In a bold, blunt and brilliant decision, the Supreme Court Bench of Justice Uday Umesh Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra in Sri Marthanda Varma (D) Thr. LRs & Anr. in Civil Appeal No. 2732 of 2020 [Arising out of Special Leave Petition (C) No. 11295 of 2011 Vs. State of Kerala & Ors.] upheld the Shebait rights of the erstwhile royals of Travancore in the administration, maintenance and management of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. While allowing the appeal filed by the members of the Travancore family, the top court reversed the 2011 finding of the High Court of Kerala that the rights of the family ceased to exist with the death of the last ruler of Travancore in 1991. It was also made clear that the death of the last ruler will not result in escheat of the rights in favour of the government. In addition, the death will not affect the rights of shebaitship of the family over the deity and they will survive as per custom.
Before going into the nitty gritty, it would certainly be worthwhile to first go through the correct chronological order of this high profile case. It goes as follows:
2009 : TP Sundarajan who is an ex-IPS officer moves the Kerala High Court seeking transfer of control of temple from the royal family to Kerala state.
5-2-2010 : Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma (since deceased) who was managing trustee of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple files a writ in the Kerala High Court challenging all civil cases filed against the temple management in subordinate courts.
31-1-2011 : Kerala High Court Division Bench led by Justice CN Ramachandran Nair (since retired) passes a verdict directing the State Government to constitute a body corporate to take over the temple and its assets.
2-5-2011 : An appeal of Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma who is brother of the last ruler is heard in the Supreme Court which grants interim stay on High Court’s directives and appoints a team of observers to take a detailed inventory of the articles/valuables/ornaments in Kallaras (vaults) on a special leave petition moved by Uthradam.
8-7-2011 : The apex court orders that opening of vaults A and B be kept in abeyance until further orders.
21-7-2011 : Supreme Court considers state’s response and directs setting up of an expert panel to advise on inventory and conservation.
22-9-2011 : Supreme Court examines interim report of the Expert Committee and issues directions.
23-8-2012 : Apex Court examines the interim report of the Expert Committee.
6-12-2013 : Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma passes away.
15-4-2014 : The amicus curiae submits his report.
24-4-2014 : The top court appoints an administrative committee headed by the District Judge of Thiruvananthapuram to manage the temple.
27-11-2014 : The Apex Court accepts some of the recommendations by the amicus curiae.
4-7-2017 : The top court appoints Justice KSP Radhakrishnan as Chairman of the Selection Committee for the Sreekovil.
Jan-Apr 2019 : The case comes up before the Apex Court Bench of Justice UU Lalit and Justice Indu Malhotra for final hearing.
10-4-2019 : Apex Court reserves its verdict on pleas challenging January 31, 2011 judgment of the Kerala High Court in the matter and concludes hearing.
13-7-2020 : Apex Court finally upholds the right of the royal family of erstwhile Travancore family to manage the deity’s property.
Needless to say, what tilted the scales in favour of erstwhile Travancore royal family is stated quite upfront in para 54 that, “Though there may be different accounts and beliefs with regard to the origin and how the Temple was set up, every version accepts that the King of Travancore had a role in the administration of the Temple to begin with, and that he was the one who re-constructed the Temple after a major fire that occurred in the year 1686, and installed a new idol and took full control of the Temple. The King of Travancore was thus responsible for setting up the Temple, in the form that it stands today, and it was the King who installed the new idol, and since then the management of the Temple, till the Covenant was signed, had always been with the Kings of Travancore.”
Briefly stated, while lending further credence to the claims of the erstwhile royal family, it is also then rightly added in para 55 that, “It is also asserted in the grounds in support of the appeal, that the royal family of Travancore had been making endowments in favour of the Temple and that Lord Padmanabha is considered as the family deity by the erstwhile royal family.”
More significantly, it is then stated in para 59 that, “The practices referred to in the earlier paragraph 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 fact 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 together with 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.”
No less significant is what is then stated in para 60 that, “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. The expression Shebait is derived from “sewa” which means service and Shebait, in literal sense, means one who renders “sewa” to the idol or a deity. Every Ruler of Travancore would call himself “Padmanabhadasa” i.e. one who is engaged in the service of Sri Padmanabha Swamy.”
