The Pathbreaking verdict

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The historic verdict by the SC bench has corrected the wrongs set by the Division Bench of Kerala High Court which had failed to notice that the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and its properties remained vested in the presiding deity

-K V Sreemithun

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The Hon'ble Supreme Court of India, in a path breaking judgment set aside the Kerala High Court judgment which denied any role to the Travancore Royal family in the Padmanabha Swami temple administration. On July 19, 1991, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, who had executed the Covenant as Ruler of the Covenanting State of Travancore, passed away. Since then, his successor, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma had been exercising all functions as “Ruler of Travancore” with respect to the affairs of the Temple till the Judgment was passed by the High Court in the present case. The Kerala High Court made some interesting observations and concluded that the treasures in the storage rooms need to be exhibited in a museum to be set up in the premises of temple, which will give a major boost to the tourism. The Kerala High Court disposed of the petition with the direction to the state to immediately take steps to constituted body corporate or trust or or other legal authority to take control of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple its assets and to manage and run the same in accordance with the traditions.
Royal Family challenges verdict before SC
The Travancore Royal family challenged the said directive of the Kerala High Court before the hon'ble Supreme Court of India, Challenging the decision of the High Court, the appellants in the Special Leave Petition, from which the first of the instant Appeals arise, inter alia, raised following grounds :-
“That the temple and its properties, as prescribed by the Covenant dated 1st July 1949, ought to remain vested in Trust and the Petitioner, being the senior-most male member of the Royal family, will hold and administer the same as the Trustee of the Temple, through an Executive Officer.
It was contended that the Division Bench of Kerala High Court failed to notice that the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and its properties (also called “Sree Pandaravaka”) remained vested in the presiding deity of the Temple, Sree Padmanabha, even before the Trippadi Danam of the State (that is, surrender of the State to the Lord by H.H. Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma Maharaja in the year 1750). The hereditary trusteeship of the Temple remains with the Ruler of Travancore, and the original concept of trusteeship remains unaffected; this being fortified by the absence of any enactment depriving the Family of its trusteeship.
Despite a large proportion of these endowments having been made by the erstwhile Royal family of Travancore, and that Lord Padmanabha is considered the family deity of the erstwhile Royal family, the Petitioner asserts that the Padmanabhaswamy temple is a public temple, and no claim can probably be made by the Petitioner or anyone to owning the temple or its treasures. The Petitioner as the Padmanabhadasa merely seeks to recover the right as a trustee of the temple to manage and administer it, which has unfortunately been taken away by the impugned judgment and vested, in the State Government as the successor ‘Ruler’. The Petitioner retains the right to perform all the traditional rituals and ceremonies in the same manner as has been performed for hundred years.”
Unique Relation of the Royal Family & the temple
The Court after perusing the averments of Royal Family observed, “The practices referred to show that right from the conception of a child upto the death of any member of the erstwhile royal family, special prayers are offered and certain rituals are followed. Every male child born in the erstwhile royal family, is made “Dasa” of Sri Padmanabhaswamy while every female child is made “Sevini” through prescribed rituals. Special ceremonies are conducted at the time of ‘Upanayanam’ of a male member and marriage of a female member of the erstwhile royal family. Even assuming that these practices are being or could possibly be followed by other families as well, in addition to these features, the facts that the Ruler is an obligatory participant in various temple rituals; that he has an ‘Ekantha Darshan’ with Sri Padmanabhaswamy on all days in the morning hours where, except the Nambi, nobody else can remain present; that the Ruler has to take special permission whenever he leaves the town; and that whenever the deity is taken out in procession, the Ruler leads the procession with the sword drawn out, along with the heir apparent, establish the special relationship that the erstwhile royal family in general and the Ruler in particular, have always had with Sri Padmanabhaswamy. The ceremony of Dedication undertaken by the then ruler in 1750 A.D. bears testimony to such relationship as well as the deep devotion and sense of complete surrender before Sri Padmanabhaswamy. “The Thrippati Danam”, the translation of which is set out in paragraph 5, shows that “all the lands and functions togetherwith all rights and dignities, positions of honour and all other possessions” that the royal family was enjoying hitherto before, were dedicated to Sri Padmanabhaswamy. Even the royal sword was placed with utmost reverence on the Ottakkal Mandapam leading to the Sanctum, which the King got back from the high priest. Every further acquisition by the King was always surrendered to Sri Padmanabhaswamy. The King and his successors thus ruled and conducted themselves as “Padmanabhadasas” and agents of Sri Padmanabhaswamy.”
The Court further noted, “tested on any parameter, such as historical accounts, popular and customary beliefs, certain practices connected with the rituals and affairs of the Temple that mandatorily require the presence and participation of the Ruler, deep involvement of the members of ruling family and their connection with the Temple and Sri Padmanabhaswamy at various stages of their lives, “The Thrippati Danam” and its significance, and long recognised and accepted fact that the management of the Temple had always been with the Ruler, lead us to conclude that for centuries, the Temple had been under the exclusive management of successive Rulers from the ruling family of Travancore and that the Rulers of Travancore, till the signing of the Covenant, were in the capacity as Managers or Shebaits of the Temple”
Shebaits of the Temple
Culling out the above major principles on Shebaitship, the Court concluded, “when the idol is installed and the temple is constructed or an endowment is founded, the shebaitship is vested in the founder and unless the founder himself has disposed of the shebaitship in a particular manner or there is some usage or custom or circumstances showing a different mode of devolution, the shebaitship like any other species of heritable property follows the line of inheritance from the founder; and it is nopen to the Court to lay down a new rule of succession or alter the rule of succession. It has also been laid down that the shebaitship has the elements of office and property, of duties and personal interest blended together and they invest the office of the shebait with the character of proprietary right. It has further been laid down that the shebait is the custodian of the idol, its earthly spokesman and the human ministrant; is entitled to deal with the temporal affairs and to manage the property of the idol; and even where no emoluments are attached to the office of the shebait, he has the right or interest in the endowed property which has the characteristics of a proprietary right.

