Litigations Over, Or……?
Have we heard the last word in law in the protracted case relating to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram whose dazzling treasures in many underground vaults make it arguably the richest shrine in the world?
The most important, and the most welcome, aspect of the exhaustive 218-page, 62,744-word judgment handed down in July 2020 by a two-Judge bench of the Supreme Court of India is that it has laid down procedure for a judicially controlled setup for the future administration of the Temple which the Court designated as a public Temple.
Though the judgment dealt at length with the fascinating history, legends and religious practices associated with this Temple and examined several judicial pronouncements in comparable cases in other parts of India before going into the finer aspects of the litigation, a lay observer may get the feeling at the end of reading it that the last word in the law of the land is perhaps not spoken yet. This is because at least some questions appear to remain unanswered and some issues glossed over only.
The Supreme Court set aside a landmark 2011 judgment of the Kerala High Court directing the State Government to take immediate steps to assume management and control of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and its properties, till then managed and controlled by the erstwhile royal family of Travancore. The High Court had based its decision on the ground that after the death of the last Maharaja of Travancore Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma in 1991, who was designated as the ‘Ruler of Travancore’ in the Covenant that the Government of India entered with the princely Rulers of Travancore and Cochin during the integration of states in 1949, no one in the erstwhile royal family could stake a claim to that title. The ‘Ruler,’ for all practical and legal purposes, was the State government and it was the duty of the State Government to assume absolute control of the Temple and its very valuable properties.
The High Court had said in its judgment that the central issue in the two writ petitions before it was whether the younger brother (Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma) of the last Ruler of Travancore could, after the death of the last Ruler on 20.07.1991, claim to be the ‘Ruler of Travancore’ within the meaning of that term contained in Section 18(2) of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 “to claim ownership, control and management of the ancient and great Temple in Kerala namely, the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple.”
Pointing out that the definition of ‘Ruler’ appearing in Article 366 (22) of the Constitution of India was amended by the Constitution (Twenty Sixth Amendment) Act, 1971, which abolished privy purses and all privileges of the former princely rulers, the High Court said the appellant could not claim to be in control or management of the Temple as successor to the last Ruler.
The High Court thereafter issued directions to the State Government “to immediately take steps to constitute a body corporate or trust or other legal authority to take over control of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, its assets and management and to run the same in accordance with all the traditions hitherto followed.”
The High Court also issued an order of injunction against the petitioners, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma (since deceased) and the Executive Officer of the Temple, who were respondents in another writ petition, from opening any of the ‘Kallaras’ (underground vaults) or removing any of the articles from them. However, it permitted use of such articles required for rituals, ceremonies and regular poojas in the Temple until the Temple was taken over by the Authority envisaged by it.
Detailing the history of the Temple, the Supreme Court quoted the High Court as saying that ‘the most important temple in this State has always been, and still is, the Padmanabha Temple, richly endowed and possessing very extensive landed properties.’
“These were originally managed by a Yogam (or Synod) of eight hereditary trustees and the Ruler, but at the beginning of the eighteenth century the Yogam was ousted and the administration of the temple, together with its properties, was taken over entirely by the Ruler. Thereafter the temple properties became intermixed with the properties of the State.”
This Yogam, according to History of Travancore From The Earliest Times (1878) by P Shangunney Menon, came into being in ME 225 (AD1050) for the administration of the temple and its properties. Named Ettara Yogam (Eight and a half Yogam) it comprised six Potties (Brahmins), the head priest of the Temple,one Nair chieftain, all having one vote each, and the Ruler having just half a vote. The role of the Ruler was insignificant and all he had to do was to go by the dictates of the Yogam in regard to certain Temple rituals.The Yogam had the backing of the Ettuveetil Pillamar (chieftains of eight noble houses), in temporal affairs, like managing the extensive Temple lands and collecting revenue from tenants. The Temple naturally was the pivot of all activities of the Venad kingdom, and there was constant friction for centuries between the Ruler on the one side and the Yogam and Pillamar on the other, the Ruler trying for supremacy and the Yogam and the Pillamar resisting all such attempts.
According to Shangunney Menon the Yogam was so powerful that it could even impose hefty fines on the Ruler for alleged negligence of Temple affairs or slight of Yogam members. It was Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma (1706 –1758), the creator of the kingdom of Travancore through conquests of many neighbouring principalities, who took over full control of the temple and its properties after extermination of the Ettuveetil Pillamar. The Temple came under the direct control of the king ever since.
Throughout the case in the High Court and during much of the proceedings in the Supreme Court, the royal litigant had taken the stand that the Temple and all the treasures it contained were private property of the family. It was only in the later stage in the Supreme Court that the family accepted it as a public Temple.
The High Court declared that “After the death of the last ruler of Travancore, the present Ruler happens to be the State Government and so much so, by operation of Section 18(2) of the TC Act, the Temple, on death of the last Ruler, reverts back to the State for administration by it.”
