Padmanabhaswamy Temple Judgement: Death of the King does not affect the Shebaitship


A few days back this judgement took a lot of limelight as this has been one of the most awaited decision since years. It started  after independence when there occurred a merger of Cochin & Travancore which was the result of the covenant signed by the then ruler Sree Chithira Thirunal Balrama Varma  in May 1949 which led to the formation of  United State of Travancore and Cochin. He died on 19.07. 1991 and the power was passed on to his brother Utradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma. The case dates back to 2009 when a former IPS officer, filed a public interest litigation before the Kerala High Court praying that the control of the  temple should be handed over to the Kerala govt. from the royal family. Although state government took a stand and cleared that there is no such allegation of major nature against the royal family to interfere with the administrative affairs of the temple and so as per the customary belief temple lies with the head of the royal family of Travancore. Inspite of this, High Court by its judgement in Jan 2011 ordered the state government to take control of the temple. Along with that the Maharaja who is the Executive officer of the royal family was restrained from opening any of the Kallaras.

Case Analysis of Padmanabhaswamy temple

The legal genesis of this dispute is the Article VII of the agreement according to which the administration of the Padmanabha Swamy temple shall be conducted, subject to the control and supervision of the ruler of Travancore, by an executive officer appointed by the ruler. When High Court back then gave its decision in 2011 it relied upon Article 366(22) of the Constitution of India. The above mentioned Article states that ruler means any prince or chief who was recognized by the President of India as ruler of an Indian State before 1971, the year in which privy purse was abolished. Based on this definition under Article 366(22), the High Court held that the status of a “ruler” is not something which one can achieve through succession and after the death of the ruler in 1991, there is no ruler. And in the present scenario only ruler that fits is the State of Kerala and so the administration and control shall lie with the temple. Now analyzing the present judgement given by Justice UU Lalit & Indu Malhotra, on July 13 upheld the right of the royal family to continue its shebaitship and referred to the Rulers of Indian States (Abolition of Privileges) Act, 1972, on which there was no referrals by the High Court. This shows the twin features how the Travancore royal family was not entitled to manage affairs as per High Court but at the same time perfectly qualified to do so as per Supreme Courts decision. By the 26th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1971, all the privileges, privy purses and special rights of the rulers ceased to exist by the deletion of Articles 291 & 362 and insertion of Article 363A & 366(22).                                                                                                    

What is Shebaitship?

The word ‘shebait’ is derived from sewa and in literal sense means one who renders sewa to the idol or deity. And it was by virtue of the Sectiopn 18(2) of The Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Endowments Act, 1950, that the management of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple vested in the hands of last ruler of Travancore. And in the judgement, Supreme Court has laid down that the shebaitship is vested in the founder and unless he himself disposes off the shebaitship or there arises some usage or custom or circumstances which shows other mode of devolution till then court will not lay down any other rule of succession or alter the existing one.

Peculiarities of the Temple

The temple is situated in the capital city of Tamil Nadu, around 1 km from Thiruvananthapuram Central Station. Men and Women are supposed to wear white dhoti and saree respectively. There exists no inside picture of the temple as camera is not allowed in the temple premises. Now the question arises what makes this temple different from all others in the world? Is it made up of Gold? Absolutely Not! This temple is one of the richest temples in the world with an amount of wealth if distributed among the common public of India every one can get around 20,000 rupees, or a well-organised hospital with all the modern amenities in every district of India. It is said that temple contain in total of around 1lakh 66thousand 30 crores 70 lakhs in the vault. Now the question arises from where did this much of wealth got accumulated in the temple and this has its roots around 400 years back in 1700, when the establisher of the Travancore Empire was done by Raja Martand Varma who due to his war and trading strategies united many small kingdoms and people came to his kingdom to trade for spices, ayurvedic medecines, dry fruits which were one of a kind and in return gave gold coins and many other wealth and this made him fearful about the safety of the wealth as a lot number of them accumulated over a period of time. In one of his dreams Lord Vishnu told him the solution to it. In 1750 he left the throne and established the temple and all the wealth were hidden in the kallaras and later they were used as a base for the formation of the temple and just above the gupt tahkhana a idol of Padmanabhaswamy (Vishnu) was established in “Anantha Shayana” posture.

After High Courts decision when the royal family appealed in Supreme Court then, the hon’ble Court ordered by appointing two Amicus Curiae (Friend of the Court), a Senior Advocate Gopal Subramaniam and former Comprtroller and Auditor General of India Vonod Rai to open the vaults and prepare a detailed inventory regarding the wealth of the temple. This was when 6 vaults in the temple were named A,B,C,D,E and F out of which vault E and F are opened regularly as they contain utensils for religious ceremonies, C & D contain jewellery for special occasions only. While Vault A contains most of the wealth which includes gold coins, jewellery, golden-threaded clothes, 18ft. long necklaces, 3.5 ft.Ruby studded idols of Lord Vishnu, diamond-studded crowns and many such richness stored in it.

Vault B

Vault B of the temple has not been opened yet and are said to be locked for centuries. It is believed to be cursed and that if anyone tries to open this vault it might lead to misfortunes and mishappenings beyond human control. In 1908  there was an unsuccessful attempt to open the door, later in 1931 when few of them tried then it is rumoured that several Indian Cobra(Nag) covered the gate and people ran for life.

Who’ll handle the  temple royal family or State?

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of Kerala High Court and upheld the right of the Travancore royal family to manage the property of deity at Sree Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple. The character of the temple was always recognized as a public institution governed by a statute. The royal family has just argued over the management of the temple and that it should vest with them for perpetuity, as per custom. Thus, this case was a great and most awaited win and an answer to the shebaitship issue, that the death of the King does not affect the shebaitship.

  • Somya Suman

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