Importance of SC verdict on Padmanabha Swami Temple in protection of Hindu traditions

Apex court sets aside Kerala High Court order; recognises right of Travancore Royal family in the administration of the temple

The Supreme Court, on Monday (July 13), in a path-breaking judgment, set aside the Kerala High Court judgment which denied any role of the Travancore Royal family in the administration of Padmanabha Swami Temple. The Travancore Royal family’s right over the temple administration came under dispute when after the last ruler’s death, the new ruler took over the control and management of the temple and took photographs of the treasures of the temple and made a claim which was published in vernacular daily Kerala Kaumudi on September 15, 2007.

The Royal family had claimed that treasures of the Padmanabha Swami temple were family property of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore. Many devotees, rushed to the civil courts in the capital city of Kerala, thereby challenging the claim of the royal family and sought injunction against those who are in control and management of the temple and against the opening of the treasure vaults of the temple.

Marthanda Varma took over the control of the temple administration and renovated the temple and installed a new Idol. The King surrendered his Kingdom before the deity and declared himself dasa or “servant of the Lord” and assumed the title “Padmanabha Dasa” meaning thereby, servant of the Lord.

The Travancore Royal family approached the Hon’ble High Court of Kerala for transferring all the cases from the Civil courts jurisdiction. Writ petition 4256/2010 was filed, thereby seeking direction declaring the entitlement of the petitioners to run the temple. Another petition 36487/2009 was also filed by a devotee, challenging the authority of the brother of the last ruler of Travancore and executive officer appointed by him to run the temple. The Padmanabha Swami temple, before taking over by King Marthanda Varma, was under the control of “Ettarayogam” (group of eight-and-a-half), consisting of seven Brahmins, one Nair Chieftain, and the King who had only half-a-vote, while all others had one vote each. While the committee of Brahmins controlled the temple, the properties of the temple were managed by Ettuveetil Pillamars. The eight Nair chieftains, belonged to eight influential families, spread over different villages of the Travancore state. The King was relegated to a very limited authority and there were frequent disputes between the King and the potties, who managed the affairs of the temple.

Eventually, there was a full-fledged tussle between Marthanda Varma and the Ettarayogam Potties and the Ettuveetil Pillamars, they plotted against Marthanda Varma becoming the king and in the fierce battle which followed Marthanda Varma succeeded and executed all the adversaries. Marthanda Varma took over the control of the temple administration and renovated the temple and installed a new Idol. The King surrendered his Kingdom before the deity and declared himself dasa or “servant of the Lord” and assumed the title “Padmanabha Dasa” meaning thereby, servant of the Lord.

The temple continued to be under the direct control and management of the King of Travancore. After commencement of the constitution, the TC Act was enacted, which specifically incorporated the provision of the covenant vesting the management of the Padmanabha Swami temple with the ruler of Travancore. Section 18 of the TC Act vesting in trust the management of Sree Padmanabha Swami temple with the ruler of Travancore is as under: 18 Administration by executive officer:- (1) how to the amount of 40 lakhs and Rs 50,000 provided for payment of the devaswom fund in Article 290 A of the Constitution of India, a contribution of Rs 6,00,000 shall be made annually towards the expenditure in the Sree Padmanabha Swami temple. (2) that minister of the Sree Padmanabha Swami temple, the Sree Pandaravaka properties and all other properties and funds of the set temple vested in trust in the ruler of Travancore and the sum of Rs 6 lakh mentioned in section 1 shall be conducted, subject to the control and supervision of the ruler of Travancore, by an executive officer appointed by him.

The Kerala High Court had to answer the question whether the ruler of Travancore under subsection (2) above would include the brother of the last ruler of Travancore, who died on 20.07.1991 and the successive senior members of the royal family that ruled the princely state of Travancore, as claimed by the petitioner. The claim of the brother of the last ruler was that the Padmanabha Swami temple will be perfectly under the control of his family. Since the word ruler was not defined in the TC Act, the Kerala High Court referred to the definition of ruler as substituted in Article 366 (22) of the constitution with effect from 28.12.1971 which is as follows: “Ruler” means the prince, chief or other person who, at any time before the commencement of the constitution (26th Amendment) Act, 1971, was recognised by the President as the ruler of Indian state or any person who at any time before sis commencement was recognised by the president as the successor of such ruler.”

