The Supreme Court judgment in the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple case was a triumph of the long recognized truth of the relationship between the royal family of Travancore and their family deity, the tradition established over the years of the special responsibility the royal family had undertaken to protect, promote and maintain the temple for the devotees and the trusteeship (shebait) derived from the Covenant of May 1949 signed between the ruler of the unified state of Travancore and Cochin and the British government under which the head of the family was recognized as the chief sevak of the deity. Moreover, it also recognised the fact that the temple had been under the exclusive management of successive heads of the ruling family of Travancore.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court has laid down that the “shebaitship” is vested in the founder unless the founder himself has disposed the trusteeship in a particular manner or there is some usage or custom or circumstances showing a different mode of devolution, the trusteeship, like any other species of heritable property follows the line of inheritance from the founder; and it is not open to the court to lay down a new rule of succession or alter the rule of succession.
It also overruled the High Court Judgment that, with the demise of the ruler, the trusteeship he had held had become extinct.
The doctrine of “escheat”, or reversion of property to the state, is applicable only where an individual dies without a will and does not leave behind an heir who is qualified to succeed to the property.
The Supreme Court pointed out that it is the settled law that trusteeship has the elements of office and property, of duties and personal interest blended together and they invest the office of the shebait with the character of proprietary right.
The trusteeship of the temple had also passed from Ruler to Ruler consistent with the principles of succession otherwise applicable to the royal family. The court also accepted the royal family’s claim that it no longer considered the temple as its private property and that it only sought its trusteeship.
The Court explained that on the day the Covenant became effective, the Ruler of the Covenanting State of Travancore and Cochin was holding the office of the shebait of the Temple, which was not in his official capacity as the ruler; and that the expression “Ruler of Travancore” in the covenant was only to identify the person, and that official status of the ruler of Travancore had no relation with such administration. The beneficiaries of the Court’s decision, as observed by Princess Pooyam Thirunal, are the devotees, the state and the public at large.
Perhaps, it is for this reason that the Government of Kerala accepted the Supreme Court ruling without going for appeal.
The whole drama of the last few years rose out of an eviction order served on a tenant by the Executive Officer of the temple.
The tenant challenged the authority of the royal family, who appointed the Executive Officer, on the ground that the abolition of the privileges of the princely states in 1971 and the demise of the Maharaja who had signed the Covenant of 1949 had resulted in the end of the authority of the Palace over the temple.
The High Court of Kerala accepted those arguments and decided to hand over the temple to the Government to be administered by a Trust on the model of some other temples in Kerala. It even stipulated that the immense wealth of the temple should be placed in a museum.
The period between the High Court judgment and the Supreme Court ruling was replete with statements, arguments and actions, which had not only cast aspersions on the royal family, but also detracted from the divinity and the sanctity of a highly venerated place of worship.
Many extraneous considerations were brought in by vested interests, even as the enormity of the treasure inside the temple came to light.
Different proposals were made to make use of the treasure ranging from making use of it for development of the state to merely exhibiting it in a museum. Various audits and administrative structures were tried out without any final solution, pending the decision of the Supreme Court.
The heroic way in which the family stood its ground and fought the legal battle with faith and courage was admirable.
The Supreme Court judgement was a game changer in many ways. It exploded the theory that the abolition of the privileges of the Princely States had ended the relationship between the royal family and the temple, which had preceded the advent of the British rule.
It established a structure of the administration, as proposed by the family, with minor variations and placed the onus of protecting the treasure inside the temple firmly and finally on the Trustee and the two bodies established by the court.
Further afield, this landmark judgment may well be the harbinger of similar decisions regarding the other temples in the rest of India, which are not in the hands of the devotees.
To end on a personal note, I believe that there is something about the Travancore royal family which sets it apart from others even in these democratic days. I have known them to be totally dedicated to Sree Padmanabha Swamy in every breath, extremely kind and considerate to others and models of the standards of humility that Sree Chithira Thirunal set for himself. They are modern in their outlook and have adjusted themselves to the changed circumstances in the country.
Several of them have been welcome guests of ours in our homes abroad and their hospitality has been boundless whenever we visited them. They are fully deserving of the love and respect they have received from the people and everyone will rejoice in the restoration of their rights and responsibilities over the temple as “Padmanabha dasas.”
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora)