Supreme Court: The bench of UU Lalit and Indu Malhotra, JJ has upheld the rights of the Travancore royal family in the administration of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, one of the world’s richest temples, in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram. Allowing the appeal filed by members of the Travancore family, the Court observed that the death of the Travancore ruler, who signed the covenant, does not affect the rights of the Shebaitship Travancore family over the temple and it will survive as per the customs.
The Court noticed 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.
After referring to a number of decisions, the Court concluded that 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 not open to the Court to lay down a new rule of succession or alter the rule of succession.
“… 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.”
Key takeaways from the 218 pages long verdict:
- Article VIII of the Covenant not only acknowledged and accepted the factum that the administration with respect to the Temple, its properties, as well as with respect to Pandaravaga properties, had already vested in “the Ruler of the Covenanting State of Travancore”, but the said Article expressly continued the same status and stipulated that such administration shall be conducted subject to the supervision and control of “the Ruler of Travancore”, the meaning of which expression has already been dealt with and deduced earlier.
- Provisions of the Constitution of India as it stood before the Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Act, 197,as well as that of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 (TC Act) did not, in any way, upset or abridge the status enjoyed by the Ruler of Travancore as Shebait of the Temple and also did not, in any manner, adversely impact the right of administration vested in the Ruler of Travancore. As a matter of fact, the relevant provisions of the TC Act afforded statutory flavour to the status contemplated by Article VIII of the Covenant.
- The Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Act, 1971 did not in any way impact or affect the administration of the Temple, Sri Pandaravaga properties and the properties of the Temple, which continued to be under the control and supervision of the Ruler of Travancore.
- The death of Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma who had signed the Covenant, would not in any way affect the Shebaitship of the Temple held by the royal family of Travancore; that after such death, the Shebaitship must devolve in accordance with the applicable law and custom upon his successor; that the expression “Ruler of Travancore” as appearing in Chapter III of Part I of the TC Act must include his natural successors according to law and custom; and that the Shebaitship did not lapse in favour of the State by principle of escheat.
Modification in the composition of the interim Administrative Committee
Considering the fact that the present interim Administrative Committee headed by the District Judge is in seisin for the last more than five years, and various District Judges as Chairpersons of the Committee conducted themselves quite well, the Court was opinion that a minor change in the Administrative Committee was called for. It hence, directed,
“Instead of a retired Indian Administrative Service Officer of the rank of Secretary to the Government of Kerala as the Chairperson of the Administrative Committee, in the interest of justice, the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram shall be the Chairperson of the Committee. Needless to say that the present Chairperson of the Interim Administrative Committee shall continue to be the Chairperson so long as he holds the post of the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram. The composition of the Advisory Committee will ensure that the administration of the Temple is conducted in a fair and transparent manner.”
Directions to the interim Administrative Committee
The Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee shall do well to discharge all their functions including performance of the worship of the deity, maintenance of its properties, diligently and in the best interest of the Temple, and provide adequate and requisite facilities to the worshippers; and more particularly:-
(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
(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.
(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.
[Sri Marthanda Varma (D) v. State of Kerala, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 569, decided on 13.07.2020]