The Kerala High Court observed that the ruler of Travancore, Late Sree Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma, ruled Travancore asking for 18 years from 1931 to 1949, and who was raja pramukh of Travancore-Cochin for 6 years thereafter and continued to manage the Padmanabha Swami temple until his death on 20.07 1991, he never claimed Sree Padmanabha Swami temple as the family temple of the royal family of Travancore or as his individual property.

Kerala High Court further observed that even in a suit in which he succeeded which was filed by a family member seeking partition of the royal family property, the contention of Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma was, he was not the Karta of the family nor the family was a joint family. He had executed a detailed bill bequeathing the properties and the same never included Sree Padmanabha Swami Temple as his personal property.

The Kerala High Court further observed that Article viii b of the accession agreement and section 18 (2 ) of the TC Act stated that “temple is vested in trust in the ruler of Travancore”. Obviously, if temple was the family property of the royal family or the private property of the King, then there was no need for specific provision in accession agreement or in the TC Act providing for vesting of the temple in trust in the hands of the last ruler of Travancore. The Kerala High Court further observed that the conspicuous word used to qualify vesting is “in trust” which means that it is for the benefit of somebody.

The court arrived in a conclusion that the beneficiaries are obviously the devotees, the state, and the public at large and all those who have an interest in the temple and further ruled that the last ruler was only a trustee who retained the control over the temple for the benefit of the devotees, the state and public at large. It further went on to conclude that the term “Ruler” used in the covenant of accession agreement and in section 18(2) of the TC, probably has only a literal meaning to describe Sree Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma, who was the last ruler of Travancore and the signatory to the accession agreement.

Kerala High Court further concluded that the continuous funding of the temple by the state government at the rate of Rs 6,00,000 annually clearly established that it is a public temple which was allowed to be managed through the life of the last Ruler of the Travancore. The contention of the Travancore royal family before the Kerala High Court was that the “Ruler” referred in section 18 (2) of TC Act is a permanent concept which takes in the senior members of successive generations of the royal family of Travancore i.e. the last Ruler’s family. On the other hand, there was rival contention that the term “ruler” as defined in the TC Act section 18 (2) who was the last ruler of Travancore Sree Chitra Thirunal Balarama Varma, who died on 20.07.1991. They further contended that after the death of the last ruler of Travancore, the ruler of Travancore at present is the State, which is the State government and it is bound to take over the Padmanabha Swami temple and manage the same bi constituting a devaswom board or trust or any activity similar to the Guruvayoor or the Koodalmanikyam devaswoms. They further point to the 26th amendment of the Constitution and the new definition of ruler introduced in Article 366 (22) and the abolition of all the privileges and personal rights of the erstwhile rulers.

The Kerala High Court dismissed the claim of the Royal family that the senior member of the Travancore royal family after the death of the last ruler has become the ruler in the light of 26th   amendment of the Constitution. The court further concluded that since the date is a perpetual minor and the Padmanabha Swami temple being a public temple the Kerala High Court is exercising the jurisdiction as parent patriae. 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 other legal authority to take control of the Sree Padmanabha Swami temple its assets and manage and to run the same in accordance with the traditions.

The Travancore Royal family challenged the said directive of the Kerala High Court before the Supreme Court and the court set aside the order passed by the Kerala High Court and recognised the right of the Travancore Royal family in the administration of the temple. The apex court has allowed the continuance of interim administering committee headed by the district judge for the time being. The apex court judgment is path-breaking and shall have an overwhelming impact on various other cases which is pending before the court and it is interesting to note the Government of Kerala’s reaction to the judgment that it will abide by the apex court directives, this assumes utmost significance in the light of the varying stance it took during the Sabarimala judgment.