A template to manage temples

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court has 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 Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. The judgment also makes it clear that the temple is a public temple and needs to be administered with due consideration of the interests of the devotees. The Court has directed the setting up of an administrative committee and an advisory committee to carry out these functions.

Also read: Padmanabhaswamy temple | The fusion of the divine and the dynastic

Protecting the trust of devotees

This judgment has not only settled an old dispute, but has also unwittingly brought to public attention some of the larger sociopolitical dimensions that have always affected administration and ownership of places of worship. In Kerala, Devaswom Boards, comprising members of both government and community, manage temples and their properties. The Padmanabhaswamy temple was kept outside the purview of the Travancore Devaswom Board as it was the family temple of the royal family. The Covenant of May 1949 and the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950, make it clear that the temple is “vested in trust”. This presupposes a beneficiary whose trust needs to be protected. In order to uphold the trust of the devotees, the temple administration is obliged to ensure that the rituals and ceremonies of the temple go on unimpeded. The Devaswom Boards, which are mandated to administer temples, have no scope to tinker with temple rituals or introduce ‘reforms’ with regard to temple rituals. However, they have the freedom to create facilities for the devotees.

This arrangement is not only peculiar to Kerala. When India became a democratic Republic wedded to secular values, these boards or trusts became necessary for managing public religious institutions, without governments directly dabbling in their administration. They were conceived as arrangements of knowledgeable devotees who were expected to run the show with care. In many parts of India, there are highly prosperous private and public trusts that administer popular shrines and temples with remarkable professionalism. Several trusts do commendable service by offering free food and providing facilities to the pilgrims. As long as the trust of the devotees is upheld, these arrangements go on well. However, many public trusts and boards have often ignored the welfare of devotees. Arrogance and high-handedness have surfaced in many instances. When there is congruence of interests between the devotee and trustee, trust is upheld. When extraneous considerations like politics, ideology, power, wealth etc. creep in, the trust of devotees is betrayed.

Political interests

In a democracy is it possible to keep political interests outside the domain of temple administration? The present judgment is an indicator that the coming together of individuals of integrity, devotion and professional commitment to administer places of worship could be a preferred mechanism. The order suggests a template for administrative probity and efficiency. I am not suggesting that this model should be replicated everywhere, but the principles underlying the composition of the committees suggested to administer the Padmanabhaswamy temple could very well be employed in other instances too.

The Devaswom Boards and trusts that have been constituted as per specific legislation have veered from their lofty ideals underpinning those legal provisions. Though the provisions are adhered to in letter, they are often violated in spirit. It cannot be otherwise. Politics is an art of compromise; it has to accommodate diverse interests. Regardless of the contributions of such persons in other areas, their suitability to administer places of worship will often be doubtful as their choice is owing to political affiliations and not spiritual orientation. While such nominations are legally correct, they are often morally untenable. If several of these boards and trusts have forfeited lands belonging to the temples for flippant purposes, or have been unable to protect the valuables of a temple, or have become corrupt or inefficient, it is all because of the non-suitability of people occupying those positions.

This accounts for the large number of litigation around religious institutions. It is not the interest of the devotee that is at the core of many of these disputes, but disagreement over authority, and allegations of corruption and misuse of authority. The Padmanabhaswamy temple verdict raises the need for moral cleansing, professionalising the administration of places of worship, and urges us to reinstall trust in the sanctum.

The mixing up of politics and other considerations with worship can be deleterious for both politics and faith and ominous for society at large.

K. Jayakumar is a former Chief Secretary of Kerala

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 2:09:54 PM |

Next Story