Context: The Supreme Court upheld the rights of the Travancore royal family in the affairs of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple of Thiruvananthapuram, while declining to rule on the opening of "Kallara B (secret vault), and leaving the "issue to the best judgement and discretion" of the administrative and advisory committees.
- It was a dispute on whether the temple and its assets should devolve to the Kerala government following the death of Travancore ruler Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma in 1991.
- The question was whether the 26th Constitutional Amendment, which banished rulers and privy purses, would nudge the temple and properties into the hands of the State.
- Even after the death of the last Travancore ruler in 1991, the state government allowed the management of the temple to be taken over and retained by his younger brother, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma.
- But in 2011, the Kerala High Court ruled that the family cannot continue to exert its shebait rights. Shebait is a person who serves a Hindu deity and manages the temple.
- That ruling has now been overturned.
26th Constitutional Amendment Act
- Prime minister Indira Gandhi introduced the 26th amendment to the Constitution of India in July 1971, abolishing privy purses and recognition granted to the rulers of Indian states.
- Privy purses, in proportion to the size of the revenue of former princely states, had been granted to the royals at the time of Independence as a quid pro quo for surrender of their ruling powers and dissolution of their states.
- Articles 291 and 362 of the Constitution were omitted.
- Insertion of new article 363A: Recognition granted to Rulers of Indian States to cease and privy purses to be abolished, notwithstanding anything in this Constitution or in any law for the time being in force.
Key takeaways of the SC judgement
- The SC held that the death of a ruler does not affect the royal family’s shebaitship of the temple. Shebaitship was always in the royal family and the Ruler represented the unbroken line of shebaits.
- Shebaitship does not lapse in favour of the State by principle of escheat (reversion of property to the State).
- The court defined ‘shebait’ as the “custodian of the idol, its earthly spokesman, its authorised representative entitled to deal with all its temporal affairs and to manage its property.
- Historical view: The court traced how the shebaitship descended from King Marthanda Varma, who rebuilt the temple and installed a new idol after a fire destroyed the temple in 1686.
- It referred to how the King surrendered his kingdom in January 1750 and assumed the role of ‘Padmanabhadasa’ after realising “the futility of battles as a means to an end.
SC directions: Saying that the temple is a “public temple”, the court issued directions for its transparent administration.
- Committee for the daily administration of the temple:
- It directed the setting up of an administrative committee with the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge as its chairperson.
- The other members would be a nominee of the trustee (royal family), the chief thanthri of the temple, a nominee of the State and a member nominated by the Union Ministry of Culture.
- Second committee 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.
- The primary duties of the committees:
- It would be to preserve the treasures and properties.
- They would take a call on whether to open Kallara B, considered to be the richest among the temple vaults, for inventorisation.
- The committees would ensure that rituals and religious practices are conducted as per custom and on the advice of the chief thantri.
- The committees would ensure that income to the temple would be used to augment the facilities.
- Temple audit:
- SC ordered an audit to be conducted for the past 25 years.
- The royal family would not take any remuneration for the services they render to the temple.
About Padmanabhaswamy Temple
- The temple dates back to the 8th century but the present structure was built in the 18th century by the then Travancore Maharaja Marthanda Varma.
- The temple is built in the unique Chera style of architecture.The Chera style of architecture is only one of its kind in Dravidian architecture.
- The temple was first made of wood but later constructed with granite that is seen today.
- It has 365 pillars, one for each day of the year.
- It is known to be one of the 108 holy temples associated with Vaishnavism in India.
- Its main deity is Lord Vishnu who is found in the Anantha Shayana posture (reclined posture of eternal yoga) on Adishesha or king of all serpents.
- The deity at the temple represents the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Legend has it that Vilvamangalathu Swamiyar, an ascetic, traveled all over the world in search of Lord Padmanabha.
- The idol is made of kadasharakara, a composition of herbs, resin and sand.
- The main idol is made with 12,500 shaligram stones transported from the Gandaki river in Nepal.
- There are a total of six vaults located below the temple. These six chambers are named A, B, C, D, E and F.
- In 2017, the Supreme Court appointed a seven-member panel headed by amicus curiae Gopal Subramanium to assess the value of the treasure inside the vaults, including two chambers that had not been opened for over 130 years.
- When Vault A was opened by the Gopal Subramanium committee, it unearthed treasure estimated to be roughly around Rs 1,00,000 crore.
- It contained bags of gold coins from the Napoleonic, Roman, medieval and British eras.
- However, vault B or Kallara B remained untouched owing to the belief that the one who would attempt to open it would invite misfortune.
The Travancore family: Their family tree has been traced to 1870 AD when the Travancore dynasty was started by Ayyan Adigal Thiruvadir.
Image Source: The Hindu