After decades of legal fight, the erstwhile royal family of Travancore won back the right to manage the famous Padmanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvanathapuram, when the Supreme Court upheld its prayer against the state government.
The Supreme Court verdict overturns the 2011 decision of the Kerala High Court judgment, which directed the government to take over control of the temple, its assets and management.
Padmanabhaswamy temple is supposed to be the world’s richest, with its treasure chest holding up to an estimated Rs 1 lakh crore worth of gold.
Allowing the appeal filed by members of the royal family, the apex court reversed the finding of the High Court of Kerala that the rights of the family ceased to exist with the death of the last ruler of the Travancore in 1991. The death of the last ruler will not affect the rights of shebaitship of the family over the deity and they will survive as per custom, the court ruled.
Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran said the state government was committed to implement the Supreme Court verdict, delivered by a bench comprising Justices U U Lalit Indu Malhotra.
The Supreme Court also approved the continuation of the interim committee headed by District Judge, Thiruvananthapuram to manage the affairs of the temple till the constitution of a new committee. The court allowed the committee to decide whether to open the contentious 'Vault B’, which holds the gold treasures.
The High Court had directed the government to open all treasure vaults of the temple, make an inventory of the entire articles and create a Museum and exhibit all the treasures of the temple for the public, devotees, and tourists.
The Supreme Court had appointed senior advocate Gopal Subramanian as amicus curiae to study the issue and submit a report in the matter. Former CAG Vinod Rai was also appointed to audit the records including expenditures incurred for temple's upkeep.
The opening of vault B, holding the most precious assets, was put on hold, following objections from the family that it will invite divine wrath.
The royal family welcomed the Supreme Court judgment and described as the deity’s blessings for the devotees. The verdict also has implications for similar temples managed by families, particularly the Sabarimala temple as it upholds the importance of protecting rituals.
As per the instrument of accession between the princely state of Travancore & Cochin and the Government of India entered in 1949, the administration of the temple was vested with the 'Ruler of Travancore'. Later, under the Travancore Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, the management of the temple continued to be vested in a trust headed by the last ruler of Travancore.
Even after the death of the last ruler, the state allowed the management of the temple to be taken over and retained by the brother of the last ruler after his death. The legal tussle started after the brother made a claim that the treasures of the temple were the family properties of the erstwhile royal family.
The High Court verdict was the result of this dispute. Now, with the Supreme Court settling the issue for good, the royal family has won back the right to manage the temple, which is now expected to be undertaken through a committee, which will have representatives of the palace, state and central governments and related interests.