief deity of the famed and fabulously rich Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Kerala.
A Bench of Justices U.U. Lalit and Indu Malhotra, in a 218-page judgment, brought quietus to a dispute of over a decade on whether the temple and its considerable assets should devolve to the Kerala government following the death of Travancore ruler Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma in July 1991.
Arguments were raised both to and fro – senior advocate Krishnan Venugopal for the royals and some devotees represented by a team of advocates of P.B. Suresh, Vipin Nair and Karthik Jayashankar – on whether the 26th Constitutional Amendment, which banished rulers and privy purses, would nudge the temple and properties into the hands of the State. In fact, the Kerala High Court, in 2011, directed the State to take over the temple and exhibit its treasures for public viewing in a museum.
Justice Lalit, who wrote the judgment, categorically held that the death of a ruler does not affect the royal family’s shebaitship of the temple. “Shebaitship was always in the royal family and the Ruler represented the unbroken line of shebaits,” the judgment said. Shebaitship does not lapse in favour of the State by principle of escheat (reversion of property to the State).
The court defined ‘shebait’ as the “custodian of the idol, its earthly spokesman, its authorised representative entitled to deal with all its temporal affairs and to manage its property”. The court traced how the shebaitship descended from King Marthanda Varma, who rebuilt the temple and installed a new idol after a fire destroyed the temple in 1686. It referred to how the King surrendered his kingdom in January 1750 and assumed the role of ‘Padmanabhadasa’ after realising “the futility of battles as a means to an end and the conscious feeling that the Travancore he created was built on a foundation of sacrifice of the liver and limbs of countless numbers who fell due to him and for him...”
Accepting the royals’ submission that the temple is a “public temple”, the court issued a slew of directions for its transparent administration in the future.
It directed the setting up of an administrative committee with the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge as its chairperson. The other members would be a nominee of the trustee (royal family), the chief thanthri of the temple, a nominee of the State and a member nominated by the Union Ministry of Culture. This committee would take care of the daily administration of the temple.
It also ordered a second committee to be constituted to advise the administrative committee on policy matters. This would be chaired by a retired High Court judge nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court. Both committees should start functioning within the next two months and an executive officer should be appointed without delay.
The primary duties of the committees would be to preserve the treasures and properties. They would take a call on whether to open Kallara B, considered to be the richest among the temple vaults, for inventorisation.
The committees would ensure that rituals and religious practices are conducted as per custom and on the advice of the chief thantri.
The court said the committees would ensure that income to the temple would be used to augment the facilities. It ordered an audit to be conducted for the past 25 years. Audited accounts and the balance sheet should be annually filed with the office of the Accountant General for the State. The royal family would not take any remuneration for the services they render to the temple.
The idea of setting up these committees was initially suggested by the royal family itself and the court found it “quite balanced” and not loaded in favour of them.
The court ordered status reports to be filed by the second week of December 2020. A further report should be filed after audit on March 31, 2021.