SRI MARTHANDA VARMA (D) THROUGH LEGAL REPRESENTATIVES (LR) v. STATE OF KERALA & OTHERS
Author: Bipul Kumar, III year of B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) from Chanakya National Law University (CNLU), Patna
At the beginning of the 20th century before independence, most of the temples in India which were under the control of the management and princely states of Travancore and Cochin that were under the control of Travancore and Cochin Devaswom Boards. After the 1950s, as the based-on Instrument of Accession, the treaty was signed between the government of India and the princely states. Since 1949, the administration of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple was vested in trust in the Ruler of Travancore. The management of the temple was consigned to the ruler of the princely state under the Travancore Kochi Religious Institution Act, 1951. In 1991, after the death of Chithirai Thirunal Balarama Varman, his brother Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varman become the head of the royal family.[i]
On 5 February 2010, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma (since deceased) Managing trustee of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, filed a writ in Kerala High Court challenging all civil cases filed against the temple management in subordinate courts. On 31 January 2011, the judgment of the Kerala High Court, that directed the state government to constitute an authority to take over the management of the Padmanabhaswamy temple because the Travancore ex-royals lost control over its management after the death of the last ruler in 1991.
On 02 May 2011- The Supreme Court stayed the High Court order and further ordered that the vaults be opened and a detailed inventory be prepared of assets. The temple was placed under the administration of a committee appointed by the supreme court.
On 06 December 2013- Uthradam Thirunal Marathanda Varma died while the case was still pending before the Supreme Court. The case was succeeded by his nephew before the Supreme Court.[ii]
Whether Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the younger brother of Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma, the last ruler of Travancore, claim to be the “ruler of Travancore” and consequently hold Shebait rights after the death of the ‘ruler’ in 1991?
Yes, as per customary law, She baits rights and survives with the members of the family even after the death of the last ruler. “She baits must devolve to the successor as per customs.”
The Privy Purse Angle
The Kerala High Court contended that the definition of the ruler in article 366 (22) of the Constitution of India, in which privy purses were abolished. This constitutional amendment act (1971) was light out to this judgement, the successors to erstwhile royals could not claim to be in control or management of the temple.[iii]
The supreme court reasoning
The Supreme Court rejected the contention of the Kerala High Court that, as per customary law, the members of the royal family have she bait rights even after the death of the last ruler. She baits rights meaning the right to manage the financial affairs of the deity. SC also held that for she baits rights the definition of Ruler would apply and would transfer to the successor. This judgement refers 9 times to the rulers of Indian states (abolition of privileges) Act 1972, and it is the case that Kerala High court judgement is completely mute on its relevance to the discussion.[iv]
Is the temple the property of the royal family?
No. The character of the temple was always recognized as a public institution governed by a statute.
The contention of the Travancore family
That the temple management would vest with them for perpetuity, as per custom.[v]Even though the last ruler Balarama Varma executed a detailed will bequeath his personal properties, he had not included the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple as his personal property or dealt with it in his will. Marthanda Varma claimed that the treasures of the temple were the family property of the royals.
The judgement of the Supreme Court has overruled the Kerala High Court order and upheld the right of the Travancore royal family to manage the property of deity in the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. The judgement of Supreme court-related management of the temple upheld the right of the (erstwhile) Travancore royal family to manage the property of deity at Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.
The apex court directed the setting up an administrative committee and advisory committee following the legal provision. The committee comprises the Thiruvananthapuram district judge for its transparency of the administration in the future and members are the nominee of the trustee (royal family), chief thanthri of the temple, a nominee of the state and a member nominated by the union ministry of culture. the advisory committee chaired by a retired High Court judge by the chief justice of the Kerala High Court. These two committees should give primary importance to preserve the properties and treasures.
The court explained an example of the doctrine of escheat, or reversion of property to the state is applied that time when persons die without a will and no one leaves behind an heir who is qualified to succeed to the property.[vi] The judgment may not be wrong but it is incomplete. It leaves loose ends with certain tasks unfinished. The court left the decision to open the Kallara B (cellar/secret vault), which is estimated to have a total of Rs 1.5 lakh crore wealth, to the discretion of the committees.[vii]
ANALYSIS OF THE JUDGEMENT
The Constitution Bench analyzed the historical background of the temple and held that though the idols of the deities of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple belonged to the Travancore royal and his family, the temple or its property was granted to him by Shebait rights. It is interesting to see that the correspondent stands between the royal family and the government. The ex-royals don`t need any remuneration for managing the temple or its properties, and the state government only stand for the wealth which belongs to the temple.[viii]
The multitude of external factors was brought in by vested interests, even as the enormity of the treasure inside the temple came to light. Despite being a secular country, India has a separate religion from the affairs of the state, Hindu temples and all its assets are governed through statutory laws they controlled by the state governments. The functions of the systems mainly came through the progress of the legal framework to outlaw untouchability by treating temples as public land; it has proceeded in many legal battles.[ix]
This was admirable if the family always stood its ground and fought the legal battle, regarding everyone had expected similar decisions same as the other temples of the rest of India, which are not in the hands of the devotees.
In the end, I have a firm persuasion that there is something apart from others about the Travancore royal family even in these democratic days. Several have known them to be consecrated to Sree Padmanabhaswamy in every heart and breath, extremely kind and considerate to others and models of the standards of the humanity that Sree Chithira Thirunal set for himself. They are modern in their prospect and have adjusted themselves to the changed circumstances in the country.
Many of them have delighted received or entertained guests in our homes admitted with pleasure and their hospitality has been boundless whenever devotees visited them. They are fully deserving of the love and respect they have received from the people of Indians and everyone will rejoice in the restoration of their rights and responsibilities over the temple as “Padmanabha dasas”.
[i]Available at: https://www.civilsdaily.com/news/padmanabhaswamy-temple-verdict-by-the-supreme-court/, (Last visited: 14/02/2021)
[ii] Available at: https://thewire.in/law/travancore-royal-family-padmanabhaswamy-temple-supreme-court, (Last visited: 14/02/2021)
https://www.newindianexpress.com/opinions/2020/jul/18/why-sc-kerala-temple-verdict--is-pragmatic-2171280.html, (Last visited: 15/02/2021)
[iv] Available at: https://www.livelaw.in/columns/shri-padmanabhaswamy-temple-case-a-critique-160339, (Last visited: 15/02/2021)
[v]Supra note 01
[vi]Available at: https://www.livelaw.in/columns/shri-padmanabhaswamy-temple-case-a-critique-160339, (Last visited: 15/02/2021)
[vii]Supra note 04.
[viii]Available at: https://scroll.in/article/967497/supreme-court-verdict-keeps-the-treasures-of-kerala-temple-hidden-from-view-for-now, (Last visited: 15/02/2021)