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The Court on a close perusal of above principles observed that “If the instant case is considered on the touchstone of these settled principles, it is clear that after the major fire that occurred in the year 1686, the Temple was reconstructed and a new idol was installed by the King of Travancore Shri Marthand Varma and since then right upto the day the Covenant was signed, the management of the Temple had always been with the Kings of Travancore. The shebaitship or the managership of the Temple passed on to the succeeding Kings, coming from the royal family of Travancore. This chain was unbroken till the then Ruler of Travancore signed the Covenant in May 1949.
It may be noted here that on 10.08.1947 a proclamation was issued by the Ruler declaring that in matters of succession to the Rulership and to the throne and for all other purposes, the royal family was governed by the Marumakkathayam law, as modified by the custom and usage of the royal family. In a matter raising issues of succession to certain properties of the Ruler of Travancore, this Court in Revathinnal Balagopala Varma had found that the devolution in the royal family was from Ruler to Ruler. The shebaitship of the Temple had also passed from Ruler to Ruler consistent with the principles of succession otherwise applicable to the royal family.
The Court concluded, “We must thus conclude that as on the day when the Covenant was entered into by the Ruler of the Covenanting State of Travancore, apart from other incidents which normally follow the rulership, he was holding the office of Shebait of the Temple and represented a continuous and unbroken line of successive Shebaits traced from the original founder; and being a Shebait of the Temple, he was having all the rights and interest as laid down by decisions referred to hereinabove.”
Death of the Last Ruler & its Implications
While dealing with the issue of the right of the successors of the Ruler the Court observed “A subsidiary issue still needs to be dealt with, and that is whether the references in said Article were only to the person who was the Ruler at the time the Covenant was entered into and would not include successors to said Ruler.
The Court after in depth discussion conclu ded “ On the day when the Covenant became effective, the Ruler of the Covenanting State of Travancore, was holding the office of Shebait of the Temple, which was not in his official capacity as the Ruler; and that the effect of Sub Article (b) of Article VIII was not to invest any new authority and power in him for the first time because of his official status, but an acknowledgement of the existing authority and power already vested in him. It has also been concluded by us that the expression “Ruler of Travancore” in the Covenant and in the TC Act was only to identify the person, and that the official status of the Ruler of Travancore had no relation with such administration.”
“If according to the settled principles, the Shebaitship is like any other heritable property which would devolve in accordance with custom or usage, and that the rule of custom must prevail in all cases, even after the death of the erstwhile Ruler of Travancore in 1991, the Shebaitship of the Temple being unconnected with the official status of the person who signed the Covenant, must devolve by the applicable laws of succession and custom.”
Padmanabha Swami Temple Administration
The temple administration has been assigned to a two tier body comprising an Administrative Committee and an Advisory Committee based on the proposal submitted by the Royal Family with a minor change incorporated by the Hon’ble Court retaining the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram, as Chairperson of the Administrative Committee considering the successful track record .
The Trustee shall delegate his powers of administration under Section 18(2) of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 (the “Act”) to a Committee (the “Administrative Committee”) which shall administer the Temple through an Executive Officer to be appointed by the Committee. 3. The District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram, shall be the Chairperson of the Administrative Committee ; (b) one member nominated by the trustee; (c) one member nominated by the Government of Kerala; (d) one member nominated by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India; and (e) the Chief Thantri of the temple. 4. All members of the Administrative Committee shall be Hindus, who shall satisfy the requirements under the proviso to Section 2(aa) of the Act, as amended, for being appointed as members of the Travancore Devaswom Board.
On all policy matters relating to temple administration, the Trustee shall be guided by the advice of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Committee constituted under Section 20 of the Act (the “Advisory Committee”).
The Advisory Committee shall consist of: (a) 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. (b) One eminent person to be nominated by the Trustee; and (c) A reputed chartered Accountant to be nominated by the Chairperson in consultation with the Trustee.
(The writer is a Delhi-based lawyer)