The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the rights of erstwhile royal family of Travancore in the administration of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram.
Allowing the appeal filed by members of the Travancore family, the top court reversed the finding of the High Court of Kerala that the rights of family ceased to exist with the death of the last ruler of the Travancore in 1991. The death of the last ruler will not result in escheat of the rights in favour of the government.
Death will not affect the rights of shebaitship of the family over the deity and they will survive as per custom, ruled the Court.
Powers of Ruler of Travancore delegated to Administrative Committee
The powers of the 'Ruler of Travancore' under Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act (TC Act) in the matter of the administration of the temple has been delegated to an Administrative Committee, as suggested by the family itself.
The family suggested the following composition :
- a retired Indian Administrative Service Officer of the rank of Secretary to Government of Kerala ("the State Government") to be nominated by the Trustee in consultation with Government of Kerala who shall be the Chairperson of the Committee;
- one member nominated by the trustee(Travancore family);
- one member nominated by the Government of Kerala;
- one member nominated by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India; and
- the Chief Thantri of the temple.
An Advisory Committee was also suggested with the following composition :
- A retired High Court Judge who shall be nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court and who shall be the Chairperson of the Committee.
- One eminent person to be nominated by the Trustee;
- A reputed chartered Accountant to be nominated by the Chairperson in consultation with the Trustee.
The Court noted that this composition was "quite balanced" and was not "loaded in favour or against the appellants(family)", when compared to the scheme under the TC Act.
"As against the administration contemplated by Chapter III of Part I of the TC Act in the hands of the Ruler of Travancore in absolute terms, the course now suggested by the appellants is quite balanced", the Court observed.
However, the Court suggested a modification - instead of IAS officer in the rank of Government Secretray to be nominated by the family, the Court said that the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram should be the Chairperson of the Committee.
"...the powers of "the Ruler of Travancore" under Section 18(2) of the TC Act shall stand delegated to the Administrative Committee while the Advisory Committee shall be deemed to be the Committee constituted in terms of Section 20 of the TC Act. It is made clear that all the members including the Chairpersons of the Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee must be Hindus and fulfil the requirements in Section 2(aa) of the TC Act", the Court ordered.
The Court has directed the appellant to file an affidavit of undertaking regarding the delegation of powers to the Administrative Committee and accepting the modification of its composition. The affidavit of undertaking will be binding on the successors of the appellants, the Court clarified.
The SC also approved the continuation of the interim committee headed by District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram to manage the affairs of the temple till the constitution of a new committee.
Notably, the top court has not expressed anything on the opening of the contentious "B Kallara"(Vault B), and has left it to be decided by the committee.
A bench led by Justice UU Lalit pronounced judgment in the appeals challenging a 2011 Kerala High Court judgment, which directed the Government to take over control of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, it's assets and management. The High Court bench comprising of Justices C.N. Ramachandran Nair and K. Surendra Mohan had directed the Government to open all Kallaras (Vaults), make inventory of the entire articles and create a Museum and exhibit all the treasures of the Temple for the public, devotees and the tourists to view the same which could be arranged on payment basis in the Temple premises itself.
"In our view, there is no purpose in keeping the treasures of the temple acquired by it in the course of several centuries as a mystery..", the HC had observed.
A bench comprising Justice Uday Umesh Lalit & Indu Malhotra had finally heard the appeals in April, last year.
Senior advocate Gopal Subramanian was appointed as amicus curiae in the matter. Former CAG Vinod Rai was also appointed to audit the records including expenditures incurred for temple's upkeep.
In 2011, the inventory revealed an extravagant wealth of approximately Rupees 1 lakh crores, in the form of jewellery, idols, etc, following the opening of five "kallaras"(vaults).
The opening of B Kallara was however put on hold, following objections from the family that it will invite divine wrath.
Functions of Administrative Committee
The court also said that the Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee shall perform the following functions
(a) Preserve all treasures and properties endowed to Sree Padmanabhaswamy and those belonging to the Temple.
(b) Protect all tenanted properties and take appropriate measures to ensure reasonable returns from such tenanted properties.
(c) Ensure that all rituals and religious practices are performed in accordance with the instructions and guidance of the Chief Thantri of the Temple and according to custom and traditions. In temporal matters, the Committees shall be guided by the advice given by the Chief Thanthri. The designation of the Chief Thanthri shall be done in accordance with the customs and traditions.
(d) Shall take appropriate steps to return to the State the amounts expended by the State Government as catalogued in the Chart in paragraph No.44 hereinabove((Rs 11,70,11,000).
(e) All the income accruing to the Temple, as well as the offerings made by the worshippers, shall be expended in the following manner: (i) To improve the facilities for the worshippers; and (ii) For such religious and charitable purposes as the Advisory Committee may deem appropriate; and (iii) In investments that will fetch reasonable returns and ensure that the properties of the Temple are completely safe and secure.
