Case BriefsSupreme Court

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]

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of Arun Mishra, MR Shah and S. Ravindra Bhatt, JJ issued a slew of directions to ensure proper darshan of the deity at Shri Jagannath Temple, Puri by all the devotes and has asked the Temple Administration and the Chief Administrator including the State Government to prepare a roadmap with the help of experts for having proper darshan by the devotees/pilgrims and to implement it effectively and to ensure that there is no commotion so that everybody is able to have darshan peacefully without any obstruction by anybody.

Asking the State Government to depute full time Chief Administrator, not by way of additional charge forthwith, the Court said,

“It is apparent that various aspects have to be gone into and considered by the Temple Managing Committee and wherever the Government role comes in, the Government has to do the needful after taking all the stakeholders into confidence.”

The Court said that there should not be any commotion and chaos as large number of pilgrims are visiting the Temple every day.  It is a pious duty to provide proper darshan in systematic manner and to take care of the aged, the infirm and children. It is for the experts to suggest what system can be devised without disturbances to the rituals to be performed in Temple and passage required for it and thereafter Temple Management Committee and Administration have to consider it.

The main aspects that the bench has highlighted in the verdict are as follows:

Misconduct/Indiscipline by Temple servitors/incumbents

Chief Administrator of the Temple, for the time being, may take appropriate steps against such servitors/incumbents, who create obstruction in seva/puja/niti and are involved in misbehavior and misconduct against the employees of the Temple Administration or with devotees.

Nitis/Rituals to be performed at Temple

Temple Managing Committee must ensure that as suggested by Srimad Jagadguru Shankaracharya and also as per Record of Rights, nitis and puja are performed each and every day.

Setting up of schools for the children of servitors

Suitable place to be allotted for the school for children of servitors for their proper education as may be considered necessary. The school should also cater to other members of the public, and not exclusively for children of such servitors. The cost of Rs.5 crores imposed on Kalinga Institute of Medical Sciences, lying in deposit in Supreme Court along with interest, to be utilized for the purpose of setting up the school and its infrastructure.

Accommodation for pilgrims

With respect to the accommodation not only the Temple Administration, but the Government can also do the needful as that is for providing shelter to humanity, which is necessary. When there is a vast congregation of people, it becomes the Government’s duty to ensure welfare, law and order, hygiene and provide proper amenities and sanitation facilities.

Training to servitors

Proper training must be imparted to the servitors as they are in very large number and it must be ensured that only qualified servitors in traditional nitis and ritual, perform seva, puja and nitis.

Economic welfare of servitors

It is for the Temple Administration and for the Government as it provides grants to temple to ensure that servitors are looked after properly. At the same time, it is also necessary to ensure that pilgrims are not harassed for obtaining donations and donations are properly accounted.

 I­-Cards for servitors and staff

The servitors and staff should be provided with I­Cards so that unscrupulous persons are not able to present themselves as servitors or staff members and the people are not misled on the basis of wrong identity.

Misbehavior with the women, snatching of ornaments, etc

If incidents relating to the misbehavior with the women, snatching of ornaments, etc are taking place, it has to be dealt with all seriousness with firm hand and there should not be any room for such incidents. There should be a dedicated section of personnel to tighten security inside the temple and only to ensure that no such incident takes place in the Temples and no misbehavior is meted out to women.

The Court also issued various directions on management of Immovable Properties/Quarries/Mines belonging to the Shri Jagannath Temple and maintenance of hygiene in the temple premises.

With respect to valuables of the Temple, the Bench asked the Temple Management to place before it the details of the kind of inventory it has prepared and how it proposes to secure the valuables of the Temple and ornaments offered by the devotees.

The Court will next take up the matter on January 8th, 2020.

[Mrinalini Padhi v. Union of India, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 1415, decided on 04.11.2019]