Be it noted, it is very rightly pointed out in para 107 that, “In the circumstances, we hold that 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.”
To put things in perspective, it is very rightly envisaged in para 114 that, “Having given our anxious consideration to the rival suggestions, the composition of the Committees as suggested by the appellants deserves acceptance, especially in light of the conclusions arrived by us that the Managership or the Shebaitship of the Temple continues with the Family. 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 appellant is quite balanced. The Composition of the Administrative Committee as suggested is broad based and would not be loaded in favour or against the Trustee. However, considering the fact that the present interim Administrative Committee headed by the District Judge is in session for the last more than five years, and various District Judges as Chairpersons of the Committee conducted themselves quite well, in our view, a minor change in the Administrative Committee suggested by the appellants in their Note is called for. 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 Administrative 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.”
As it ostensibly turned out, it is then stated in para 115 that, “We, therefore, accept the suggestions made by the appellants in their Note adverted to in detail in paragraph 47 hereinabove with regard to the constitution of the Administrative Committee and the Advisory Committee subject to the modification with respect to the Chairperson of the Administrative Committee as stated in the preceding paragraph. The appellant No. 1 shall file an appropriate affidavit of undertaking within four weeks of this judgment in terms of paragraph 1 of the Note and also agreeing to the modification as stated above. The affidavit of undertaking so filed shall be binding on the appellant No. 1 and all his successors. Within four weeks of filing of the affidavit of undertaking, both the Committees shall be constituted and become functional. The Administrative Committee shall immediately appoint the Executive Officer. Upon the constitution of the Administrative Committee, the Interim Administrative Committee appointed in terms of the Order dated 24.04.2014 shall cease to operate. In terms of the Note submitted by the appellants 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. All the other Committees constituted in terms of various orders passed by this Court shall continue for four months, and it shall be upto the Advisory Committee to consider whether the services of those Committees are required or not. It must also be stated that the present security arrangements as deployed by the State Government shall be continued, but the expenses in that behalf shall be borne by the Temple hereafter.”
On the whole, this latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment clearly and convincingly upholds the right of “Managership or the Shebaitship” of Sree Padmabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala to the royal family of Travancore which had been denied to them by the Kerala High Court earlier but it also simultaneously makes it clear that the administration of the temple will be managed by a Committee headed by a District Judge and also consist of chief ‘Thantri’ of the temple and three others nominated by the trustee, the Kerala government and the culture ministry. It was also clarified that the family would not have absolute say in the administration as it agreed before the court to delegate its power to the administrative committee. The royal family also had taken an unequivocal stand before the Apex Court that “the temple is a public temple and no claim can probably be made by the petitioner or anyone to owning the temple or its treasures.”
It also told the court that it was only seeking the right as a trustee of the temple to manage and administer. The court also ordered a second committee to be constituted to advise the administrative committee on policy matters. This would be chaired by a retired High Court Judge nominated by the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court.
Both Committees should start functioning within the next two months and an executive officer should be appointed without delay. They would take a call on whether to open Kallara B which is considered to be the richest among the temple vaults, for inventorisation. The court also ordered an audit to be conducted for the past 25 years. Audit results have to be filed annually with the State Accountant General. The court ordered status report to be field by the second week of December 2020. A further report should be filed after audit on March 31, 2020.
While granting managerial rights to the royal family, the Bench said plainly that, “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.” It also said that the “Constitution of India as well as the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions 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.”
The Apex Court also directed the royal family to file an appropriate affidavit of undertaking within four weeks agreeing to the judgment and said it will be binding on the family members and its successors. It said both the committees will have to be constituted and become functional within four weeks after the affidavit is filed! Ex-royals are certainly happy as they have got the right to manage the deity’s property! Aditya Varma who is scion of Travancore royal family said that, “It is the victory of devotees and people, not the victory of royals.” But truth cannot be denied that the royal family had pursued the prolonged legal battle with full determination leaving no stone unturned and their tireless efforts didn’t go in vain!