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BT Buzz: What Padmanabha temple verdict means for 'religious' battles with government

As per an old estimate by the World Gold Council, gold holdings in India could be about 3,000-4,000 tonnes in the form of coins, jewellery and gold articles, besides diamonds, which are not segregated by value. It is also impossible to measure the value of many of these due to its antiquity

twitter-logoPB Jayakumar | July 14, 2020 | Updated 19:47 IST
BT Buzz: What Padmanabha temple verdict means for 'religious' battles with government
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The Supreme Court on Monday ruled the royal family of Travancore will have rights to manage affairs of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram and the state cannot stake claim to its riches. The verdict is potent enough to influence outcome of similar such disputes going on between religious institutions and the government.

Sources point out that several such disputes have been ongoing between the government and religious institutions on management of power and wealth. Most of the large temples in the country are managed by different management committees and often disputes happen over their administration and ownership of wealth. Recently, it was a hot debate whether to take over temples' wealth to manage the COVID-19 crisis, they note.

As per an old estimate by the World Gold Council, gold holdings in India could be about 3,000-4,000 tonnes in the form of coins, jewellery and gold articles, besides diamonds, which are not segregated by value. It is also impossible to measure the value of many of these due to its antiquity. The Tirupati Sri Venkateswara Temple in Andhra Pradesh gets about 100 kg of gold every month and is believed to be the richest temple in India. Some of the other temples having huge gold holdings of above 150-200 kilogram of gold include Vaishno Devi Temple, Mumbai's Siddhivinayak Temple, Shirdi Saibaba temple, the Shree Krishna Temple in Guruvayur, Puri Jagannath Temple and the likes. A gold monetisation scheme offered by the government also had caused conflict within many temple authorities whether to encash their gold holdings. The Travancore Devaswom Board in Kerala, which runs over 1300 temples in the state, had recently taken stock of its gold and offerings by the devotees. Many devotees vociferously opposed the move, citing it as an attempt to sell the temple riches to tide over the Board's financial crisis.

What Padmanabhaswamy temple issue is about

The Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, has six underground hidden cellars with the largest treasure in the world - estimates from five of the six 'kallaras' or granite vaults in 2011 revealed a rare treasure of gold, gem and diamond antiques, utensils and ornaments worth at least Rs 90,000 crore to Rs 1,30,000 crore. None has clue on what is hidden in the remaining chamber, built many centuries ago. The temple is managed by a trust belonging to the erstwhile rulers of the region, the Travancore kings.

Kingdoms and their royal lives are now history. The last ruler of Travancore till 1947, Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, had passed away in 1991. India is now ruled by democratically elected federal governments. Therefore, the treasure and temple belong to the state, not the descendants of royals. Industry starved Kerala's economy is dependent on remittances from overseas and monthly state expenses are mostly met by borrowings for years. Why should the government not take out these treasures and spend it for the welfare of the people? Many people wonder in Kerala where Communist government has been in power for the past four years. Instead of spending, better display the treasure to the world in a museum, say some moderates. Staunch devotees of Lord Sree Padmanabha (Lord Vishnu) see it as a sin to touch and take away even the sand particles belonging to the 'Lord'. They cite the example of Travancore Kings religiously performing a century-old ritual of washing their feet and dust clothes while coming out of the temple after 'darshan' of the Lord, their family deity.

This was the crux of a legal battle going on for decades and finally the Supreme Court on Monday has taken a decision. Upholding claims of the royal family as the custodians of the temple and its assets, the Supreme Court quashed the Kerala High Court decision in 2011 directing the state government to set up a body or trust to take control of the temple, its assets and management to run the temple in accordance with old traditions.

The Supreme Court ruling

  • The death of the last ruler will not result in revocation of rights of the family and the 'rights of shebaitship (the ministrant of the deity or a manager with certain powers) in favour of the State Government. The third chapter of Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 also recognises Travancore royals as the legal custodians in managing temple affairs.
  • Constitute an interim committee headed by the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram to manage the affairs of the temple till a new committee is in place.
  • The temple should be managed by a five-member administrative body and a three member advisory panel.
  • Conduct an audit of accounts for the past 25 years and retrieve if any temple wealth is misused.
  • The management committee should consist of the District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram as chairperson, a nominee of the royal family, a State Government representative, the Chief Priest and a nominee of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.
  • The advisory panel should include a retired HC judge, a public figure nominated by the royal family and a chartered accountant. The new committees have to formed within four weeks and appoint a new executive officer for administration.
  • The Court directed the committees to ensure protection of the temple and its assets, ensure revenue collection from assets, ensure smooth conduct of pujas and rituals, return the money spent by the State Government for the temple, deposit the income in savings banks and set up infrastructure for devotees.
  • The court left it to the discretion of the new committees to decide whether to open the remaining cellar B vaults or not.

Background of the battle

The Kingdom of erstwhile Travancore was a small province and was expanded in the 18th century by King Marthanda Varma, who defeated the Dutch and expanded his kingdom upto Kochi (regions from Alleppey to Thiruvananthapuram and certain parts of Southern Tamilnadu upto Kanyakumari). He rebuilt the Padmanabhaswamy temple and the entire wealth and his Kingdom were dedicated to the Lord and henceforth the rulers were called as 'Padmanabhadasa' or 'Servants of the Lord'. By end of the 19th Century, the British got a firm grip on Travancore and Kochi and the then resident Lord Macaulay pressurised the rulers to bring all temples under a common management of the royals.  Thus all the temples were brought under the Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards and after independence temples were managed as per the rules related to the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950.

While Travancore had signed the Instrument of Accession with the Government of India in 1949 and handed over the kingdom and its assets, it had excluded administration of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and brought it under a 'Trust' belonging to the King. This arrangement continued even after formation of Kerala in 1956. In 1971, the government abolished 'privy purse' or special entitlements and privileges enjoyed by erstwhile royals, with a constitutional amendment.  The last ruler of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirubnal Balarama Varma, who ruled from 1924 to 1947 was heading the temple trust after the Indian independence. He died in 1991 and his younger brother Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma took over administration of the temple. There were allegations from within the royal family that temple assets are being misused and some even legally questioned the authority of Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma as a legal heir to head the Trust and the temple.

Later, Kerala government became a party in the case filed by former IPS officer Sundarrajan and in 2011, the Kerala High Court ruled in favour of the state government. The royal family appealed in the SC and it granted a stay on the HC verdict and appointed former Comptroller and Auditor General Vinod Rai and Senior advocate Gopal Subramanium as amicus curiae to help the court. It also ordered a detailed audit to have an inventory of the valuables in A to F vaults. Later the SC itself directed to stop opening of the vault B, heeding to the prayers of the royal family that it is against the customs and belief of the people and myths on curse if opened.

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