The Supreme Court of India Settles the Administration Issue of Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple

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Brief Facts of the Case 

The case deals with the issue of administration of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram. The present appeal challenges the judgment and order passed by the Kerala High Court. Therein, the High Court held that the appellant is not the “Ruler of Travancore” within the meaning of Sec. 18(2) of the Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950 (“the TC Act”). “Ruler” is not a status that can be acquired via succession. Hence, the appellant cannot claim ownership, control, and management of the Temple. The government was directed to constitute a body to take over the control of the Temple. The body will aid in controlling the assets and managing the Temple in accordance with the traditions.

To understand the case, it is, first, necessary to note certain historical perspectives about the Temple.

Modern History

The modern history starts with Anizham Thirunal Marthandavarma. He established the modern Travancore state. Under his rule, the Temple was under the management of “Ettarayogam”. It consisted of seven pottis (Brahmins), one Nair chieftain, and the King. The King had only half a vote as against others who had one. The “Ettuveetil pillamars” managed the properties of the Temple along with the Potties.

In January 1750, the Rajah Marthanda Varma dedicated the State to Sri Padmanabha. The complete surrender to the Temple has been described as “the Thrippati Danam”. Ever since, he and his successors have ruled as ‘Dasas’, or servants of the deity. Mr V. P. Menon in his book titled, “Story of Integration of the Indian States” has described the history in Chapter XIV. The ruling families of Travancore and Cochin followed the Marumakkathayam law – inheritance through the female line. The administration of the Temple was conducted under the control of the Ruler of Travancore.

Agreement of Accession, 1949

The two princely states – State of Cochin and State of Travancore entered into a covenant with the Government of India. The Covenant was signed by the Rules of each princely states and by Mr. V. P. Menon for the Government of India. The relevant extracts of the Covenant have been reproduced in the judgment in Para No. 11 on page No. 23. The Covenant merged the two princely states in one – the United State of Travancore and Cochin. Under the Agreement of Accession, the administration of the Temple and all its properties (the Sri Pandaravaga properties) were “vested in trust in the Ruler of the covenanting State of Travancore” (Article VIII (b)).

Rights and Privileges of Rulers under the Indian Constitution, 1950

The Constitution of India (before it’s amendment) provided certain privileges to the Rulers. Article 291 stipulated privy purse sums of Rulers. Further, Article 362 provided certain Rights and Privileges to the Rulers of the Indian States. Also, Article 366(22) defined the term “Ruler”. But, the Constitution (Twenty-sixth Amendment) Act, 1971 omitted Articles 291 and 362. It inserted Article 363A and amended the definition under Article 366(22). The reason behind the amendment was to abolish privy purses in the backdrop of an egalitarian social order. The amendment was challenged in Raghunathrao Ganpatrao v. Union of India, 1994 Supp (1) SCC 191. The Apex Court upheld its validity.

The Travancore-Cochin Hindu Religious Institutions Act, 1950

The TC Act enumerated provisions about the administration, supervision, and control of Devaswoms. It was also for other Hindu Religious Endowments and Funds. The extract of relevant provisions is reproduced under Para 13 of the judgment. Chapter III of Part I of the TC Act specifically deals with the Temple. Under Section 18(2), the administration of the Temple and its properties and funds were “vested in trust in the Ruler of Travancore”. Between 1974 and 1991 many amendments have been introduced to the TC Act. But, Chapter III of Part I has remained unamended. Thus, the administration of the Temple remained vested in trust in the Ruler of Travancore.

Appellant No. 1’s Arguments 

The Covenant and the TC Act recognize the pre-existing right – the right of the Ruler to manage the Temple. The Covenant and the TC Act cannot be considered as a source of the Trust. Reference was being made to Article VIII (b) of the Covenant and Sec. 18(2) of the TC Act. The Trustee’s relationship with the Temple is that of a shebaitship. Furthermore, the Appellant is not seeking any claim over ownership. He is merely seeking the right to manage the Temple. Under the Marumakkathayam law, the shebaitship devolves upon heirs of the founder. The definition of the term “Ruler” in Article 366(22) is limited for the purposes of the Constitution.

Appellant No. 2’s Arguments

It has been submitted that the judgment under appeal had gone way beyond the pleading. Moreover, the term “present Ruler” appearing in Article IV as against the term “Ruler” appearing in other places of the Covenant must mean the Ruler who succeeded to the gaddi. Further, under Article 363, the High Court has no jurisdiction to decide the dispute.