This judgment, however, was not accepted by the Supreme Court which found that though the position as Ruler came to an end, the last Ruler’s concurrent status as ‘Shebait’ of the Temple continued.
Incidentally, Shebait was a word used just once in the High Court judgment, that too while quoting an earlier ruling by the Supreme Court. To buttress its point on the relationship between the last Ruler and the Temple in religious and ritual matters, the Supreme Court, however, used ‘Shebait’ and ‘Shebaitship’ as many as 187 times in its judgment which examined various past pronouncements of the Supreme Court on litigations relating to management of places of worship by erstwhile Rulers in north India.
The expression Shebait, the Court explained, derived from ‘sewa’ which meant service one rendered to an idol or a deity. ‘Every Ruler of Travancore would call himself “Padmanabhadasa” i.e. one who is engaged in the service of Sri Padmanabhaswamy.’
Giving its ruling, the Supreme Court said: “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.”
The Court also noted the submission by the erstwhile royal family about the change in their stand on the status of the temple. Their affidavit said: “It is only when Valiya Thampuran Sree Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma decided to file the Special Leave Petition against the present impugned Judgment of the High Court that he was strongly advised to give up his stand that the temple is a private temple which vested in the family, and, on the other hand, to take the stand that the temple is a public temple…”
Between 2011 when it stayed the operation of the High Court judgment and 2020 when it finally passed its orders, the Supreme Court had constituted various committees as interim measures to deal with the management of the Temple. These included interim Administrative Committee, Expert Committee for inventorying of treasures in Kallaras, Supervising Committee, Overseeing Committee, Audit Committee, Restoration Committee, Sreekovil Committee etc. It also ordered that the keys of all Kallaras, except E and F used for articles of regular use, should be handed over to the Chairperson of the Administrative Committee.
In the wake of the Court’s interim orders, during the period from 2012 to 2019 positive action was taken in many areas, including digital archiving of the Temple's immense treasures, beefing up of security of the Temple, laying down procedure for transparent audit of Temple accounts etc. An amount of Rs 6.02 crore had been spent on Digital Archiving of Temple Antiques (DATA) during the period , Rs 1.21 crore on strengthening the Kallara A, Rs 1.20 crore on the Expert Commiittee, Rs 48 lakh on the Audit Committee and Rs two crore on the renovation of two Temple ponds.
The Court had invited suggestions from the litigants on the future setup of Administration of the Temple. While it turned down a proposal from the state Government for the constitution of an eight-member Committee on the model of that in Guruvayur Temple, it. accepted the suggestion by the erstwhile royal family for the formation of a five-member committee, with one modification. The Committee, it said, would have the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram, as Chairperson as against the suggestion to have a retired IAS officer to head the panel.
Though the Court made a reference to the submission of a two-volume Special Audit Report by former Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) Vinod Rai, which, according to press reports, unearthed serious anomalies and irregularities in Temple accounts, it could not be taken up for consideration before giving the July order.
There had been much superstitious speculation on Kallara B, about which the Court had earlier said that it would give appropriate instructions on its opening for the purpose of inventorying. Though the other five vaults were opened in late 2011, revealing treasures of a mind-boggling nature, the question of opening Kallara B was deferred for the time being.
During the world media blitz that followed the opening of the first few vaults, The New Yorker magazine had this to say on Kallara B in its issue of April 2012: “The Supreme Court responded to the Devaprasnam (an astrological prediction in the Temple sponsored by the erstwhile royal family) with a statement: ‘Secret Vault B is not being opened now . . . but we will make a decision and do not propose to hand over the decision to others. Impractical or superstitious decisions and security can’t go hand in hand.’ The Court kept delaying its decision, however, and by mid-fall Vault B had still not been opened.”
A decision evaded the issue of Vault B even eight years later, with the Supreme Court now preferring to leave the matter to the discretion of the Administrative Committee of the Temple.
The erstwhile royal family had always been vocal in opposing the opening of Kallara B, saying misfortune would befall in the event of its opening, but press reports had quoted the former CAG as saying that he had found evidence that Kallara B had been opened as many as seven times -- twice in 1990 and five times in 2002—and silver ingots and other items taken out and taken back.
What does the vault contain? Only silver ingots? No one knows. It remains to be seen if there ever will be an inventory of the presumably vast and solid treasures in this Kallara, which is undoubtedly the most important , the largest and the most mysterious of all the six vaults in the Temple.
Unmindful of all this hubbub and the more than a decade-long turmoil it caused in court rooms from Thiruvananthapuram to New Delhi, this Mahakshethra stands upright, in all glory and quiet majesty, its presiding Deity continuing in his perpetual, blissful Yoganidra.
And an ardent devotee, whose day will not be complete without an early morning visit to the Temple, could be expressing the view of all devotees and faithfuls when she said :Whatever happened in the past or is happening now or going to happen in the future could only be as per the will of the Lord.
Image courtesy The New Indian Express