Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple case: SC upholds rights of Travancore’s erstwhile royal family

The top court reversed the finding of the High Court of Kerala that the rights of family ceased to exist with the death of the last ruler of the Travancore in 1991

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NH Web Desk

The Supreme Court on Monday upheld the rights of erstwhile royal family of Travancore in the administration of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram, legal news website LiveLaw.in has reported.

Allowing the appeal filed by members of the Travancore family, the top court reversed the finding of the High Court of Kerala that the rights of family ceased to exist with the death of the last ruler of the Travancore in 1991. Death will not affect the rights of shebaitship of the family over the deity and they will survive as per custom, ruled the Court.

The SC also approved the continuation of the interim committee headed by District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram to manage the affairs of the temple till the constitution of a new committee.

Notably, the top court has not expressed anything on the opening of the contentious "B Kallara" (Vault B), and has left it to be decided by the committee.

A bench led by Justice UU Lalit pronounced judgment in the appeals challenging a 2011 Kerala High Court judgment, which directed the government to take over control of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, its assets and management. The High Court bench comprising of Justices C.N. Ramachandran Nair and K. Surendra Mohan had directed the government to open all Kallaras (vaults), make inventory of the entire articles and create a museum and exhibit all the treasures of the temple for the public, devotees and the tourists to view the same which could be arranged on payment basis in the temple premises itself.

"In our view, there is no purpose in keeping the treasures of the temple acquired by it in the course of several centuries as a mystery..", the HC had observed.

A bench comprising Justice Uday Umesh Lalit & Indu Malhotra had finally heard the appeals in April last year. Senior advocate Gopal Subramanian was appointed as amicus curiae in the matter. Former CAG Vinod Rai was also appointed to audit the records including expenditures incurred for temple's upkeep.

In 2011, the inventory revealed an extravagant wealth of approximately Rupees 1 lakh crores, in the form of jewellery, idols, etc, following the opening of five "kallaras"(vaults).

The opening of B Kallara was however put on hold, following objections from the family that it will invite divine wrath.

Background

As per the instrument of accession between the princely state of Travancore & Cochin and the Government of India entered in 1949, the administration of the temple was vested with the "Ruler of Travancore".

Later, by operation of Section 18(2) of the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, the management of the temple continued to be vested in Trust in the last Ruler of Travancore. The last Ruler of Travancore, until his death on 20.7.1991 continued to manage the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple by virtue of powers conferred on him under Section 18(2) of the TC Act.

Even after the death of the last Ruler, the state allowed the management of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple to be taken over and retained by the Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the brother of the last Ruler after the latter's death.

After Marthanda Varma made a claim that the treasures of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple are the family properties of the erstwhile Royal Family of Travancore, several devotees approached Civil Courts in Trivandrum filing Suits for declaration and for injunction.

Proceedings before the HC

Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma and some others approached the High Court in this matter. The court clubbed the cases together and considered the issue whether the younger brother of the last Ruler of Travancore could after the death of the last Ruler on 20.7.1991 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 located at Trivandrum.

Answering this issue against Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the Court held that the "Ruler" is not a status that could be acquired through succession and therefore, after death of the last Ruler on 20.7.1991, there is no Ruler in the erstwhile State of Travancore. It further held that Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma cannot step into the shoes of the last Ruler to claim management of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple by relying on the powers conferred under Section 18(2) of the TC Act.

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