Intervenors’ (supporting the Appellants) Arguments 

The Constitution (26th Amendment) Act, 1971 extinguished rights of the Privy Purses alone. It would not impact the mode of succession. Moreover, the expression “Ruler of Travancore” in Sec. 18 of the Act did not limit the trusteeship to the last Ruler of Travancore.

It submitted that “Padmanabhadasas” is essential and integral to the identity of Temple. Hence, protected under Articles 25 (1) and 26(b) of the Constitution. Furthermore, Article VIII of the Covenant is a standalone provision. Hence, other provisions do not affect Article VIII of the Covenant. The expression “arising out of” in Article 363 of the Constitution is of widest amplitude. In this regard, the dispute in connection with the Covenant is beyond the scope of judicial review.

State’s Arguments

The expression “Ruler” used in the Covenant must mean the same as the one appearing in Article VIII (b). The meaning of the term “Ruler” in Section 18(2) of the TC Act is the same as one defined under Article 366(22) of the Constitution. The dedication of the State to the deity does not constitute endowment. There could not have been shebaitship because the Appellant did not claim any proprietary right, even of limited nature. The Ruler of Travancore held office in the capacity as a Ruler and not as a private individual. This is about the office for the administration of the Temple.

Furthermore, with the enactment of the TC Act, the office was made statutory. Hence, the shebaitship ceased to exist. In any case, with the abolishing of the concept of Ruler in the Constitution Amendment, 1971, the relationship of the Ruler of Travancore as Ruler ceased. Therefore, the state concluded that there is no attraction to the bar under Article 363, in this case.

Respondent’s Arguments

The Covenant executed has no existence, reference made to Raghunathrao Ganpatrao case. Sections 18(2) and 20 of the TC Act are against the principles enumerated under Article 363A. Hence, not enforceable. So, there was no need to seek declaratory relief. The Private management of a public temple is the antithesis to the character of a public temple.

Appellants’ Note

The Appellants submitted a note. Under the said Note, the Appellant suggested the constitution of an Administrative & Committee. The detailed suggestion of the Appellants has been reproduced in the judgment in Para 47. Whereby, the Trustee would delegate his powers of administration as per Section 18(2) of the TC Act to an Administrative Committee. The Committee should consist of five members. A retired IAS officer of the rank of Secretary to Government of Kerala, one nominated by the trustee and another by the Government of Kerala, one nominated by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India and the Chief Thantri of the Temple.

With regards to policy matters, as per the Note, the Trustee would be guided by Advisory Committee constituted under Section 20 of the TC Act. Thus, the Committee would consist of a Chairperson, nominated by Chief Justice of Kerala High Court, one eminent person nominated by the Trustee, and a reputed CA nominated by Chairperson in consultation with the Trustee.

Court’s View

The Court recognized the unequivocal stand of the Appellants that the Temple is a public temple. The Court considered the controversy in five segments.

The situation obtaining before and up to the date when the Covenant came into in May 1949

The Court observed that the accepted fact is that the management of the Temple has been with the ruling family. It dates back to centuries. With the Thrippati Danam, the exclusive management of the Temple has been under successive Rulers of Travancore. Till the signing of the Covenant, the Rulers of Travancore were shebaits of the Temple.

Court’s Reliance on the Precedents

The Privy Council and the Apex Court considered the legal position of the shebaitship. The Court referenced to Gossamee Sree Greedharreejee v. Rumanlolljee Gossamee, (1889) L.R. 16 I.A. 137. Wherein it was held that the vesting of the shebaitship should be in the heirs of the founder. Unless a different mode of devolution is brought, the vesting of shebaitship is in the heirs. Similarly, there was a reference to the Privy Council’s decision in Vidya Varuthi Thirtha Swamingal v. Balusami Ayyar and Ors., AIR 1992 PC 123. Wherein, the Court observed that a deity is a juristic entity. It can receive gifts and hold property. The seisin is necessarily affected by human agency. The human agency thus is the manager of the idol.

Relation of the Shebait

Similar references were made to Angurbala Mullick v. Debabrata Mullick, AIR 1951 SC 293. The Apex Court observed that the relation of the shebait is not that of a trustee to trust property under the English law. In the conception of shebaitship both ‘the elements of office and property, of duties and personal interest, are mixed up’. There is a presence of personal interest in the endowed property and invests with the shebaitship the character of proprietary rights. The shebaitship is heritable and follows the line of inheritance from the founder. The Apex Court in Para 63 further deals with the concept of shebaitship as recognized in a book titled – The Hindu Law of Religious Endowments and Charitable Trusts.

