The Supreme Court verdict bestowing the role of shebait (manager) of the deity of the famed Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram on the erstwhile royal family of Travancore and providing for the formation of two committees for its management will hopefully bring closure to the vexatious issue of heirship and administration which has been lingering for over a decade.
While the ex-royals will continue to be the trustees, the temple would now be run by a five-member administrative committee, headed by the district judge of Thiruvananthapuram and have the chief priest, a representative each of the trustee, the government of Kerala and the Union ministry of culture.
The committee will function under the guidance of a three-member advisory committee, headed by a retired judge of the Kerala High Court; its other members will be a nominee of the trustee and a reputed chartered accountant.
The court has also ordered the audit of the temple accounts for the last 25 years, in an attempt to bring transparency in the running of the great temple, which rose to international fame after a court-ordered audit of its inventory of discovered treasures in the form of gold and precious stones worth several lakh crore rupees deposited in its underground storage.
The apex court order has come in an appeal filed by Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the head of the ex-royal family, against the 2011 order of the Kerala High Court directing the Kerala government to take control of the temple after finding that the family had no legal backing to administer the temple once the last ruler of Travancore Sree Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma passed away in 1991.
The Supreme Court has in effect brought the temple, which has been exclusively and continuously managed by the royals at least for the last two-and-a half centuries, under the control of a new system which reflects the democratic transition of the nation: three out of five members in the administrative committee now represent the state. This is a welcome move.
It is a fact that the issue of administration of royal-run temples can create troubles for a secular democracy as its principles could be in conflict with the claims presented by customs, rituals and traditions. The courts will naturally be called upon to adjudicate between them.
The court’s job in this case was made easier by the ex-royals, who changed their stance mid-way and told the court that the temple was no longer a private property.
It must be remembered that the historic order of the Supreme Court allowing women entry to the hill shrine of Sabarimala based on constitutional principles of equality has not been able to bring closure to the issue as yet.
However, the court’s finding that the shebaitship of the temple must devolve by the laws of succession and customs applicable to the religion of a former ruler is disappointing.
The touchstone when it comes to deciding heirship of institutions set up by people in their capacity as rulers has to be the Constitution, which has long scrapped royalty. There should be no going back on it.