The Supreme Court’s Verdict on the control of World’s Richest Temple: Padmanabhaswamy Temple
Written by: Tanya Sharma, Student, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun
On 13th July 2020, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the erstwhile Travancore Royal family to manage the property of deity at Shree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. A bench of judges comprising 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.
The Padmanabha Swamy Temple also known as the world’s richest temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is located in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. This famous temple has a block Saligram stone idol of Lord Vishnu reclining on a 100 headed serpent and is built in an intricate fusion of the Chera style and the Dravidian style of architecture.
TREASURE IN VAULTS
Since 2011, the process of opening of vaults has led to the discovery of treasure within the temple, prompting a debate on who owns temple property and how it should be regulated. The vaults has turned Kerala’s largest temple into the world’s richest place of worship. The temple authorities estimate of Rs. 1 lakh crore which does not take into account the cultural, historic and antique value of the treasure. But the opening of vault B was put on hold because of the objections raised by the Royal family as it would invite divine wrath.
HISTORY OF TEMPLE MANAGEMENT
Since mid of 18th century, the Kings of Travancore have ruled the Kingdom as servants of the lord or “Padmanabhadasas”. They also controlled the temple management along with traditional 8 priest families. Before the independence period, all the temples which were under the control and management of the erstwhile Princely states of Travancore and Cochin were under the control of Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards. But after Independence, management of the temple was entrusted to the ruler of the erstwhile princely state under the Travancore Kochi Religious Institutions Act of 1951. Shebait is the manager of the Devasthan and he has the right to manage the financial affairs of the deity. The Travancore Royalty administered the temple even after independence. In 1991, the last Maharaja Srichitra Thirunal Balarama Varma died and his brother, Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma took over the management of the temple.
The character of the temple was always recognized as a public institution governed by a statute. The argument of the royal family was that the temple management would vest with them for perpetuity as per wisdom. Even though the last ruler, Balarama Varma executed a detailed will deed leaving his personal properties, he had not included the Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple as his personal property or dealt with it in his will deed. Marthanda Varma claimed that the treasures of the temple were the family property of the royals. Due to this statement of Marthanda Varma, many devotees including a retired IPS Officer Sundarajan went to the court against the Royals. In 2011, Kerala High Court directed the State Government to constitute an authority to take over the management and assets of the temple. The Bench held that the Travancore Royal Family could not claim ownership of the temple and its assets. In this case, the Kerala High Court observed the ‘PRIVY PURSE’ angle and concluded that after the definition of ‘Ruler’ in Article 366(22) of the Constitution of India was amended by the Constitution (26th Amendment Act, 1971), by which privy purses were abolished and the successor to the erstwhile royals could not claim to be in control or management of the temple. But in May 2011, the Supreme Court stayed the Kerala High Court order and further ordered that the vaults are opened and a detailed inventory be prepared of the assets. The temple was placed under the administration of a committee appointed by the Supreme Court. But in 2013, Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma died while the case was still pending before the Supreme Court and was succeeded by his nephew.
SUPREME COURT’S DECISION
The Supreme Court was to decide on the question whether Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the younger brother of Srichitra Thirunal Balarama Varma, the last Ruler of Travancore, claim to be the “Ruler of Travancore” and consequently hold ‘shebait’ rights after the death of the ruler in 1991. To this question, the Supreme Court held that as per the customary law, the shebait rights survive with the members of the family even after the death of the last ruler. The Supreme Court said that Shebait must be devolved to the successor as per customs. Besides this, the Supreme Court also ordered the Constitution of an Administrative Committee headed by the district judge of Thiruvananthapuram for the daily management of the temple and an Advisory Committee, consisting of only Hindu members, headed by the former High Court Judge to decide on the question of unlocking vault B.
Thus, Supreme Court gave the right to Travancore Royal family to manage the Padmanabhaswamy temple and also held that the Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee shall preserve all treasures and properties endowed to Shree Padmanabhaswamy and those belonging to the temple.
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