(f) Recover and retrieve any property or funds of the Temple which have been put to misuse or have been in unauthorized occupation or misappropriated.
(g) Shall order audit for the last 25 years as suggested by the learned Amicus Curiae. The audit shall be conducted by a firm of reputed Chartered Accountants. The Advisory Committee shall also consider what further steps need to be taken for the preservation of the Temple properties, both movable and immovable.
(h) Take appropriate steps for conservation of the Temple and its precincts, as well as for improvement of all the facilities.
(i) Shall consider whether Kallara B is to be opened for the purpose of inventorization. The interim orders dated 27.11.2014 and 04.07.2017 passed by this Court had recorded that Kallara B was not opened, and it was directed that inventorization with respect to said Kallara B be undertaken only after obtaining express orders from this Court. We deem it appropriate to leave this issue to the best judgement and discretion of the Committees.
(j) Conduct all the obligations which from time to time were bestowed on various Committees by this Court including that of the Selection Committee for Sreekovil.
(k) Shall file Reports in this Court by the second week of December, 2020 stating all the developments in brief till then. The next Report shall be filed after the accounts for the year ending 31.03.2021 are audited.
(l) Shall file the audited accounts and the Balance Sheet with the office of the Accountant General for the State, every year.
As per the instrument of accession between the princely state of Travancore & Cochin and the Government of India entered in 1949, the administration of the temple was vested with the "Ruler of Travancore".
Later, by operation of Section 18(2) of the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, the management of the temple continued to be vested in Trust in the last Ruler of Travancore. The last Ruler of Travancore, until his death on 20.7.1991 continued to manage the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple by virtue of powers conferred on him under Section 18(2) of the TC Act.
Disputes Over Management Begins
Even after the death of the last Ruler, the state allowed the management of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple to be taken over and retained by the Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the brother of the last Ruler after the latter's death.
After Marthanda Varma made a claim that the treasures of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple are the family properties of the erstwhile Royal Family of Travancore, several devotees approached Civil Courts in Trivandrum filing Suits for declaration and for injunction to restrain the Travancore family members for diverting the temple properties.
Proceedings Before the HC
Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma and some others approached the High Court in this matter. The court clubbed the cases together and considered the issue whether the younger brother of the last Ruler of Travancore could after the death of the last Ruler on 20.7.1991 claim to be the "Ruler of Travancore" within the meaning of that term contained in Section 18(2) of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 to claim ownership, control and management of the ancient and great Temple in Kerala namely, the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple located at Trivandrum.
"Ruler" is not a status that could be acquired through succession, HC held
Answering this issue against Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma , the Court held that the "Ruler" is not a status that could be acquired through succession and therefore, after death of the last Ruler on 20.7.1991, there is no Ruler in the erstwhile State of Travancore. It further held that Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma cannot step into the shoes of the last Ruler to claim management of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple by relying on the powers conferred under Section 18(2) of the TC Act.
Supreme Court Proceedings : Timeline
02/05/2011: The SLP filed by Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma first came up before the bench comprising of RV Raveendran and AK Patnaik which granted interim stay of the High Court directives. The court also directed to conduct a detailed inventory of the articles/valuables/ornaments in Kallaras and also appointed a team of observers.
08/07/2011: The Court ordered that opening of kallara 'A' and'B' is to be kept in abeyance till further orders.
21/07/2011: After considering the state's response in this matter, the bench directed to constitute the following Expert Committee to advise regarding inventory, conservation and security. The committee was also directed to examine and give an opinion whether it is necessary to open Kallara 'B'.
22/09/2011: The Court examined the interim report of the Expert Committee and issued further directions. The court also said that the issue relating to opening of Kallara 'B' shall be considered after substantial progress is made in regard to documentation, categorization, security, preservation, conservation, maintenance and storage relating to the contents in the other Kallaras.
23/08/2012: The Court appointed Sr. Adv Gopal Subramaniam, to act as amicus curiae in the matter.
6/12/2013: Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma passed away.
15.04.2014: The Amicus Curiae submits his report.
24/04/2014: The Court appointed Administrative Committee headed by the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram, to manage the temple.
August-September 2014- Sr. Adv Gopal Subramaniam writes a letter to the Supreme Court in which he said he has opted out as amicus curiae in the Padmanabha Swamy temple case. Later, withdrawing his resignation, he said that he would continue as amicus curiae in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple case.
November 2014: Royal family questioned Amicus Curiae Gopal Subramaniam report, files objection before SC
27/11/2014: The court accepted some of the recommendations made by the Amicus Curiae
4/7/2017: The Court appointed Justice K.S.P. Radhakrishnan, as the Chairman of the Selection Committee for the Sreekovil and other allied works.
Jan-Apr 2019: The cases are posted before the bench comprising of Justices UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra for final hearing.
10/04/2019: The bench concluded hearing and reserved the cases for judgment.
(Story to be updated after receiving full copy of the judgment)