Furthermore, the Court referenced to Mahant Sital Das v. Sant Ram and others, AIR 1954 SC 606. Wherein, the Apex Court observed that custom or usage regulates the succession of the shebaitship. The custom or usage of the particular institution, unless the rule is laid down by the founder of the endowment. The Court also referenced to few other decisions and laid down the principles that emerged from these decisions in Para 72.

Analogy Drawn from the Precedents

In this regard, the Court concluded that the shebaitship of the Temple passed on to the succeeding Rulers. As on the day when the Covenant was entered, the Ruler of Travancore was holding the office of Shebait of the Temple.

Effect of the Covenant entered into in May 1949

The Court considered the different expressions appearing in different provisions of the Covenant. The Court also observed the implications of various provisions. It observed that Article VIII (b) stipulated that the administration of the Temple, Sri Pandaravage properties and all other properties to vest in trust in the Ruler of Travancore. The Court observed that the expression “the Ruler of Travancore” referenced the person concerned. Moreover, it wasn’t because of the official capacity as the Ruler. This was fortified when the expression “Ruler of Cochin” appeared in Article VIII(d) of the Covenant.

By the Covenant, the erstwhile head of State of Cochin ceased to be the Head. Hence, any reference to the “Rulers of Cochin” could mean the person concerned and not the official capacity. Extending the analogy to the term “the Ruler of Travancore”, the conclusion was that the expression referenced only to the person. The Court placed reliance on the White Paper on the Indian States.

The Court held as follows: “the expression “the Ruler of Travancore” used in the latter part of Sub-Article ‘b’ of Article VIII was only by way of reference and the purport of said Sub-Article was not to invest the said authority and power because he was the Ruler or enjoyed and represented any official status.

Hence, the administration of the Temple and all its properties were to be undertaken as per Article VIII of the Covenant. It was to be undertaken ‘subject to the supervision and control of “Ruler of Travancore”’.

Effect of the Constitution of India as it stood before the Constitution (26th Amendment) Act, 1971 and of the provisions of the TC Act

The Court in this segment considered the effect of the Constitution on status and entitlement of the Ruler to shebaitship. The Court referenced to Madhav Rao v. Union of India, (1971) 1 SCC 85. The Apex Court held that Article 291 does not relate to Covenants. It is a special provision and source of payment of Privy Purses. The guarantees are based on Article 362. Hence, controversy arising out of legislative enactment of Privy Purses are not disputes arising out of the covenant under Article 363. Accordingly, not barred under Article 363. The Court held that the TC Act and the Constitution did not abridge the status of Ruler of Travancore as Shebait of the Temple.

Effect of the Constitution (Twenty-sixth Amendment) Act, 1971

As explained earlier, the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was found in the backdrop. It said the privileges of the Rulers were incompatible with egalitarian social order. The Court further observed that the cessation of privilege under Article 362 would not result in deleting Article 362. The source is statutory and remains operational. Hence, the provisions of the TC Act should be exercised with “due regards” to the assurance guaranteed under Article 362. Though it deleted the concept of Ruler, the succession to Gaddi was still operational. In this regard, the Court concluded that Article VIII(b) would continue to govern the administration of the Temple under the supervision of the Ruler of Travancore.

Effect of the death of the person who had signed the Covenant as the Ruler of Travancore

The Court observed that the term “Ruler” defined in Article 366(22) is for the purposes of the Constitution alone. Also, the term defined in Article 363 is about the said Article alone. Hence, the definitions have no ipso facto apply to the TC Act. The Court further observed that the Covenant does not restrict the right already vested in the TC Act. The Covenant deals with succession and is based on law and custom. In this regard, the Court held as follows:

“…since the Shebaitship had vested in the Ruler of Travancore, not in his official capacity, the normal incident of heritability must get attached to the office of such Shebaitship in accordance with governing principles of succession and custom. Therefore, when it comes to the matter concerning the administration of the Temple, Sri Pandavaraga properties, and the properties of the Temple, the expression “the Ruler of Travancore” as appearing in Chapter III of Part I of TC Act must mean the successor by the prevalent law and custom. In the process, one need not go to the definition of Ruler either under Article 366(22) or under Article 363 of the Constitution of India.”

Thus, after the death of the last Ruler, the supervision of the administration of the Temple devolves according to the customary rights. The Court also referred to the Orders of the Court and the Reports submitted by the Administrative Committee.

Court’s Decision

The Court accepted the suggestions submitted by the Appellants under the Note. But, the Court suggested certain amendments. Instead of the retired IAS Officer, the Court ordered the District Judge who was already in seisin to be the Chairperson. Thus, the Court allowed the civil appeals. It vested the administration of the Temple with the Ruler of Travancore. Moreover, it comes under the customary rights of inheritance attached to shebaitship.


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